Recently, a controversial and largely influential political figure came under fire for allegedly endorsing pedophilia. Given the already strong and polarizing opinions on his persona, as well as the intense negative emotions the subject of child abuse brings out of people, this perfect storm of awful overwhelmed most of the internet. I’m not here to demand you feel a certain way or even to convince you to change your mind, but now that the hype has died and the dust has settled, it’s important to look at how we reacted, and how most of us went about it entirely the wrong way.
Milo Yiannopoulos, a man as complicated and jarring as his last name, has made a career out of saying the wrong things at the right time. Everything from “birth control makes women unattractive and crazy,” to “fat shaming works,” and, of course, “feminism is cancer,” has been delivered with a flamboyance and irreverence that demands attention, and it worked. In a brief span of time, Milo has skyrocketed from the guilty pleasure of edgy libertarians to the spearhead of a massive, counter-culture free speech movement, sparking an intellectual (and occasionally, physical) war between proponents of unfiltered, uninhibited discussion and establishment thought police intent on controlling the narrative and destroying dissent. While Milo undoubtedly deserves much of the criticism he invites for his tone, demeanor, and propensity for provocation, the demand he’s created for open political and cultural dialogue has been invaluable.
As the embodiment of chaotic neutral, Milo is a mess of internal contradictions that make him all but impossible to pin down, and impossible for his detractors to compartmentalize him into one of their various “isms.” To insinuate that a painfully gay Jew with a fetish for black men is leading a white supremacist, Neo-Nazi, hard-rightwing faction of the counter culture is pretty laughable, but that hasn’t stopped most of the media from trying. His often offensive, usually immature, and consistently hilarious speeches at various college campuses around America have generated extremely strong reactions, both negative and positive, and have resulted in countless smear campaigns and character assassinations. But these desperate attempts are typically met with eye rolls from rabid fans and casual viewers who understand it’s all a game. It is all for show. Milo’s plan all along has more or less been to annoy the Left until they eat themselves alive, and, hysterically, it’s been working. His opposition is so clueless and out of touch that all attempts to discredit him have only garnered him even more support, and as a result, Milo has been pushing the envelope to its breaking point, confident in his own invulnerability.
That is, until the entire internet came crashing down on him. The specific details and timelines are readily available for anyone curious, and anyone looking at the news has undoubtedly had at least part of the story brought to their attention. But, to summarize, Milo was “discovered” defending pedophiles, claiming that sexual relationships between men and thirteen-year-old boys was acceptable, insisting that young teenage boys are often the aggressor in pedophilic sexual situations, refusing to name names after claiming he bore witness to Hollywood sex parties with “very young boys,” and claiming that children, particularly gay children, could in fact benefit from sexual relationships with adult men. Even for someone who makes a living from being a contrarian, defending and promoting the sexual exploitation of minors is a bridge too far, and all kinds of predictable fallout ensued.
Milo was scheduled as a keynote speaker for CPAC, a slot he immediately lost. His book, Dangerous, already a best seller on Amazon months before its scheduled release, was dropped by its publishing company. In a move he claims to have made unilaterally, but more skeptical minds would guess he was pressured into, he resigned from his position at Breitbart. Traditional media outlets on the both the Right and Left celebrated the death of his influence, like clamoring white knights practically giddy that their dragon had finally been slain. An emotional press conference ensued, with Milo apologizing for his part in poorly constructing his arguments while nevertheless blaming opportunistic journalists for taking his words out of context. Time will tell if the press conference was effective, but the catastrophic damage this accusation wrought upon a man who was seemingly untouchable is startling.
As it should be. Ignore for a moment the accusations, the scandal, and the target, and focus on the timing. The podcasts where Milo initially made his controversial comments are a year-old. They were easily available, widely viewed, and generally known about by both his fans and his detractors from the very beginning. None of this is a startling revelation or the results in a deep cover investigation into Milo’s private life. These were very public statements on a very public platform that went largely ignored at the time, or at the very least, ignored enough to not affect Milo’s blossoming career. If any of the outlets gleefully cheering Milo’s downfall were genuinely concerned for the well-being of children, or thought that Milo was a legitimate advocate of child abuse who needed to be stopped, they wouldn’t have sat on highly incriminating evidence for an entire year. If Milo was truly the monster they’ve created, they had the tools to defeat him from the very beginning, and yet they allowed a predator to roam free for twelve months before taking action. They don’t care about children. They don’t care about morality. They don’t care about the protecting innocence and safeguarding those who can’t defend themselves. They care about winning. This was anything but a moral crusade against the evils of abuse and sexual deviancy. This was a coordinated political attack, and a message to any other budding provocateurs.
The idea is that Milo and those who support him are illegitimate commentators with illegitimate opinions. A tactic among political factions, especially the modern Left, is to avoid arguments by associating their opponents with the worst kinds of people. FBI crime statistics are heavily damaging to leftist assertions of rape culture and the current Black Lives Matter narrative, and as such are often cited when opposing either of these concepts. But, if the Left can categorize you as a sexist or racist (or ideally, both), your arguments are rendered invalid, tainted by your poisonous ideologies. Aside from being intellectually dishonest, it was consistently effective until characters like Milo entered the arena, brushing off accusations of hate with ease. Rather than approach from a more honest direction, the Left buckled down and went all out. Racist and sexist weren’t enough anymore, now we’re dealing with accusations like “fascist” and “Nazi.” When satisfying Godwin’s Law lost its teeth and the alt right turned it into edgy memes, the Left needed to go even further. They needed something so heinous, so disgusting, that no amount of ironic humor and political nihilism could wash it away. They needed pedophilia. The attack on Milo is purely political, and specifically designed to shut him down and terrify anyone who might follow in his footsteps.
All that being said, politically motivated attacks aren’t inaccurate by default. The truth is the truth, regardless of the underlying motivations of those who speak it. Milo said some extremely questionable things in the podcasts, and it’s not unfair that those statements were brought into question. I don’t blame Simon and Schuster for canceling their book deal, I don’t blame CPAC for distancing themselves from this controversy, and I can’t fault anyone troubled by Milo’s cavalier attitude toward sexually assaulting minors. Even with the most forgiving and charitable analysis of Milo’s motivations, his statement creates more than enough room for reasonable concern. But, while politically motivated attacks don’t merit immediate dismissal, they do necessitate a higher level of scrutiny than other claims. And under this scrutiny, the idea of Milo the Monster doesn’t quite hold up.
Milo stated throughout his press conference that a majority of his controversial talking points were selectively edited and presented without proper context. While one could reasonably argue that these statements are troubling even with the context of the entire podcast, Milo is right. Just not in the way you might think. Even watching both podcasts in their entirety doesn’t provide the proper context to view the nuance of this situation. Arguably the most important step in understanding the full scope of this controversy is knowing that Milo himself was a victim of pedophilia. Milo’s utter rejection of the virtue of victimhood and his constant self-deprecating jabs have been a consistent aspect of his public persona for as long as he’s been famous, and it makes perfect sense that he would apply that to his trauma. Joking that your molestation was a great tutorial in giving blowjobs and insisting that thirteen-year-olds are able to give consent is obviously shocking and controversial, but when the person making the jokes actually was a thirteen-year-old who was molested by an older man, it changes from a straightforward justification of pedophilia to a desperate rationalization. The insinuation that Milo either is a pedophile or promotes pedophilia is flimsy, given his life experiences, but it’s not unreasonable to see a damaged man in denial who can’t come to terms with his abuse. After all, it’s easy to clutch our pearls and gasp in horror at his statements, but can any of us blame a man who was raped as a child for having a warped view of sex and unhealthy coping mechanisms?
There are much more intricate and organized assessments of the situation, and I strongly encourage everyone to seek them out. This topic has been heavily dissected all over the internet and through multiple mediums, so composing another complex outline of events at this point would only be adding to the noise. His comments were troubling, and there’s a lot of nuance to unpack, but all things being equal, exactly what he said and where he was coming from are more or less inconsequential. What really matters going forward is how we react to events like this.
It took no time at all for the world to crash down on Milo after a random twitter page revealed a few concerning comments from his past. The desperation of traditional rightwing groups and most of the Left to destroy him was self-evident, and a simple smear was all it took to shut down the most interesting and influential figure in right-wing politics. The attacks were so coordinated, the accusation so damning, that even those who had stood by him in other times of controversy cut ties with him, fearing guilt by association. Maybe Milo is a bad person. Maybe Milo does in fact encourage the sexual exploitation on minors. Maybe, Milo is every bit as guilty and disgusting as his detractors make him out to be, and maybe he deserves everything that he has coming. But it shouldn’t be that easy. No single accusation should be enough to turn off the skeptical part of our minds.
Bad people deserve to be punished for the bad things they’ve done. Disgusting people should be exposed for being disgusting people. And even though damaging ideas should be free from censorship, they should be met with as much intellectual opposition as it requires to expose their flaws. Milo said some things I won’t and can’t defend, but they came from a place of pain. I won’t excuse his statements, and I won’t justify or rationalize his, serious or not, casual acceptance of inappropriate sexual conduct between adults and minors. But I can grant him the same decency that everyone deserves: a fair trial and the presumption of innocence. While confirmation bias is comfortable, and the temptation to blindly accept incriminating arguments against people you hate is powerful, the truth is more important than winning political battles or silencing intellectual enemies.
There’s an understandable fear of associating with the most egregious and polarizing ideas. Getting lumped into groups with disgusting, or even just unpopular figures, is an easy way to hurt your reputation and lose friends. It’s not easy; there’s a reason that level of integrity is rare. But difficulty isn’t an excuse to abandon our principles. The benefit of the doubt isn’t reserved for the like-minded, it’s a vital and necessary concession we owe to those we disagree with. Everyone deserves to have their ideas considered in good faith, regardless of how much or how little their opinions resonate with you. If you only believe in freedom of expression for ideas you deem acceptable, you don’t believe in free speech at all.
One of the most telling comments I’ve seen on this controversy was simply, “Milo is a piece of shit, end of story.” Of course, the story was far from over and continued to reveal more nuance and layers as time passed, but this person wanted it to end. He needed the dialogue to end there, because the idea that someone he hated might also deserve a level of sympathy isn’t an idea he wanted to entertain. To his credit, it’s not an idea any of us want to entertain, and so we generally don’t. But we have to be better than that. Our comfort zone is where progress and compromise go to die, and we can’t afford to hide our voices within the walls of our echo chamber. Anyone genuinely devoted to free and open discussion is obligated to allow unpopular voices to have a platform, and to seek the full context behind the statements they espouse, even when it’s hard to do. You don’t get a pat on the back for speaking out when the mob is on your side, what really matters is how you act when they turn their pitchforks back at you. We owe it to ourselves to condemn character assassinations and silencing campaigns even when we don’t like the victim, because part of free speech is defending the indefensible.