The University’s decision to cancel its commemorations of International Men’s Day has been met with mixed reactions, and an onslaught of discussion, both on campus and nationally. This came to a head on the day itself when Milo Yiannopoulos – a journalist due to speak at an event hosted by the University of York UKIP Association – entered into a vicious and ugly spat with several members of the student body.
For those of you who don’t know who Milo Yiannopoulos is, he’s a right-wing, self-described ‘cultural libertarian’ who currently works as the Technology Editor for Breitbart. He is mostly known for his social commentary, particularly his critiques of mainstream feminism and social justice. He’s been fairly well-known among alternative right-wing circles for the past few years, but shot to fame during the #GamerGate saga, during which he emerged as one of its strongest proponents.
He cultivates a very shrewd and calculated persona. Milo is openly gay, though extremely critical of the wider LGBT* movement (going so far as to argue that it should drop the ‘T’ entirely), and plays up to every stereotype of campness and effeminacy that there is. His conduct seems almost deliberately modelled on now-aged notions of stereotypical homosexuality; hedonistic, chauvinistic, histrionic peacocking with very little regard for the role or company of women. Think more David Starkey than Peter Tatchell.
Given his status as a caustic yet charismatic speaker who occupies an almost uncharted niche in the national debate, it’s no surprise Milo has fans. He’s followed by over 26,000 people on Facebook and 95,400 on Twitter, and his articles generate a phenomenal amount of buzz, both from his ardent supporters and from those who find him reprehensible. Like him or not, his political positions (combined with his flamboyant persona and expert cultivation and use of social media) make him a formidable online presence.
I feel it is this facet of his enigmatic personality, not his bear-baiting of feminist campaigners, nor his exhausting extroversion, nor his incendiary attacks on other political commentators, that brought him into conflict with elements of York’s student body. The death of a male student last Monday has been used by Yiannopoulos and others as evidence that the University either does not care about, or does not do enough to raise awareness of, mental ill-health among males. This student’s death came before the announcement that IMD’s commemorations were to be cancelled, and the claims that his death was in any way linked to IMD, or that societal attitudes towards masculinity forced him to suffer in silence, have been emphatically denied by one of his housemates. Regardless, it is not the place of other students, much less those unconnected to the University, to engage in baseless speculation about the events that took place or why they took place.
Yet this has not stopped some – including Milo – from not only asserting that this death was undeniably caused by the University’s attitudes to mental health, but that specific students, namely Ananna Zaman, one of YUSU’s co-Women’s Officers, were directly responsible. Such accusations – which are utterly baseless – were made by Milo and followed up by dozens of his followers. There is no justification whatsoever for this behaviour, and it is extremely frustrating to see someone who claims to care profoundly about issues around mental ill-health encourage nearly one hundred thousand people to target a young Students’ Union officer because she’d said some stupid things on Facebook. He mined the Facebook of this individual and used it to make a series of ad hominem remarks which served no argumentative or constructive purpose, other than to mark her as a target for his fans. It is extremely disheartening to think that a professional, high-profile journalist should think that this is a remotely acceptable course of action. It was targeted, spiteful, personal abuse at someone who was, frankly, a banal political figure even among the student body. It’s harassment, it’s bullying, it’s intimidation, and it’s absolutely not on. It’s not a bit of banter gone wrong, or a joke that’s been taken too far, it was a deliberate attempt to send the mob after an innocent person, and to exploit someone’s death for hollow political points. This sort of behaviour is what contributes to the image of men on the alternative right being awkward, introverted, and venomous keyboard warriors, with a burning hatred for women and wider society.
So, given that we’ve established he’s perfectly okay with releasing the hounds on those with whom he disagrees, and with using male victims of suicide as political footballs, why on earth should the University give Milo Yiannopoulos a platform?
Milo was – and should have been – invited because he represents a very large section of young British males who do not feel as though they have a voice elsewhere. As societies change and old orthodoxies fall out of step with new times, reactions emerge. Milo, and the wider movement he is part of, is an example of that reaction. In this case, it’s a reaction to feminism, to the changing role of men in society, and to very important issues regarding gender relations, such as the dramatic change in the academic attainment of males and females, or the flipping of the gender wage gap for those under 30. Whether his views are right, and heralding the start of a new dramatic social shift, or whether they are wrong, and out of step with reality, is irrelevant. What matters is his place in the national conversation.
Like him or not, he gets around, with frequent TV and radio appearances, as well as the previously mentioned huge followings on social media. He often posts the Google insights related to his Twitter (@Nero) which show he has an enormous reach and audience. The things he says resonate with a lot of young people, and many of these young people would be otherwise completely disengaged and apathetic. He is part of a new, radically-right wing social movement that is emerging in response to the largely left-wing facets of youth politics for the best part of the last fifty years. It is for this reason alone that he is important; Milo is not a deranged lunatic shouting from a cardboard box-cum-pulpit on a street corner; he is a prominent figure in a legitimate and diverse new political grouping. In denying him a platform, even despite his ambivalent attitude towards misogyny and casual transphobia, we are shutting out someone who represents a side of the cultural debate that is often ignored outright. The fact that he has so many fanatical defenders at this University shows that he’s not an insular figure appealing to a tiny minority. For this reason alone he should be welcomed with open arms, and invited to speak on the issues in which he specialises.
It is important to stress that the event opposing Milo’s appearance is an attempt by the Socialist Society to raise issues surrounding mental ill-health among males, not to prevent him from speaking. In the event description, it is explicitly stated that it is not a no-platforming event, and high profile members of many liberation networks have spoken out in favour of allowing him to come and speak. This is a perfectly reasonable response: just as those wishing to hear him are entitled to go to his speech, those opposed to his views are entitled to voice their anger, and to encourage others not to take part. Having two opposing groups present two different sides of an argument is an important part of a healthy pluralistic society, and this is not, as some are claiming, an effort by a bunch of disgruntled radical left-wingers to shut down campus debate.
So we should celebrate the fact that Milo is being invited, and we should equally celebrate the efforts by students to create an effective initiative for dealing with mental health out of the ashes of this scandal. All credit should be given to the students affected by refusing to sink to the level of censorship or allowing this intimidation to silence them. I will personally be attending Milo’s talk, both to hear him speak and to ask him how he can justify the caustic and inflammatory facets of his public persona. I urge all those affected by this incident to come to his speech, whether you intend to sit in awe, or whether you intend to ask him hard-hitting questions about his actions and views.
The University of York has a nationally-renowned reputation for on-campus free speech and engagement. Let’s keep this tradition going strong this year.