Free speech is key to exposing ignorant ideology

Within 24 hours of a single tweet, the public discourse surrounding former Breitbart News senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos veered from a lively debate over the nature of free speech to universal condemnation of the right-wing provocateur’s comments on pedophilia. In a video posted by the conservative Twitter account “Reagan Battalion,” Yiannopoulos is shown defending relationships between 13-year-old boys and older men, calling them “coming of age” relationships, and arguing that he benefited personally from being molested by a priest when he was a teenager.

However, national coverage of Yiannopoulos began much earlier, from Yiannopoulos’ Twitter ban for encouraging harassment of comedian Leslie Jones to UC Berkeley cancalling his speech because it incited violent protests. Following this high-profile event, liberal comedian and free-speech advocate Bill Maher invited Yiannopoulos on his show, sparking debate over giving Yiannopoulos a wider audience. Opponents of Maher’s decision maintain that such a high-profile appearance would give unwanted traction to his bigoted views. Indeed, Yiannopoulos holds many unsavory opinions: he thinks that gay people should get back in the closet and promotes the idea that transgender people are mentally ill sexual predators.

Despite Yiannopoulos’ repugnant views, free speech must prevail, and Maher’s decision is defensible on multiple fronts. Not only did Maher’s show expose Yiannopoulos as immoral and unintelligent, it allowed the mechanisms of free speech and rational discourse to work wonders in debunking Yiannopoulos’ claims.

The main problem with the ‘no platform’ movement and arguments against giving speaking time to controversial figures like Yiannopoulos is the erroneous notion that publicly airing views increases their popularity. While the promulgation of ideas benefits from high-profile appearances, the quality of the ideas themselves is what matters in the long run. Lenin, Stalin and the USSR employed glib arguments, relentless propaganda and militarism to spread their ideology across the globe, and their ideas are rarely espoused today because they have proven untenable. Contrarily, the revolutionary ideas of Socrates, Galileo, Copernicus and Caravaggio have persisted in fame despite vigorous persecution by contemporary authorities. The no-platform movement is doomed to fail because removing a speaking slot doesn’t destroy the underlying ideas behind the speech. The only way to discredit bad ideas is to confront them head-on.

The merits of an argument should be separate from the flaws of its originator. For example, the ideas of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Henry Ford are all widely lauded despite Gandhi being a sexual pervert, Martin Luther King Jr. plagiarizing much of his academic work and Henry Ford espousing anti-Semitic views. Nearly every prominent thinker has character flaws and you could fill a library with exposés on famous figures. However, their personal character does not affect the quality of their ideas, and it makes no sense to take away someone’s platform for being offensive. This is not to draw a moral equivalence between Yiannopoulos and MLK, but merely to demonstrate the irrelevance of Yiannopoulos’ unpleasant character in assessing his claims.

The value of free speech does depend on the avenue through which views are aired, a crucial distinction missing among opponents of Maher’s decision. Books, academic articles, speeches and public debates are meant to be the realm wherein the exchange of ideas flourish. Conversely, the news media, textbooks and encyclopedias broadcast information as truth, not as ideas that must be defended. Maher’s show falls under the form of free speech wherein conflicting ideas compete, but are not projected as true or false. False information broadcast as fact, otherwise known as propaganda, is the only form of free speech worthy of being banned. However, if ideas are expressed in a contestable, open forum there should be no such limits.

Such forums sort fact from fiction, the constructive from the destructive. On Maher’s show, Yiannopoulos was exposed as the lazy thinker he is during an exchange with Larry Wilmore, wherein his views on transgender individuals were thoroughly razed. After Yiannopoulos misgendered a student from UW Milwaukee and spewed nonsense about transgender individuals having psychiatric disorders, Wilmore contextualized Yiannopoulos’ absurdities by reminding him that homosexuality used to be classified as a disorder and argued that society’s treatment of LGBT individuals was often the cause of any mental illness, not their sexuality or gender identity. Yiannopoulos’ ideas were challenged in front of millions of viewers in a way that never would have happened if he had not been invited. He was also shown to be a mean-spirited brat, calling Maher’s guests “stupid” and requesting that Maher “start inviting higher IQ guests.” Wilmore responded memorably:

“If your argument is that these people are stupid, you didn’t hear a word this man [Nance] said earlier in the segment, because he can talk circles around your pathetic, douchey little ass from England, alright?” Maher’s show revealed Yiannopoulos to be an insufferable ignoramus and close-minded buffoon, and it was the invitation to a high-profile platform that allowed for his exposure. Reality has proven once again that we must engage with ill-conceived ideas to prove their emptiness, not petulantly censor those with whom we disagree.

Sam Carlen ’20 (carlen1@stolaf.edu) is from St. Paul, Minn. His major is undecided.

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