Milo and the hypocrisy behind free speech claims

His case showed us that the erroneous invocation of ‘free speech’ is effectively providing cover for hate spewers.

Milo Yiannopoulos addresses the media during a news conference in New York
Milo Yiannopoulos addresses the media during a news conference in New York on February 21 [Lucas Jackson/Reuters]

Even with his name splashed in the headlines and his story cast as “breaking news”, the last thing this is about is Milo Yiannopoulos. To precis, in case you sensibly missed the whole thing: this hate-spouting, Donald Trump-supporting, far-right trollster had a lucrative book deal cancelled and a major speaking engagement at the American Conservative Union’s CPAC conference revoked after comments he made, apparently saying sex between “younger boys” and older men was OK, surfaced online.

He then resigned from the far-right Breitbart news – following reports that some of his colleagues had threatened to quit if he wasn’t sacked over those comments seeming to condone paedophilia (though Milo says they were taken out of context).

The internet is replete with background and detail on this story – and has been for some time. But, again, this isn’t about one individual far-right provocateur. It’s mostly about the busting of a persistent myth, that the far-right, in strange symbiosis with some liberals who should know better, are the new champions of free speech.

You know, that noble far-right cause cheered by US TV host Bill Maher just the other day, when he so agreeably had Milo on his HBO Real Time talk show and they both told us to stop being so sensitive over things such as racism and misogyny.

Truth to be told

In truth, it is rare that reality so neatly punctures a point. For commentators have repeatedly cautioned that far-right hate speech around Muslims and minorities gets absolved in a way that nobody would dream of doing if the subject were, just by way of stark illustration, child abuse.

Well, now here’s the proof. Previously supportive conservatives and publishers couldn’t back away from Milo fast enough once those comments about sex with underage boys came to light.

Those who had previously insisted we should debate the hate, not shut it down, seemed to vanish into thin air. It turns out that – who knew? – there are limits to free speech, after all, and even for the far-right.

Conservative movements that have been politically revitalised by accommodating and thus rehabilitating the far-right need to do their own reckoning with this equation and its consequences.

The hard currency of all this, meanwhile, is the outrage, the reaction to having conversations ambushed and derailed by trolls for whom the sole purpose is to ambush and derail.


But meanwhile, what of all the liberal-minded insistence that characters such as Milo are really a test of our commitment to free speech and the right to offend?

Of course, this was always a terrible conflation of free speech principles with the decision to provide platform and airtime to people who use these to mainline hateful bigotry – support for free speech confused with actively giving someone a megaphone.

But it’s now up to those who insist it was a free speech issue to begin with, to explain why those limits didn’t apply when the abuse and harassment campaigns were directed only at women, ethnic minorities or the transgender community.


The hard currency of all this, meanwhile, is the outrage, the reaction to having conversations ambushed and derailed by trolls for whom the sole purpose is to ambush and derail.

This is one of many reasons why there is little point in engaging with the hate preachers of the far-right: even when you think you’ve won the argument, it will be cast as losing, slapped on YouTube with a headline about being “owned” or “destroyed” by the hater.

In this context, there is a certain arrogance in thinking that you will be the one who prevails, who will “win” using calm logic and clear reasoned debate – when in reality, all that’s ever achieved by such an exchange is amplification of hate, giving it more platform, more reach and more legitimacy.

When American journalist Jeremy Scahill pulled out of Bill Maher’s Real Time, because the show was also hosting Milo, it was premised on this understanding.

As Scahill wrote, the alt-right provocateur “has ample venues to spew his hateful diatribe. There is no value in ‘debating’ him.”

As every shock jock and far-right agitator knows, there is something compulsive about the shock in this context, a morbid fascination combined with a sort of earnestly breathless anthropological drive to understand why the spewer of hate is so awful.

OPINION: Is this really how fascism takes hold in the US?

This is what the erroneous invocation of “free speech” is effectively providing cover for – it operates as a seemingly principled and intellectual framing of something that is often propelled by less worthy impulses.

Again, it works only if you are not a target of the abuse and don’t comprehend the harm in it. But this does in part explain why toxic far-right talk is so ubiquitously sought out and hosted – it might advocate the most appalling hatred against Muslims, or women but, wow, look at those retweets.

It’s why lucrative book deals and TV slots are available. And it’s why there will always be Milos – because we seem intent on making sure that they will always have an audience.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.