Yiannopoulos and the Moral Crisis of Campus Conservatism

In defending their decision to host Milo Yiannopoulos's talks on grounds of freedom of speech, campus Republicans never mentioned his obscene and defamatory rhetoric, argues Robert Cohen. 

February 23, 2017
 
 

The Milo Yiannopoulos pedophilia scandal ought to prod some serious soul searching on the part of American conservatives, especially his college Republican hosts. After all, until his ugly and obscene remarks jokingly condoning the sexual abuse of young boys finally discredited him, Yiannopoulos had been given the red carpet treatment by the right. Across America, college Republican groups had eagerly invited him to campus despite -- or maybe because of -- the crude and obscene insults he hurled at students of color, women and transgender students.

The adult right off the campus was no better. The Conservative Political Action Conference had invited Yiannopoulos to speak at the same event as Vice President Pence, only rescinding the invitation after tapes surfaced of Yiannopoulos making light of pedophilia, which caused an uproar.

Prior to the Yiannopoulos scandal, most media criticism had focused not on his rants but on the Left’s disruptions of this alt-right provocateur’s campus tour. That criticism was appropriate since those who would ban Yiannopoulos or violently disrupt his talks are guilty of corroding free speech, which is the lifeblood of the university. But this spotlight on the campus Left was so intense that little was said about how much the Yiannopoulos affair tells us about the sorry state of campus conservatism.

The discourse in Yiannopoulos campus speeches at times descended into obscenity and cruelty. In his speech at West Virginia University, he referred to women as “cunts.”  At the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, he not only used obscenity, but he did so in a vicious  manner to mock a transgender student in the audience, projecting a photo of this student onto a screen in the lecture hall (which was live streamed on the Breitbart website) and saying of her  “the way you know he’s failed is I can still bang him.”  This was apparently done in the service of his transphobia, which led him to say at the University of Delaware: “Never feel bad for mocking a transgender person. It is our job to point out their absurdity, to not make the problem worse by pretending they are normal.”

In defending their decision to host Yiannopoulos’s talks, the campus Republicans never mentioned his obscene and defamatory rhetoric. Instead, they spoke abstractly about freedom of speech and presented themselves and Yiannopoulos as the embodiment of that cherished freedom -- standing up for his right to speak despite the dangers from a censorious Left.  At the University of California at Berkeley, in fact, site of the most violent disruption of a Yiannopoulos talk, his host, the Berkeley College Republicans presented themselves as heroic freedom fighters, heirs of Berkeley Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio: “We proceed fearlessly because we know we have the president of the United States and the United States Constitution on our side. The Berkeley College Republicans are the new Free Speech Movement,” wrote members Troy Worden and Pieter Sittler in  Berkeley’s Daily Californian.

But while Free Speech Movement of 1964, of course, defended free speech, it did  not champion obscene, degrading speech. Search as you may you will not find a single obscenity in any of Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio’s speeches (as you would expect of a former altar boy). And neither Savio nor any Free Speech Movement speaker would have even dreamed of using a campus podium -- or any other -- as Yiannopoulos has, to defame or ridicule students on account of their sexuality.

So Yiannopoulos’s Republican campus hosts are at miscast as the Free Speech Movement’s political descendants. If there is any free speech dispute from Berkeley in the 1960s that the Yiannopoulos affair resembles (and even here the resemblance is limited) it is the obscenity controversy that erupted in spring 1965, a semester after the Free Speech Movement. That controversy concerned the right to use the obscene word “Fuck” in public campus discourse.  Some Free Speech Movement veterans supported this right, and others (like Savio) objected to the punishment of obscenity protesters on due process grounds. But most movement veterans and much of the Berkeley student body refused to rally to this cause because they felt that this use of obscenity was irresponsible and distracted from more serious issues facing the civil rights and antiwar movements.

That’s why journalists who labeled this obscenity affair “the Filthy Speech Movement” erred, as it was impossible to build a mass movement at Berkeley in defense of obscene speech, impossible to re-assemble the old Free Speech Movement coalition for such a cause. Most of the Berkeley student body in 1965 was too wedded to the ideal of responsible political discourse to wave the “Fuck” banner. In this sense they were more genuinely conservative than today’s Berkeley College Republicans who not only wink at Yiannopoulos’s obscenity, but also at its use to defame minority students.  

To be clear, Berkeley students in 1965 were not endorsing suppression, but close to 80 percent opposed the use of such “filthy speech” in public, as I note in my book, Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s (Oxford University Press, 2009). And so, they were unwilling to battle for the cause of obscene speech, a cause they thought irresponsible.

The idea here is that with freedom comes responsibility, and that ought to lead you (especially if you are conservative) to question whether saying “Fuck”  from the podium or  bringing Yiannopoulos’ ugly vitriol on to campus is responsible -- even though you have the right to do so. This is what Mario Savio was referring to in his Free Speech Movement victory rally speech, Dec. 9, 1964, when he said: "We are asking that there be no, no restrictions on the content of speech save those provided by the courts. And that's an enormous amount of freedom. And people can say things in that area of freedom which are not responsible. Now... we've finally gotten into a position where we have to consider being responsible, because we now have the freedom within which to be responsible."

Thinking seriously about free speech involves much more than reciting a simple formula that says “anything goes,” leaving us racing out mindlessly to speak and invite others to speak without considering what is being said, how it is being said, and who those words may be hurting gratuitously. That point was made decades ago in the Woodward Report at Yale University, a classic statement on the “university’s primary obligation to protect free expression,” but which also stressed the “ethical responsibilities assumed by each member of the university community” that are “of great importance. If freedom of expression is to serve its purpose, and thus the purpose of the university, it should seek to enhance understanding. Shock, hurt and anger are not consequences to be weighed lightly. No member of the community with a decent respect for others should use, or encourage others to use, slurs and epithets to discredit another’s race, ethnic group, religion or sex. It may sometimes be necessary in a university for civility and mutual respect to be superseded by the need for free expression. The values superseded are nevertheless important, and every member of the university community should consider them in exercising the fundamental right to free expression."

I suspect that the failure of campus conservatives to take seriously such questions about responsibility and civility in this Yiannopoulos affair is connected to the influence of Donald Trump. He rose to the presidency through his constant, ugly barrages of ad hominem attacks, and in spite of being caught on tape discussing how he grabs women “by the pussy.” This seems to have given a green light for even the crudest of public oratory.  The right proved itself willing both off campus and on to dispense with notions of civility, so long as the vitriol emanates from someone on their side who succeeded in generating mass appeal -- either at the ballot box (Trump) or in the lecture hall (Yiannopoulos).  It was not the crudeness or cruelty of his campus speeches, but a two-year-old taped interview that caught Yiannopoulos’ amoral ramblings on sexual abuse of minors that finally led CPAC and Breitbart News to drop him.   

This is a tale not merely of moral declension on the right but also conservative  (or pseudo-conservative) intellectual decline. Again there is a parallel between Trump and Yiannopoulos, both of whom go in for hectoring rather than logical discourse and are more concerned with drawing and exciting large crowds with shock jock sloganeering and show biz gloss (Yiannopoulos, who refers to himself as “a star,” and in his campus gigs uses spotlights, Broadway-style lighting and huge photo displays of himself a la Hollywood) than with intellectual gravitas. Yiannopoulos offered College Republicans this spectacle and they lapped it up despite its intellectual vacuity, ad hominem cruelty, and bigotry sugar coated by snarky humor. 

The contrast between, this and the serious, civil Left-right debates the Young Americans for Freedom sponsored in the 1960s -- modeled after those held by their intellectual godfather, William F. Buckley, Jr. on his TV show Firing Line -- could not be more striking. It is as if the student right has forgotten what serious political thought and reasoned oratory look and sound like.  In this sense the right on campus today, has, as Savio once put it, “free speech but nothing left to say.”

Bio

Robert Cohen is a professor of history and social studies at NYU Steinhardt whose books include Freedom's Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s; The Essential Mario Savio: Speeches and Writings that Changed America; The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s (co-edited by Reginald E. Zelnik)

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