Today’s college students can tolerate anything except the outgroup. Writers have argued that many students are coddled, disrespectfully smug, and even prejudiced against conservatives. The HPR’s own writers have weighed in on debates about oversensitivity and free speech on college campuses. However, discussions about tolerance, free speech, and engagement can often feel abstract and intangible. Besides, what actually happens when annoying—or even hateful—voices are silenced?
According to Breitbart senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos, they get louder. Yiannopoulos is a recently popular conservative activist, particularly among younger audiences. He is a vociferous opponent of modern feminism, Black Lives Matter, safe spaces, and “the regressive left” that he believes has taken over college campuses. He believes that the wage gap is a myth, transgender people suffer from a brain disease, and he openly supports Donald Trump for president. In his latest “Dangerous Faggot Tour,” Yiannopoulos has spoken at various US colleges and universities in order to engage a demographic that tends to disagree with most of his views. Many students believe his events promote bigotry, racism, Islamophobia, violence, and general hatred. As a result, his visits often spark heated (and occasionally violent) campus protests which attempt to disrupt and cancel his events. For instance, protestors recently stormed the stage at DePaul University and blocked the entrance to his event at UCLA.
At first glance, critics of Yiannopoulos may rejoice when they read about these protests. If you believe that spreading Yiannopoulos’s message is harmful, shutting down his events appears to be an effective way to limit his influence. Why, then, does his popularity tend to skyrocket in response to these demonstrations? One plausible explanation is found in psychological reactance theory. Research supporting the theory suggests that people have a strong emotional reaction when they perceive their freedoms to be violated. In other words, there are people who will not agree with what Milo has to say—but who will defend his right to say it. This may explain why Yiannopoulos’s twitter following increased dramatically when Twitter removed his verification earlier this year.
Disruptive protests help Yiannopoulos’s movement in two main ways. First, they give Yiannopoulos more visibility. A conservative speaker giving a talk at a college generates relatively little media attention. A headline like “Milo Mayhem: Activists Storm Stage, Threaten Milo at DePaul Event” allows the speaker to trend on Facebook. The increased visibility gives Yiannopoulos the chance to convince those who disagree with him and strengthens his following. Second, disruptive protestors provide evidence for Yiannopoulos’s claims about the “regressive left” on college campuses. Yiannopoulos frequently argues that campus activists suppress the voices of conservative-minded thinkers, and use fear—rather than evidence—to propagate their views. When protestors prevent Yiannopoulos from hosting events, they prove Yiannopoulos’s points for him.
Can anything stop Milo Yiannopoulos? Yiannopoulos himself seems to think so—in an article titled “How to Beat Me (Spoiler: You Won’t),” he encourages his opponents to simply wait for the Q&A portion of his events. If his views are so easy to refute, why not just expose the flaws in his logic through a well-worded question? Of course, this is a somewhat oversimplified challenge. If everyone agreed on what constituted a logical argument, everyone would eventually form the same opinions. Psychological research suggests that forces like confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, and self-justification can keep people committed to beliefs even in the face of contradictory evidence. In other words, it is hard to change our minds, particularly because changing our minds requires us to admit that we were wrong. Nonetheless, it is possible. And even if well-reasoned arguments cannot change the views of Yiannopoulos’s followers, at least their perception of “the regressive left” may change when it surprises them with respectful discourse.
It is equally important to point out that discourse is a two-way street. If opponents of Yiannopoulos expect to change the minds of his supporters, they should also be open to changing their own views. It is easy to straw-man Yiannopoulos and his supporters as hateful bigots who cannot be reasoned with. However, this ignores the nuance of their stances. Yiannopoulos does not oppose feminism because he believes men are superior to women; rather, he disagrees with specific stances that he believes characterize the modern feminist movement. For instance, he argues that feminists do not have sufficient evidence to support the existence of a wage gap between men and women or a rape culture on college campuses. He does not oppose Black Lives Matter because he is a racist but rather because he disapproves of their separatist tactics.
Many campus activists will not find his arguments compelling. But in order to make that judgment, first they must understand what he is actually advocating. To be fair, Yiannopoulos is by no means the epitome of civil discourse. He uses sensationalist phrases like “feminism is cancer” in order to draw attention and stir up his crowds. He has even dressed up as a male stripper and been carried into his events on a throne. But at the very least, he is willing to have a conversation. He deliberately offers arguments that are rarely discussed on college campuses, and he makes a point to include Q&A sessions at his events. He is more than the sum of his ideological viewpoints—he is a representation of what it means to have strong beliefs (and an equally strong personality) while remaining open to discourse. Engaging in discourse with those who disagree with us is not only the best way to change their minds—it is also the best way to change our own views and develop more sophisticated arguments.
The rise of Yiannopoulos can help to explain the rise of Donald Trump. Both have attracted followers that feel silenced, ignored, and invalidated by the left. Both will continue to receive sympathy and exposure if their opponents continue to aggressively and instinctually dismiss their views. And perhaps both can be defeated—or at least weakened—through respectful and empathic discourse. More broadly, the story of Yiannopoulos is useful to understand today’s political climate. There is an ever-growing number of Americans—liberals and conservatives—who feel like their voices are not being heard. Americans are increasingly identifying with their party, race, gender, or sexuality—and are judging the quality of an argument on the identity of the speaker. A political system established to encourage discourse and compromise has succumbed to partisan bickering. In order to save it, we may need to confront those we most disagree with, listen empathically, and fight the urge to silence or invalidate them. Perhaps we can start with Milo Yiannopoulos.