In the summer of 2016, a friend and I thought it would be interesting to go and see Milo Yiannopoulos talk at an event in London. If you are familiar with Yiannopoulos, you would not have found it difficult to guess the contents of the talk: mockery of transsexuals, rage against feminists, and fawning over the man who was then only a candidate for President of the United States, Donald Trump.
Whilst the contents of the talk were jarring and uncomfortable for a metropolitan London liberal like me, more memorable were the attitudes of the audience. Despite their recent success in the EU referendum and the unexpected victory of Donald Trump in the Republican nomination process, not many of the people that I talked to seemed at all happy or optimistic. In fact, most seemed to be in despair. When the Q&A section of the talk began, most people who raised their hand to ask a question ended up fumbling out something that was more like a contribution to a group therapy session than a question.
After I left the talk, I came away feeling something that I had not expected to feel. I did not feel angry at these people for holding misogynistic or racist views. Rather, I felt sympathy for them. I saw parallels between these scared and angry teenage boys and the kinds of people who are attracted to radical Islam. I went to the talk under the impression that the views these people held were about attacking other people. Upon leaving, I had realised that they were part of a protective shell, a carapace that the attendees had used as a way of responding to the perceived threats of feminism and globalisation.
I concluded that these people do not necessarily hate feminism or anti-racist campaigns because they hate women or are racists, but because they feel that protections are being afforded to other groups that are not being afforded to them. And, like most extremist campaigns, the anger and hatred was at least partially based on legitimate grievances.
When one boy who looked about sixteen raised his hand and talked about how he had failed at his school and hadn’t felt adequately helped by his teachers, and that he felt his teachers had been more receptive to the problems of female students, my mind jumped to the studies that have shown that some teachers are likely to give male students worse marks for the same quality of work, and that white working class boys are the group in the UK that are the least likely to go to university. These boys and young men were not angry because of efforts to help women who suffer sexual violence or immigrants who struggle in their new country, but because they felt that no one had any interest in their experiences.
At the time of the talk, my sympathies only really extended to the people who were asking questions, rather than Yiannopoulos himself. He, I thought, was taking advantage of these young men to promote two things. Firstly, an extreme right-wing political package that offered hollow solutions for people who were facing real difficulties; and secondly, his own brand.
My opinion has changed in the last few days, since Yiannopoulos was forced to resign from his position at the far-right media group Breitbart. He has also been uninvited as a speaker at CPAC — a Republican conference in the United States that is so screwy that one of its talks was titled ‘If Heaven Has a Gate, a Wall, and Extreme Vetting, Why Can’t America?’ — and has had his book deal cancelled. All of this has been triggered by renewed interested in comments Yiannopoulos made last year in support of the idea that boys as young as thirteen ought to be able to have relationships with older men, and often that these boys can be just as coercive in these relationships as the older men.
The context of these comments has been largely ignored. Yiannopoulos was talking about these kinds of relationships from the perspective of somebody who was involved in a relationship as a young teenager with an older man. When I listen to Yiannopoulos talk about the issue, it comes across to me as though they are the comments of a young boy who has been sexually abused and has struggled to come to terms with the fact that it was abuse.
Because of my interpretation of these comments as both genuine and harrowing, I have found the response of many on the left to be unsavoury. There are moments to have your glee at the downfall of a hate figure (if Donald Trump loses in 2020, I will certainly be celebrating), but this does not seem to me to be such a moment. Many left-wing pundits have questioned whether Yiannopoulos is lying about the abuse, despite the fact that almost all of these people have in the past taken the view that the default position on a victim of abuse ought to be one of belief.
I can see why people get so angry about Yiannopoulos’ remarks, and, as someone in a group that Milo Yiannopoulos is very unlikely to offend, I appreciate that my own indignation about the response of the left may come across as the opinion of someone who hasn’t been hurt by the things that Yiannopoulos and his fans have said. But I still can’t help but feel sympathy for both the people who go to the events he holds, and the man himself.
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