Ahsan: Hindsight and Hairspray

An embarrassing moment for the College is an opportunity to reflect.

by Sajid Ahsan | 7/13/18 2:15am

When someone’s entire career is predicated on ginning up controversy for the sake of attention, it is never really all that surprising to see them worm their way back into the media spotlight. Still, one could be forgiven for feeling slightly taken aback at seeing Milo Yiannopoulos’s name in the headlines again, given the ignominy of his departure from Breitbart News and the loss of his book deal after video surfaced of him repeatedly defending and downplaying the sexual abuse of minors. The capacity for shame, however, has never been much of an impediment for self-promoters of any political affiliation. Sure enough, Yiannopoulos made his triumphant return to the front pages of news websites in recent weeks with statements, characterized by his usual rapier-like wit and tact, that he “can’t wait for vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight.”

After a shooting at a newspaper office in Maryland left five dead, he defended those comments as a joke in a blog post that multiple journalists pointed out was tagged with the German phrase “Lügenpresse,’ a term that means “lying press.” This phrase was prominently featured in Nazi regime propaganda before becoming a modern dog whistle used by naeo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists. This flirtation with Nazi symbols and codewords is nothing new for Yiannopoulos, who often attempts to make up in shock value what he lacks in substance.

In fairness to him, the shooting in Annapolis appears to have been carried out on a personal vendetta and did not, in fact, have anything to do with Yiannopoulous’s repellant comments. The idea that he has the influence to inspire his fans into some kind of vigilante war is an absurd overestimation of the power of a man who came to initial prominence complaining about “social justice warriors” in the video game industry. Although Yiannopoulos has gone to great lengths to brand himself as “dangerous,” the reality is that he is profoundly uninteresting, simply taking more words to say what his cruder ideological allies do with slurs.

Given his lack of both relevance and substance, it is worth examining why he was invited to speak at Dartmouth in 2016 in the first place. Now that enough time has passed since the height of the “campus free speech” wars that gripped the op-ed pages of the New York Times, students have the added benefit of hindsight. It was a somewhat controversial decision at the time; in retrospect, the episode is simply embarrassing, especially in light of Yiannopoulos’ trajectory afterwards.

The usual reflexive defense in this situation is a tendency toward vague histrionics about free speech and censorship, but those arguments are disingenuous; no one serious is calling for Yiannopoulos’s arrest. But the Constitution, however open to interpretation, does not guarantee anyone the right to a college speaking tour. This is also not to say that the College should step in and ban speakers it determines are unpalatable, as that could set a precedent that would ultimately limit political discourse on campus to a narrow spectrum of views pre-screened for acceptability by upper-class liberals.

Instead, the responsibility of determining which speakers actually merit invitation to speak here is with students and their organizations. It’s often said that college students need to be more open to hearing conservative voices, but if the man who was banned from Twitter for inciting racist hate speech toward the star of “Ghostbusters” is the best voice the conservative movement can muster, the problem does not lie with college students. Given that the central mission of his career is simply enraging liberals, it’s difficult to see what other motivation led to inviting someone who does little more than insult and express contempt for people including those who make up this student body, such as transgender and undocumented students. It shouldn’t be wishful thinking to hope that the level of discourse at a college that puts so much stock in its own prestige would be higher than just trying to anger the other side. “Triggering the libs” is something one could expect out of an internet comments section; Dartmouth should hope to aim higher.

With the school’s reputation comes a responsibility that students need to take seriously. Whether or not one feels it should, the fact remains that speaking at Dartmouth does lend legitimacy to individuals, particularly to those in want of it. There is no manual for determining what merits attention and what doesn’t, and vague platitudes about freedom of expression are not a substitute for the actual work of discerning meaningful, serious dialogue from noise and self-promotion. Dartmouth is whatever its students choose to make it. If its students would rather shirk that responsibility for the sake of the visceral thrill of provoking a reaction from their classmates, perhaps its reputation isn’t deserved after all.