Meeting the Free Speech Crusaders Who Want to End Political Correctness
I spent an evening with Milo Yiannopoulos and his fawning audience at the the launch of a new "free speech" group.
Last night, I watched the trolls announce their revolution. At the launch of the Young British Heritage Society – something describing itself as a "new conservative and libertarian national student organisation dedicated to opposing political correctness on the university campus" – chairman Danial Mirza asked his audience for a show of hands: who among them had been banned from Facebook or Twitter? A loose thicket of arms suddenly rose out of the crowd.
These are the inexplicably furious young reactionaries of the internet, the people who every so often make the news, whenever they're accused of ruining the life of another liberal journalist or feminist campaigner. Most people have a vague idea of what they look like: fully monstrous online, safe behind their computer screens, spraying bile and resentment in all directions, but cringing, timid things in real life. And it's not far off.
The crowd at Conway Hall was full of young men with pinched faces and gawky enthusiasm, displaying a full gamut of unfortunate sartorial choices: some of them in cravats, some with chinos and navy-blue blazers, some with dragon T-shirts and scraggly beards, at least one person pairing a tweed jacket with cargo shorts. And dozens of them, in the middle of London, were wearing Donald Trump's baseball caps, with the slogan "Make America Great Again."
But there was also something incredibly endearing about a lot of those who'd turned up: these were young people without any irony at all, passionate about their politics and entirely unashamed of their own weirdness.
The problems only started when they opened their mouths. The biggest bogeyman stalking the hall was feminism. "They're nothing like the original feminists who just wanted to vote," one told me. "They seem to be actively anti-male." Another explained his admiration for Donald Trump. "He's getting rid of this horrible third-wave feminism movement that's perpetuating racism and sexism. The only way racism will end is if we stop talking about it."
A lot of those I spoke to didn't want their names used, and seemed deeply suspicious of the media. A young Gujarati woman explained that "if you visit India, you visit China, you visit Japan – they all have their distinct cultures. I think that's lacking today in the west." As an example, she offered the new James Bond film, which is "totally left-wing". As it happens, I didn't agree with her, or with many of those that I spoke to – but don't they still have the right to their opinions? Don't they have a right to free speech?
This was the whole point of the evening; the Young British Heritage Society is the latest half-formed thing to rise out of our increasingly stupid free speech wars. Its general secretary, Jamie Patel, used his brief speech to announce that "cultural Marxists have hijacked the country's institutions", and that "any attempt to celebrate British history" is silenced by political correctness.
Speaker Sophie Thomas gnomically declared campus censorship to be a "murky shadow of foreboding". Keynote speaker Milo Yiannopoulos remarked that "if you question feminism you can find yourself thrown out of university". The impression from all sides was that we're now living in a society under politically-correct totalitarianism, where any opinion that falls outside the academy's liberal dogmas is ruthlessly silenced. Which is strange, because if you open any newspaper or watch any news channel, you'll eventually find someone saying the same thing. If the PC police really are trying to shut down free speech, they're not doing a very good job of it.
Free speech here doesn't really mean free speech. These are, after all, people from the same alt-right milieu who in " Gamergate" threw an extended tantrum over video-game journalists writing things they didn't approve of, with the implicit prescription that these things should not be allowed to be written, and then another one over an all-women Ghostbusters film, with the implicit prescription that this film should not be allowed to have been made.
Multiple speakers brought up student union no-platform policies, under which people such as Peter Tatchell and Germaine Greer have been disinvited from giving talks at universities. This is inconvenient, but it's hardly censorship – I haven't yet been invited to speak at a university, but my free speech is still broadly intact. However, most of the complaints were entirely non-specific; a censorship that wasn't coming from governments or institutions, but everywhere.
The anti-PC brigade aren't angry that they can't say what they want; they're angry that when they do say what they want, other people sometimes disagree with them. The society is a protest against the unacceptable censorship of people edging away from them at parties when they start holding forth about how feminism poisons everything; it's a fury against the fact that people get offended when you're offensive to them.
All this is tied up with a deeply dispiriting debate-nerd pedantry. Speakers never tired of making fetishistic invocations of Logic and Reason and Facts; as Sophie Thomas insisted, the "utter hatred for people with different views goes against Socratic debate" – as if everyone you impose yourself on should have to follow Oxford union rules. It's not hard to see why: only in a formal debate do you have to give stupid and boring ideas a hearing they don't deserve. In fact, one of the earliest speakers, a Breitbart journalist, gave the game away. "No matter what," he said, "these opinions will not go unheard."
The Young British Heritage Society has big plans; they want to set up chapters in every British university – but it's not really clear what any of them will actually do, beyond meeting in a pub once a week and appreciating the logical, rational whiff of their communal farts. But most of the people I spoke to in the audience weren't there to support the YBHS at all, but to marvel over the event's keynote speaker, the "gay conservative provocateur" Milo Yiannopoulos.
I realise as I write this that some of you might be normal, happy people – people who live your lives in the sunshine and away from the sad buzz of your computer screen, and who have no idea who Milo Yiannopoulos is. If this is you, you should probably stop reading now; just smash that share button and go on to enjoy the rest of a good and wholesome life. It's not that Yiannopoulos is a particularly dangerous or disturbing person, although he likes to think he is, or that his views are more odious than any other media bigot; it's just that what he wants more than anything is for you to know who he is, and he shouldn't be allowed to get it.
For his fans, Milo Yiannopoulos isn't just a washed-up journalist with a head like a broom and a knack for annoying overly serious students; he's a living god and an object of desperate, panting desire. "I'd love to meet him," one acolyte told me. "I love Milo so much. He represents truth, logic and common sense. He's amazing."
A few people were trying to look like Milo, sporting the bizarre new far-right uniform of peroxide hair and denim jackets. When the sweat-stifled air got too much and Milo took his cardigan off midway through his talk, an anguished groan rippled through the crowd. In his question-and-answer session, hardly anyone could speak to him without a tremor in their voice. Milo is the king of the dweebs, but it's hard to see why. He is, in the end, a deeply boring man.
What he wants to be is an erudite, sardonic breaker of false idols, the man who says the unsayable and does it with style. In fact, he's a try-hard. Little dabs of Christopher Hitchens and William F Buckey creep into his mannerisms; I'd be very surprised if he hadn't spent endless hours watching all the late lamented tosspots' bloviations on YouTube, practicing them aloud, perfecting the clipped dismissive tone of the rational, logical idiot. But whatever you think of Buckley and Hitchens, their arrogance came naturally. Milo's, meanwhile, is all stage-managed, and drearily relentless. "I haven't been in England lately," he said. "I've been busy getting really famous and successful." Later he remarked that "you'll never have my looks or my hair, or my wardrobe, but I can give you tactics and strategies".
But underneath it all he's as pedantic a debate nerd as anyone else in that room, just one who's learned to substitute a pompous drawl for the usual asthmatic wheeze. The left "trades in name-calling and conspiracy theories instead of science, logic and history"; they shut him down because "they can't beat me in an argument". He's exactly like his fans: that's why they love him, and why, in his less guarded moments, his total disdain for them occasionally seeps through – all these nerds, all these bad clothes, all this unpopularity. Maybe this is why he's so militantly in favour of the YBHS's bizarre version of free speech: in their model, you don't have to make do with the audience you're given.
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