The Milo Yiannopoulos Fallout Reminds Us Why the Political Must Be Made Personal

The most abstract concepts are, ultimately, made of people. The trick is finding ways to communicate how.

by Whitney Phillips
Feb 25 2017, 6:00pm


Let's just get this out of the way: Milo Yiannopoulos is a tedious, nihilistic, mean-spirited opportunist. He wants people to talk about him, and I do not want to oblige.

That said, the fallout from his pedophilia comments, which resulted in his disinvitation from CPAC, his book cancellation, and his resignation from Breitbart, is uniquely instructive. It highlights the fact that in conversations about Yianopoulos specifically and free speech online more broadly, the very real consequences for very real people have often been downplayed, if not outright ignored. The fact that his supporters are only just now paying attention to these consequences underscores this point; until now, what Yiannopoulos represents has been more important than what he has actually done.

Rather than focusing on those who have been targeted, the staunchest defenses of Yiannopoulos—and the free speech principles he champions —have tended, instead, to focus on abstract concepts: pushback against "PC culture," not consideration of lived experiences of systemic injustice. Eyerolls about "precious snowflakes," not good-faith interest in the struggles of others. And of course, patronizing defenses of unfettered speech, not thoughtful concern for those individuals who have been silenced and violated by that same speech.

The impulse to foreground abstraction while minimizing specificity fits snugly alongside Donald Trump's entire presidential campaign, which essentially consisted of a series of memes. Calls to Make America Great Again™, to build the wall, to ban all Muslims—to give just a few examples—conveniently sidestepped the tangible impact these policies would have on those affected. Similarly, his administration's most egregious actions thus far, including their oops unconstitutional Muslim travel and refugee ban, their plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act without a viable replacement, their plan for mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, and their rescinding of existing civil rights protections for trans students, are focused almost entirely on abstract ideals (Muslims bad! Mexicans out! Freedom, or something! Title IX, who needs it!), not the actual people whose lives will be upended as a result.

Malice and myopia aren't the only sources of abstraction. The internet itself spurs abstracted thinking. 

Yiannopoulos' most strident defenders—the majority of whom, it is worth noting, are also Trump supporters—aren't alone in such thinking, however. More moderate voices have also contributed to the Yiannopoulos abstraction phenomenon. Those who gave Yiannopoulos a platform to speak, for example, those who allowed him to choose his own descriptors, those who maybe chided him some for his more extreme statements, but who still framed him as an enigmatic, charming, well-dressed anti-hero—all helped amplify the idea of Yiannopoulos at the expense of the specific, embodied harm his behaviors caused. Amplification that, in turn, allowed him to continue harming.  

The factors motivating this abstraction vary, of course. In the most extreme cases—for example within white nationalist circles—those framing Yiannopoulos abstractly are bigots, plain and simple, eager for any excuse to denigrate othered groups en masse. Yiannopoulos has built an entire brand around this approach; while he has targeted many individuals, he has done so because these individuals belong to groups (women, black activists, immigrants, trans people) he believes deserve targeting, or at least don't deserve equal protection. This is abstraction at its most deliberate, most unapologetic, and most conspicuously destructive.

Much more frequently, however (and arguably more insidiously), those who downplay the specific in favor of the general do so not because they're actively trying to harm others, not because they want to Make America Great Again (for White People), but because they can—because they occupy a subject position that allows them to frame the struggles of others as something distant, something nebulous, something that is not their personal problem. If they do choose to engage, they can sidestep the more difficult moments and on their own terms, for their own reasons, decide what to take seriously, what to ignore, and what to engage with a detached "lol." Feminist writer Mikki Kendall calls out this exact impulse in her evisceration of Yiannopoulos' many apologists, who were willing to downplay the tangible impact of Yiannopoulos' toxic speech and behavior (particularly when directed at women of color) because it didn't personally affect them.

Malice and myopia aren't the only sources of abstraction. The internet itself spurs abstracted thinking. Not just because online echo chambers tend to entrench existing group norms, abstraction very much included. But also because the behavioral tools provided by online spaces create new opportunities to sidestep the embodied implications of online behavior.

Image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

My Ambivalent Internet co-author Ryan M. Milner and I connect this process to the overlapping issues of fetishization and amplification online. Here, fetishization refers to the process of reducing the whole of something (an entire film, speech, or news story) to a singular part (an animated GIF, quote, or singular image). As we explain, this isn't just not a bug of online interaction, it's the defining feature of an environment in which just about anything can be plucked from its original context and used for just about any new purpose. An anthropomorphic character from a 2005 comics series roped into the service of white nationalism. The balled-up fist of a beloved childhood icon harnessed for sexual grotesquerie. A dead gorilla employed as Dadaist absurdity. In these cases, the full aesthetic, emotional, or political backstory of an artifact is obscured, resulting in something that is, at least appears to be, just a punchline, just a sight gag, just a meme—regardless of what the true ethical stakes might be.

Amplification—the process of spreading content through sharing, remixing, and reposting—often obscures a text's origins even further, making it even more difficult to know when something was created, why, and by whom. While the outcome of this process is often value neutral (every Dana Scully sparkle hair GIF, for example, owes its existence to the intertwine of fetishization and amplification), it can become very problematic very quickly when the content is itself problematic, a point Milner and I highlight in our analysis of the complex ethics of the Harambe meme. It can become downright devastating when the content isn't just problematic, but spreads toxic misogyny and racism, as in the Leslie Jones harassment case (harassment instigated, it should be noted, by none other than Milo Yiannopoulos, who had "no regrets" over the whole affair).

Regardless of the specific content, however, the more severed something becomes from its full nuanced backstory, the easier it is to overlook—to never have to think about, or even be fully aware of—the embodied implications of continuing its spread. Put more simply, to never even know whose toes you might be stepping on. Even as we're inundated by a deluge of data online, often all we can see is just those punchlines, sight gags, and memes.

As we navigate this uniquely treacherous moment in American history, when so many bodies are at risk, when so many bodies are in pain, we have the choice, and I would argue the obligation, to pay attention to those bodies.

These actual data blockages are exacerbated by existing political myopia. In these cases, the issue isn't just lack of contextualizing information, but is lack of curiosity about what information might be missing—most significantly to this discussion, what specific bodies might be impacted in what specific ways by whatever punchline, sight gag, or meme making the rounds. Online, it is far too easy to opt out of these conversations, particularly for those whose bodies and self-worth and basic sense of safety is not under constant attack.

Milo Yiannopoulos has exploited this environment for everything it's worth, making his rise nothing less than a "grotesque convergence of politics and the internet," as Guardian contributor Dorian Lynskey succinctly describes it. But in a twist of deeply poetic justice, Yiannopoulos was exploited right back, as he himself was fetishized as an alt-right meme, one amplified by those without awareness of—or concern about—the specific embodied impact of his hateful rhetoric. And the more abstracted he became, the less attention his defenders paid to the things he was actually saying.

Until, suddenly, they heard him—because what he said affected them.

None of Yiannopoulos' previous apologists—not CPAC, not Simon & Schuster, not Breitbart, nobody—deserves praise for suddenly realizing that Milo Yiannopoulos is a repulsive human being. As many commentators—epitomized by author Roxane Gay, who left Simon & Schuster over their collusion with Yiannopoulos—have noted, where was their moral outrage when he was targeting women of color? When he was outing and publicly harassing trans people? When he was gleefully mocking sexual assault survivors? When he was just a "normal" white nationalist?

Regardless of the delayed, selective, and cynically face-saving nature of these reactions, Yiannopoulos' fall from the exact opposite of grace illustrates how quickly perspectives shift when the general ("MILO the free speech warrior!") is replaced by the specific ("Oh my god, our children").

The fact that specificity helps facilitate a narrative foothold, which helps facilitate emotional resonance, which helps facilitate having a dog in the fight, in turn helps provide a discursive strategy for dealing with similarly pressing (and too easily abstracted) cultural issues. Immigration, health care, trans rights, and various other threats to civil liberties might seem to some—read: to those not clearly or immediately impacted—like abstract concepts. But even the most abstract concepts are, ultimately, made of people. The trick is finding ways to communicate how.

In addition to emphasizing why the political must be made personal, the Yiannopoulos case also highlights the relationship between digital tools and fetishized abstraction. This relationship, luckily, is not inevitable; digital spaces and tools might lend themselves to abstract thinking, but they don't dictate thought. We're the only ones who can do that. As we navigate this uniquely treacherous moment in American history, when so many bodies are at risk, when so many bodies are in pain, we have the choice, and I would argue the obligation, to pay attention to those bodies. To consider whose bodies we might end up impacting. And to do what Milo Yiannopoulos has never had the courage to do—to take responsibility for our own actions.