Merced College Lecturer in Philosophy Keith Law has a long history supporting free speech on campus, and founded “Students for Social Justice” to encourage open discussion of controversial ideas. However, he has strong objections to inviting celebrity provocateurs like Milo Yiannopolous to academic institutions. He explains why below:
The wrongful violent protest that broke out on the UC Berkeley campus last week, over the speaking engagement of Breitbart “News” editor and provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, has provoked a debate about free speech and academic freedom on college campuses. It has thereby diverted us from an equally substantial discussion about exactly why someone like Milo should not be invited by an official student group to speak on a college campus.
The reason Yiannopoulos should not be invited has nothing to do with his contrarian and unpopular views; rather, it has to do with the fact that he does not have the academic credibility to speak with authority on many of the subjects upon which he opines. Yiannopoulos is a participant in the ratings-driven spectacle-chasing media. In contrast, academic research is an evidence-based deliberative process that is supposed to offer an alternative to people like Milo, and the rest of the Breitbart group that has the ear of President Trump.
Since the incident at Berkeley, I have gone online to better understand why Yiannopoulos’ s’s arguments are so controversial. Most of what I heard there was not as controversial as it was simply wrong. If his claims had to be filtered through the academic peer-review process, he wouldn’t pass a single course. As a matter of fact, according to his biography on Wikipedia, he dropped out of college and therefore didn’t pass. He doesn’t possess the academic training of most of the undergraduate students who are attending his college speaking tours.
Over 20 years ago I assisted a group of students on my campus to form a political club called Students for Social Justice, and I was their advisor for over 15 years. When it came to addressing the very worthy issue of campus hate speech policies, for the con side of the debate I advised the students to invite a staff lawyer from the group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The difference between our guest and Yiannopoulos is precisely that FIRE sent us a college educated lawyer who has been in the trenches taking on cases on behalf of student and faculty free speech rights. Our speaker presented real cases and evidence rather than a string of rhetorical rants. Rather than drive our discussion down into a shallow spectacle he raised it up to genuine academic respectability.
A faculty club advisor is a part of student’s learning experience, and one job should be to advise students about the distinction between what are and are not respectable academic arguments. Of course if the students still voted to bring Milo to the campus against that advice, then so be it; however, be prepared to use the inevitable spectacle as a teachable moment.
Here is an example of just how low Yiannopoulos renders a debate: In one U-Tube clip he argues that Islam is the greatest danger to Western women and gays. For evidence he pointed to research that showed that in Britain, 51% of Muslims believe gay sex should be against the law. Yiannopoulos is an openly gay Brit, and he expressed outrage that some of these Muslims could live blocks from his home.
For the sake of argument let’s assume the same is true of US Muslims, who make up .9% of our population or 3.3 million people. This means that approximately 1.8 million Muslim Americans don’t approve of Milo’s lifestyle. But in America where he is lecturing to us, 25.4% of the population, 62 million, are Evangelical Christians, among whom, according to PEW research, 64% disapprove of gays, which is closer to 40 million Yiannopoulos haters.
One can assume that Yiannopoulos is suppressing his disdain for Evangelical Christians because Southern Evangelicals make up a sizable portion of Breitbart’s audience. The entire Breitbart phenomenon is nothing more than an attempt to keep alive the “Southern Strategy” that was formulated by Goldwater and Nixon in hopes of getting our attention drawn back to the culture wars (gays, feminism, abortion, race) and away from the class issues so popular among the followers of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. It should come as no surprise that Yiannopoulos, Bannon and the late Breitbart himself all come from wealthy families.
In another clip, Yiannopoulos argues that research suggests that men’s brains differ from women’s in a way that is advantageous for men in some fields, though he doesn’t share which. He then points out that the science is not in on this one, which undermines his claim. The bigger question here concerns why Yiannopoulos is being invited on a college campus to make claims about neurophysiology in the first place. Students! You have qualified neuroscientists teaching on your campus who can share a real claim about this subject, so why go after the fake guy? Likewise, the advisor of a college medical club should encourage students to invite credible medical experts rather than someone pushing untested supplements on TV, and a biology club advisor should encourage those students to invite real biologists rather than a creationist, who might be a good choice for a theology club.
I could share a long list of Yiannopoulos’s false claims and rhetorical fallacies, but like most academically trained people I find this exercise dreadful. My life is devoted to elevating debates about controversial issues, not debasing them. The student advisor at UC Berkeley should be encouraging her students to do the same, as they have a role to play in the academic health of the campus.
The protesters who disrupted the speech were ill-advised, they hurt people and turned the debate into one about free speech, which they cannot win as it is the American default app. On the other hand, the college club that invited Yiannolpoulos was also ill-advised, as they should have been strongly encouraged to invite responsible researchers onto a college campus rather than a media hack. Yiannopoulos has every right to speak on the UC Berkeley campus; however, he should be on a soap box in front of Sproul Hall with the other walk-ons rather than an official guest of students or faculty.