The violent bacchanal that erupted at UC Berkeley in protest of Milo Yiannopoulos’s campus visit was despicable — that’s difficult to deny. Painful, though, has been the conservative response, which has been to lean on antique platitudes about the purpose of a college. A college is a germinator of ideas, conservatives argue, an intellectual battleground — thus, barring a provocative figure like Milo erodes the noble ideals of the university.
I sympathize with conservatives concerned by a diminishing appetite for intellectual diversity on American college campuses. But Milo is no champion to stand behind. His campus appearances do not make a student body more intellectually vibrant or foster productive debate. Rather, they are entertainment shows for his supporters, giddy echo chambers where Milo titillates fans by being as outrageous as possible.
Why don’t his appearances generate meaningful discourse? The most elementary reason is that we already have more than enough access to Milo’s ideas. He writes a successful column on Breitbart (or, at least, someone does), stars in viral YouTube videos debating his mortal enemies — feminists and social justice warriors — and has a forthcoming book. Furthermore, all the speeches he gives on campuses are published verbatim online; their content would almost certainly appear in column form if he were unable to deliver them on campus.
The material that he does debut at his college talks has a nasty tendency of targeting individual groups of students. At the University of Wisconsin, Milo projected the face of a transgender student on a screen and mocked her. At his canceled UC Berkeley appearance, Milo had allegedly planned to out undocumented students — though he has since denied this. At his postponed appearance at Columbia, Milo had planned to mock “mattress girl” Emma Sulkowicz, a rape victim and advocate, by carrying a mattress of his own. Hilarious!
“But,” Milo might retort, that “liberals don’t engage with me — they don’t read my fabulous columns, they don’t watch my incredible videos.” In this vein, he may reason that he needs to enter the very lair of the beast: confront liberalism in its natural habitat, the college campus, and burst some bubbles, or melt some snowflakes, or whatever.
Except that this doesn’t happen, either. The people who would otherwise debate him and rebut his ideas are unlikely to attend his events, and, honestly, who could blame them? I certainly do not blame a feminist who hesitates to sit next to the fashy-haired bag of white meat and roiling testosterone that is the archetypal Milo fan as Milo compares feminism to “cancer”. I do not doubt that a Muslim student has better things to do than hang out in a hall of chortling islamophobes, beaming as Milo delivers a talk entitled “10 Things Milo Hates About Islam.” God help said feminist or Muslim if they decide to ask a critical question. The glares of several hundred MAGA-cap donning attendees and the potential for Milo to respond by dismissing, or, worse, humiliating them is enough to deter all but the hardiest of his intellectual foes. And, even for this brave soul, one activist against a hall full of people cannot seriously be called a debate.
So the question for administrators and student groups shouldn’t be “Should we host this guy who might produce the idea to save America?” Nor should it be “Will hosting this thinker bring intellectual diversity to the student body?” Instead, colleges should ask themselves: “Is Milo of any intellectual worth or is he just an entertainer, a comedian?” I think the answer is pretty clear. That’s not to say that comedy is evil; colleges do often host comedians. Nonetheless, when viewed for what it truly is, a Milo event suddenly looks less like a crucial bastion of intellectual diversity and more like an off-color stand-up routine.
There is precedent for colleges to take ideological stances. Obvious examples spring to mind — Oberlin is openly liberal, and Biola University is more conservative/religious in its outlook. But even politically agnostic colleges like Stanford — or, for that matter, UC Berkeley — should be able to proudly declare broader values, like respect for their students and basic compassion. It is on these grounds that a college should be free to say no, we do not wish to host a speaker like Milo — a speaker who demeans our students, whose values excite the worst in us, who profits from the vulnerability of his opponents.
And don’t mourn for free speech if colleges choose not to invite him; doing so allows Milo to play the ennobled victim. This teleological misunderstanding of Milo’s events helps him gain credence that he does not deserve among the broader right. He is no valiant martyr, and a conservatism that lets him become such has been duped.