Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Arena of Ideas

Milo Yiannopoulos has written a book. That this book exists is pretty much all I know about it. I don't know what the title is, or even what it's about, let alone whether it's fiction or non-fiction. I know that Simon & Schuster said that they would publish it - because that seems to be what's newsworthy about this whole situation. There are calls for boycotts, people lining up their arguments about whether or not this is about the freedom of speech and/or the freedom to publish, if the answer to speech one doesn't like is more speech to counter it, blah, blah blah.

A few years back, I critiqued an essay by Mr. Yiannopoulos, in which he complained about the "sharing economy." I've pretty much entirely forgotten the piece in question, I'm okay with that, given that I didn't really see much to recommend it at the time. One of my comments was this:

Suffice it to say, as also with many things like this, Yiannopoulos takes the world that he wants to live in, and extrapolates that out to a moral imperative that everyone should subscribe to, so much so that rejection, or even questioning, of it becomes a moral crime that must be attacked and stamped out, lest it spread like a cancer.
And that's what I'm going to reexamine here. Because there are "many things like this" in life, and interestingly, I think that we're looking at another one of them. Presuming, since it makes sense to do so, that this isn't all a deep-cover operation designed to make whatever it is that Mr. Yiannopoulos has written into a New York Times Best-Seller, I ask why level any heat against Simon & Schuster? Sure, I can understand the grousing about the publisher being willing to "stoop so low to make a buck as to publish this purveyor of vile hate speech," but the teapot tempest that this flap is stirring up is going to wind up in a lot more bucks being made. Perhaps the complaint is that a well-known publisher, by putting their brand on Mr. Yiannopoulos' book, is helping to "normalize" what he's saying.

And that gets back to the observation I'd made about Mr. Yiannopoulos' article back in 2013. His critics, I think, takes the world that they want to live in, and extrapolate that out to a moral imperative that everyone should subscribe to, so much so that rejection, or even questioning, of it becomes a moral crime that must be attacked and stamped out, lest it spread like a cancer. And a "reputable" publisher like Simon & Schuster aid in that potential spread.

For all that Dennis Johnson, the small publisher that NPR quotes in their article, says, "Nobody in the protest is saying 'you have no right to be published. You have no right, Simon & Schuster, to publish this guy, and this guy, you have no right to be published' — nobody's saying that." I think to a degree, that's exactly what's being said. What I suspect is being sought here is to deny Mr. Yiannopoulos a platform. (I also suspect that it's too late for that.) Because while Mr. Johnson and other people protesting the publication of the book understand Mr. Yiannopoulos to be a "purveyor of vile hate speech," I think that there is a fear that there is a significant audience of people who won't find it so vile, and that among them are people charismatic enough or persuasive enough to convince yet more people that they shouldn't find it vile, either. That it is, in effect, a Lovely Awful Thing; an objectively wrong, but intrinsically appealing, way for other people to behave. And I say "other people" intentionally. I think it's rare for people so say, "Hate speech should be kept out of the mainstream discourse, because I can't be trusted to not internalize the messages."

Sometimes, I think that there a view of social progress that likens it to pushing a boulder up a volcano. Until it's safely nestled into the crater at the top, it's always in danger of rolling back down to the bottom at the slightest provocation. This strikes me as going hand-in-hand with a view of people as being insufficiently invested in the progress that has been made - to the point of always being ready to backslide, with alarming rapidity, to reprehensible, but easier or more profitable, practices of the past. To be sure, I am not of the opinion that the social structures of, say, 1750 could never again rear their ugly heads. I am of the opinion, however, that it will take quite a bit of time for them to claw their way out of their graves. And that we'll be able to see the shift happening, if we're paying attention.

I'm of the opinion that "silencing" and "censorship" are functions of the State, rather than of the populace. Especially today. If Simon & Schuster decide that they won't put out his book after all, Mr. Yiannopoulos could easily self-publish it if he wanted to, and he likely has enough of a following that he could break even on doing so. Whatever ideas he's looking to get out will get out. And I suspect that no-one who genuinely views what he is saying as vile will be swayed by the name of a given publisher. And if there is a large enough population of readers who won't view it as vile that it becomes an issue, that, in and of itself, is the problem that the protestors need to worry about. And virtue signalling won't solve it for them.

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