Milo Yiannopoulos at Vanderbilt: ‘Politeness hasn’t worked’
I interviewed him on his tour bus
“I consider myself a feminist,” Milo Yiannopoulos told me, as we sat in the back of his tour bus. Having seen his #FeminismIsCancer merchandise online, this was something of a surprise.
Milo is a British journalist famous for being a vocal critic of social justice, Islam, and feminism.
“I consider myself a feminist, but just a feminist from maybe forty or fifty years ago,” he continued. “An equity feminist. I think women should have equal access to education, the workplace. Where I differ from third wave feminism is I think they do already. I think they have all of that. And in many cases, the balance is tilting slightly the other way.”
Maybe he’s right. After all, male professionals must be starting to feel really threatened by female encroachment upon the professional sphere. In 2014, a massive 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs were women.
Women having everything they could possibly need sounds particularly legitimate when you consider that 9 of every 10 victims of rape are female. I ask Yiannopoulos whether he feels safe in America, walking home alone in the dark.
“Yes, of course. Of course.”
He went on to tell me that “Lesbianism is a relatively modern phenomenon. It wasn’t really spoken about by Juvenal or Tacitus, it would have been if it was widespread. Men and women are not the same, their brains don’t work the same, their bodies don’t work the same. Lesbians are far more likely to have had relationships with men…yeah. I don’t really believe in them.”
I assume that he has never heard of Sappho, the poet born c.630BC on the Greek island of Lesbos from which the word “lesbian” comes, due to the lyrics she wrote expressing her attraction to women.
I had spent the last few days deeply locked in battle with his YouTube channel, but up close Milo’s charm still disarmed me. When I arrived in the auditorium where he had recently finished giving his talk, die-hard College Republicans – some in Trump caps and t-shirts – lined-up at the front, getting photos with their strange Messiah. I sat at the back, talking to the guy who makes Milo’s YouTube videos. He told me he had a regular job as an engineer but had been given leave to go on Milo’s tour.
Within my hearing, Milo told his tour manager: “Give her as much time as she wants.” It seemed pointed, part of the charm offensive that’s so fundamental to his brand. He even laughingly rolled his eyes at me as one College Republican incessantly talked to him about a very specific decade of Republican politics, as if to say: “this is such a bore, I’m sure you’ll be much more interesting.”
As I followed Milo from the auditorium onto his tour bus, along with his 13-person white, male entourage, I kept thinking about my t-shirt. Hidden beneath my jumper, it was emblazoned with #TheHeist, the name of the counter-event protesting Milo’s talk which I’d been at for the past couple of hours. Perhaps it was disingenuous, but part of me felt like I was playing him at his own game.
As the two of us sat in the tiny bedroom at the back of the bus, he apologized for the mess. Both before and after the interview, he acted in complete deference to my feelings. During the interview though, any seeming awareness of the feelings of others was in reference to the silly, oversensitive political Left. The contrast felt slightly sociopathic.
It was National Coming Out Day, so I asked him how he came out. He told me the story, after first exclaiming that “we don’t need any more special victim days.”
“I had sex with somebody on a school trip. And the school were panicking because they didn’t know what to do about it. It was an all-boys grammar school. I just took the coward’s way out and said: ‘well you can tell my mum if you want.’ I ran off for three days. And then she found out. There’s nothing terrible about coming out. You get endlessly mollycoddled and applauded. You get so much good shit for being gay.”
I’m really happy if Milo’s received lots of “good shit” for being gay, but that the rate of suicide attempts is 4 times greater for LGB youth than straight youth suggests not everyone’s quite as lucky. Milo’s story about how his family reacted to him coming out also doesn’t make “endless mollycoddling” ring particularly true.
“My mum was awful. And I thought she’d be good. My dad, I thought would be terrible, but he was great. He was basically like: ‘stay safe, don’t bring any of it home, I just want you to be happy.”
I ask Milo how he felt when his dad said: “Don’t bring any of it home.”
“Perfectly normal. My dad’s just like a guy. He said: ‘I don’t want to see it, but I want you to be safe and happy, and if anyone ever breaks your heart they’ll end up in a body-bag.’ That’s as much as you could ever hope for from a dad.”
I think about how awful I would feel if a family member told me they didn’t want to see me for who I truly was. Endless mollycoddling, endless applause.
Milo voted for Brexit. When I ask him why, he suggested he felt threatened because of his sexuality.
“Well as a gay man, Islam is my primary consideration. It seems to me that what Merkel has done to Germany can not happen to Britain. If you walk around London now, just the way the city feels and looks has changed dramatically. And as a gay guy, I find it sinister.”
I remind Milo of the Pew Poll which shows 45 percent of American Muslims approve of homosexuality, compared to only 36 percent of Evangelical Christians.
“My experience of coming to the South in America, my experience of Christianity, has been characterized by kindness and compassion. I was at the Republican National Convention, I was a little phenomenon there. People were coming up to me and they were saying: ‘you know I don’t agree with your lifestyle choices, but I think you’re doing a good thing and I’ll pray for you.’ That’s the worst thing a Christian will ever say to you: ‘I’ll pray for you.’ And then we have Orlando.”
Actually though, most mass shootings in America are carried out by non-Muslims. When the white Christian, Dylann Roof, entered a black church in Charleston, he didn’t just start praying for the congregation. He started shooting them.
Yiannopoulos’s columns use far more sensationalist language than he does talking one-on-one, I ask him why that is.
“Because politeness hasn’t worked. Conservatives have been trying that for decades, and it hasn’t worked. The shift has always been leftwards, on social issues and economic policy, everything. I think it’s necessary for some bomb-throwing, some upsetting the apple-cart.”
I immediately think about Donald Trump, Yiannopoulos’s presidential candidate of choice. Is it ever time for bomb-throwing? Seems to me people get hurt.
As a fellow Brit living in the States, I had been wondering about Milo’s experience of moving to America. I ask him if he’d consider himself an immigrant.
“No, no, no. I’m somewhere, floating.”
So Milo can float – I guess that’s why he can’t empathize with the migrants drowning in the Med. Instead he supports Trump, who wants to stop migrants finding refuge in the US.
Milo recently caused controversy that saw him being subsequently banned from Twitter. It started soon after he published a review slamming the Ghostbusters remake as ‘Teenage Boys With Tits.’ Leslie Jones had begun exposing the racist and sexist abuse she was getting from Twitter trolls. Milo responded by insulting Jones directly on the platform. He claims the trolls sending her racist tweets had nothing to do with him, and that Twitter are contravening his right to freedom of speech.
“I’m not responsible for what other people say. I’m responsible for what I say. All I said was she looked like a man, she does. I said she looked like one of my ex-boyfriends, she does. I’m entitled to pass judgement on a celebrity’s looks.”
Yiannopoulos, the zealous defender of his right to say anything, is careless about what words do. I ask if he had thought about the impact his speech might have on Leslie Jones.
“She’s a celebrity. She’s in the public eye just like I am. I don’t believe that an A-List Hollywood celebrity is sitting at home crying over mean words on the internet on her iPhone. I just don’t buy it. I think she was deployed very strategically, because the movie was bombing, to change the narrative about how bad the film was and turn it all into the usual victimhood crusade malarkey.”
He basically saw Jones getting attacked by trolls, jumped to the conclusion producers were cynically exploiting racism and misogyny to save their movie, and so decided to…also attack Jones? The lack of empathy that characterizes many of his arguments was perhaps at its most evident at this point in our conversation.
“If I’m being mean, if I pick a target that doesn’t deserve it, then I presume I would feel bad afterwards. But that hasn’t happened yet.”
It’s school-yard stuff. I ask him when the last time he cried was and he laughs.
“I don’t remember. I’m not a massively emotional person.”
Go figure. He kept smiling at me, and telling me that even my slightly obscure questions were interesting and valid. I’m a black girl who didn’t attend his talk, so chances are he was very aware I was a potentially hostile interviewer. But that he treated me like a friend created a strange dynamic where the impulse was to treat him kindly, and assume he had good intentions.
Within the first moments of our conversation, we had realized we attended the same school back in the UK, albeit at a different time, in the country’s most ethnically diverse city. Going to that school was the first time I was exposed to a variety of different value systems, family structures, political beliefs – speech was freer there than I have ever known it.
Somehow though, Milo and I have emerged from that school with drastically different views about how we should best make use of our right to free-speech.
Running out of steam, and time, his tour manager knocking on the door, I ask what he was like at school.
“I was a bit of a dork, and a bit weird, but I did have lots of friends. I only really worked out why afterwards, and it was mainly because I was causing trouble. People just enjoyed the spectacle, so it hasn’t really changed very much. I’m just causing trouble on a much grander scale now.”
In terms of the public persona he has created, I suppose he’s right.