Sometimes you have a confluence of thoughts coalesce in way that begs immediate attention, and now is one of those times. After watching Friday’s episode of Real Time with Bill Maher and the interaction with controversial guest, Milo Yiannopoulos, I couldn’t sleep. The provocateur provoked.
Everything post the election of Donald J. Trump feels like uncharted territory, and what I thought I knew contained vast holes of ignorance. In my world, the Milos, Ann Coulters, and Alex Jones’ were sordid, fringe figures, and yet what I failed to see was that they were signaling of a change in the culture. That’s the thing about getting older; the culture changes while you’re distracted in self-satisfied comfort of predictable outcomes. It never feels good to be out of touch.
I didn’t understand the appeal of people like Milo – Self-identifying trolls. I didn’t understand the concept of “trolling” until the definition was given to me by my friend Gio in 2011. Apparently, it was someone who said mean things online just to make others angry, even if they didn’t really mean it, because I suppose they thought it was funny. It sounded like some sort of mental disorder, not a regular activity one engages in. It seemed like a way for the powerless to assert some power, making the puppets dance for their amusement like a bored royal.
There has been extreme controversy surrounding Milo, from his banning from Twitter, protests at his speaking engagements (including riots and $100K of damage done recently at a Berkley college protest), as well as former Real Time correspondent and current Intercept journalist Jeremy Scahill backing out of his appearance on the show in protest that Milo’s views shouldn’t be given such a mainstream platform.
Why I will not appear this week on Real Time with Bill Maher. pic.twitter.com/SOoE3udrDr
— jeremy scahill (@jeremyscahill) February 15, 2017
My only real digestion of Milo’s views was listening to his appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience Podcast. In a 3 hour casual podcast setting, you can a good sense of a person.
I found him to be generally a detestable person. His entire worldview was described by everything he hated – liberals, feminists, illegal immigrants, trans people, black lives mater, etc. And he was also just a whirlwind of contradictions. He is a gay man who professes to not have much of a fondness for gay people. He is Catholic, but self identifies as racially Jewish. In a way, like many black, hispanic, female famed right-wing pundits, he is the perfect weapon in fighting the the culture war of identity politics. How can he be racist if he claims to sleep with mainly black men? How can he be homophobic if he is gay? How can he be anti-Semitic if he’s Jewish. It’s the ideal shell to hurl stones from. He is also blonde, good-looking, charismatic, and supremely self-assured. His cockiness is nauseating to me, which means he’s good at his job.
To be forthright, I disagree with the protesters if their aims are to shut him down. I don’t understand why universities are booking someone with such shallow claims in the first place, but let him speak. It’s your right to protest. It’s his right to speak.
Most importantly, the more you protest, the more angry and outraged you become, every time he gets banned from somewhere, he grows like that fiery death ball in The Fifth Element.
Some dickhead on Twitter said that “conservatism is the new punk rock”. I find that calculation inaccurate, but eye-pokers like Milo are the new shock rock. Instead of the PMRC steamrolling Motley Crüe and N.W.A. albums, and evangelical Christians protesting Marilyn Manson concerts, and Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne being taken to court for “convincing” teenagers to kill themselves, we’ve made MIlo Yiannopoulos public enemy #1. Trust me, every time Christians protested a Manson show, he sold 50,000 more records and his entire tour was sold out. Every “Parental Advisory – Explicit Content” sticker was like a Bat-Signal to every teenager that said, “BUY ME!’
In that sense, there has been a flip where liberals have become more “conservative” in the protectionism of their own sensitivities. The dominance and overreach of PC culture has had some seriously detrimental effects to our discourse. You won’t find any argument from me there, and I think most sensible liberals have a disdain for modern political correctness. We’ve had an overcorrection as per usual in an 8 year presidential reign. I’m sure the pendulum will swing back the other way.
All that said, we are at a bit of a crossroads, because we have to start asking ourselves a serious question about the consequences of free speech. The internet has created a buffer to allow people to say things safely at distance that they usually wouldn’t in-person. That’s why Trump could call Hilary “crooked” a thousand times on Twitter and rallies, but never (I believe) in one of their debates face-to-face.
This brings us to Milo’s appearance with Bill Maher. He said something that really stuck out to me in it’s falsity when he proclaimed, “Mean words on the internet don’t hurt anyone”. That just plainly isn’t true. If you are talking about the context of the physical world, then yes, words on the internet don’t physically bruise or cut your skin. But, we’ve heard countless stories of young people committing suicide due to online bullying or shaming. If you are a young person, and your entire life has been lived in the age of the internet, than to you, it is the real world. Living virtually has blurred the lines between the physical world and the internet. Who is to say how emotional pain manifests itself? I am a 36 year old man, who has put himself out there on the internet open to criticism be it my music or my writing. I have built thick skin, and while we all need to toughen up, we still need to have some moral compass about how we engage online. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.
If someone approached you in-person, and called you “faggot, cunt, piece of shit who deserves a dead mother, whose daughter should be raped, and should kill themselves.” What would you do? Would you hit the person? Curse them out? In the real world, face-to-face, there are consequences. This moment in the Overtime segment of the show crystalized this idea.
In response to their debate, Milo pleaded to Bill, “You always invite such awful people on your show. They’re so stupid.” Since this is the real world, Larry Wilmer rightfully retorted, ” You can go fuck yourself!” If these insults take place in a bar setting for example, maybe someone hits Milo.
What became clear to me is what people like Milo, people like Trump (who is perhaps King of Trolls) lack…is basic respect for people who disagree with them. That’s how the worst of us act online or behind the wheel of a car, when we don’t have to look people in the eye and face the consequences of disrespect. We call each other “cunts, libtards, pieces of shit, stupid, retarded, tea-baggers, sheeple, Trumpets” or anything that denotes our definitive lack of respect for one another. And this is what many seem to people like about Trump – his “honesty”. Almost like a comedian, he says the things many of his supporters think, but are afraid to say, at least publicly. Imagine if you could go to your boss and call him “lyin”_____, or go to your mother-in-law and call her “crazy”______. We don’t do those things because we have restraint, because we have respect. These individuals don’t respect anything or anyone that is not showering them with praise. People like their honesty because it signals that all of your worst instincts are correct. You can tell the world “fuck you”, and still end up rich, famous, and in the “winning” column.
It is alluring. It’s why we love Michael Douglas’ character in the 1993 film (one of my favs) Falling Down. He’s been downsized, outsourced, and he’s tired of playing nice, being respectful. He’s going to tell it like it is. He too remembers when America was one time, great.
After all this though, I’ve figured out what a professional troll like Milo really is. Like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter before him, he’s an opportunist cashing in on the right wing book selling, speech making, attention grabbing industry. But unlike those before him, as he says, he isn’t really a conservative. He isn’t really an anything. It’s something I’ve never seen (even though I’m sure it’s existed), and it is pervasive in the Trump era.
It’s a philosophy where the primary motivator and unifying principle is hating liberals, or progressives or whatever you want to call them. He said it to Bill Maher , “You’re the only good one.” and that “Democrats are the party of Lena Dunham”, whose out-of-touch, Manhattanite brand of liberalism is more niche and far out than almost anyone I know. Saying all on the left are like Lena Dunham creates a stereotype that’s easy to hate. It’s an ideology where the only unifying characteristic is the hatred of one group. You can find a cross-section of conservatives, Republicans, libertarians, independents, and liberals like Bill Maher and Sam Harris frustrated by PC culture that all have a million different ideas when it comes to principle and policy, but they all pretty much have an unhealthy disdain for the SJW, snowflakes, feminazi cuck, libtard, triggered, safe space, regressive left cartoon character that has been created like a Frankenstein’s monster that is easy to hate when framed well.
I think this mindset is growing, scary, and pervasive. It’s what fuels Donald Trump. Many on the right dislike the president, but their hatred for the left is so powerful, they will more or less align with any thing that opposes it. It’s a deal with the devil to vanquish your shared enemies. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
I should note that there are plenty of liberals who hate Trump supporters (and that is also wrong), but one of the big takeaways after the election from the intelligent liberals that I follow like Van Jones, Josh Zepps, and Jon Favreau is that we need to listen to blue collar middle America and get out of our bubbles. We lost our way, and need empathy and compassion for those we disagree with to find mutual understanding, but this can’t be a one-way street. I could write an entire article on how there is a bigotry by the left on divergent and dissenting ideas on the right, especially on college campuses, but there are a million of those articles out there.
The problem is that if your entire philosophy is built solely upon an opposition and not coherent, consistent principles, it’s only a step or two from nihilism or chaos. The problem with the troll is like Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, wise Alfred laments, “some men just want to see the world burn”, and from the Joker’s own words, “I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do one if I caught it.”
If people stopped protesting, banning, and outraging, Milo wouldn’t have a machine to rage against. Agents of chaos need chaos to substantiate their existence.
If there weren’t enough stupid film references in this piece, here’s one more that is a great metaphor for trolling.