Is there a right way to engage with Milo Yiannopoulos?

So, seemingly having nothing better to do on a late Saturday night, I decided to find out a bit more about — to use the words of a particularly controversial politician — the “so-called” Milo Yiannopoulos and try to understand why he is so controversial. I didn’t know much about him before and he appeared on my radar only after the cancellation of his appearance at UC Berkeley let to some vandalizing by a fringe group.

After watching a few interviews with Yiannopoulos, I think the main reason this guy seems infamous is because people get very easily outraged by him, not because he actually says things that are particularly new or newly offensive. In addition, being a gay man in a relationship with a black man, he is not an easy target for the left since he does not fit their usual mold, and that drives them crazy.

If you get past the outrageous comments and the throwaway provocation (and that’s not easy), a lot of what he says about political correctness and the left makes sense, and at the very least you can have a rational disagreement with him on these topics. His principal function however seems to be to act as a very annoying gadfly and rabble rouser. The problem is that the signal to noise ratio here is very low; he constantly interrupts his host and tries to go out of his way to offend you every second, and much of what he says is not very insightful or novel, even if it’s right. He never seems to buttress his words with references or statistics. He also often levels accusations at the left that can also be leveled at the right, and he keeps on applying double standards to his own religion, his political beliefs and his heroes that he bashes others for. He knows exactly what will get a rise out of his audience and seems to be masterful at sensing and exploiting their “outrage pulse”. I can understand why organizations don’t want to invite him to their campuses. I probably wouldn’t do it myself, not because I think he is dangerous or because I would constantly get outraged, but because I don’t think the signal to noise ratio would be worth it.

The point however is that anyone who does want to engage with him needs to train themselves to interact properly, by not getting outraged every second and constantly pressing him for details. We live in age when the rules of engagement and public discourse have to be greatly modified to adapt to a new reality of confrontation and polemics. As Bill Maher demonstrated in his interview with him last week, there is a correct way to handle Yiannopoulos and keep him in check, and there is a wrong way to get triggered every second and fall right into his trap. It’s a bit like how the press is having to train themselves right now in dealing with the current occupant of the White House.

In one sense the rules are simply, although consciously cultivating ourselves to follow them will take some mental discipline: Don’t take the bait, don’t keep falling for the red meat, don’t get sidelined by the flame-throwing; instead just keep relentlessly pushing him for facts and references and statistics. When he contradicts himself or applies a double standard keep calling him out on this. Remind him of what he said last week or last month that flatly contradicts what he’s saying today. Remind him how he’s letting his own beliefs and his own idols get a free pass while he’s lambasting idols and beliefs on the other side. Persevere, don’t let up, don’t get emotional, be relentless. It would be hard but it would also be worth it. At the end you probably still won’t get anything from the conversation and would have a lot of insults hurled at you, but at least you could say that you tried to ferret out the facts, you tried to have an honest dialogue, you tried to keep an open mind. You could say that you emerged as the real champion of free speech in that conversation. And who knows, ideally you would have at least gotten something out of the conversation, and you might have even reached a tiny bit of common ground. Even if it’s a few square nanometers.

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