The following are some quickly assembled and loosely joined together thoughts on the recent (temporary?) fall of Milo Yiannopoulos and some of the responses.
Provocation and Hypocrisy
A few days ago, recordings of Milo Yiannopoulos joking about and suggesting the possibility of consensual sexual relations between adults and young teens resurfaced, provoking outrage, shock, and dismay. His invitation to speak at CPAC was withdrawn, Simon and Schuster cancelled his book, and he had to resign from Breitbart.
The fall of Milo is a welcome development for many of us, although I fear it may be short-lived. The growing prominence of such a crass provocateur and libertine in conservative circles was a depressing sign of the degree to which the movement has become defined by reactive opposition to progressive liberals.
Milo’s antics were not without positive effects, although those effects were largely incidental to his apparent quest to produce a cult serving his narcissism, trolling the left for his anarchic pleasure. Milo’s provocations and the social justice left’s response to them revealed the power of progressive sacred cows as obstructions to public speech in universities. The violence that Milo’s opponents on the left increasingly resorted to in responding to him and his followers exposed something of the ideological vulnerability, hypocrisy, and menace of prevailing social justice dogmas.
People who make their living by giving offence are always at risk of taking a step too far, and that is exactly what Milo did in speaking about sexual relations with minors in the way that he did. The fact that his remarks about feminism and women, trans persons, and people of colour were applauded by many people on the right as praiseworthy instances of free speech in the cause of truth-telling, while these remarks were deplored may demonstrate some element of hypocrisy on the right’s part. Gleefully engaging in speech that is pointedly hurtful to members of outgroups is celebrated, while a very clear line is drawn when speech that threatens vulnerable members of the ingroup occurs. This is a rather ugly double standard.
This certainly does not mean that we should not engage in speech that hurts people’s feelings. While we should not fetishize feelings, neither should we be unmindful of—let alone delight in being vicious towards—them. Speech is a volatile and a dangerous thing and, precisely because freedom of speech is important, it must be treated with care, wisdom, respect, and responsibility. The true defenders of free speech should be people who appreciate its weightiness and power, not those who treat it as a light or empty plaything.
On ‘Dangerous’ Truth
There are many falsehoods and misconceptions that lurk behind social taboos, sacred cows, socially protected ideologies, and dogmas. Milo, who has made a living of attacking these things, made the mistake of challenging a taboo that is also widely held on the right. Laurie Penny writes:
Delicious as you might find it to see karma come for Yiannopoulos, what he actually said about gay relationships and child molestation was less offensive than a great many bigoted things he has come out with — in part because, for once, it seemed just a little bit true to his experience. When he spoke about consenting relationships between adult men where there’s a large age gap, he was talking about something that is a real and meaningful part of romantic experience for a lot of gay men — and something that American conservatives seem to have no problem with when the participants are heterosexual or, indeed, presidential candidates. His mangled age-of-consent comments and crass priest jokes are a bridge too far, especially for the conservative mainstream, which has so far held performative racism, transphobia, sexism, and xenophobia as well within the bounds of free speech. Today, absolutely nobody, from his publishers to his former tour promoter, is defending Yiannopoulos’ right to consequence-free speech. This is not liberalism winning the day. This is the victorious far right purging the brownshirts.
There is definitely some measure of truth to this claim. Like feminism, transgenderism, and race issues, the matter of age of consent is an issue surrounded by taboos, behind which lurk a great number of falsehoods. As in the case of feminism, transgenderism, and race, the taboos tend to exist primarily to protect people from being hurt and to maintain social order. Not all truths are ‘safe’; some truths are like highly reactive elements that are explosive under certain conditions. While characters like Milo, for whom the truth was always a convenient means to the end of self-publicity and entertainment, might enjoy the coolness and the frisson of being ‘dangerous’, the mishandling of certain truths can expose some people to serious harm. Although we may often need to get around the taboos in order to address the unhealthy falsehoods that lie behind them (as being unmindful of or blindly denying dangerous truths can expose us to great risk in the long term), the approach that Milo and his fellow provocateurs offer is akin to performing surgery with an axe.
The notion of consent and, by extension, that of an age of consent are social constructions, and highly variable and contestable ones at that. The belief, for instance, that all sexual interactions with persons of 13-16 are non-consensual and abusive does not hold up well under cross-examination. Much of the evidence that we have seem to contradict this idea. A mature society that values free speech and open contestation of ideas will find ways to have a conversation about this fact that is attentive to the evidence, while being mindful of the fact that, although any notion of age of consent will be a somewhat arbitrary social construction, over-determining a far more messy reality, this need not mean that it is any less of a necessary one. Although it is important that we don’t prevent such conversations from taking place, we must also appreciate that carrying out such an important conversation irresponsibly puts vulnerable children at risk.
Similar concerns should shape our response to the many falsehoods, misconceptions, and errors that can be found in feminism, gender theory, and critical race theory, theories that have often tended to grow up around people’s shared woundedness, rather than genuine openness to discovery and the challenge of reality (how many gender studies academics are in any way conversant with and receptive to extensive recent research in the biology of sexual difference?). A great many important issues in our society have come to be surrounded by human shields, with sensitivities, vulnerability, and victimhood preventing us from addressing errors or encountering inconvenient truths (the Norwegian comedian Harald Eia’s documentary series, Brainwash, in which he tackles issues of gender, parenting, sexuality, violence, sex, race, and nature/nurture provides many entertaining examples of the ways ideologues try to escape threatening truths). We must find ways to dismantle these human shields, while protecting people from the harm that they fear when their sacred beliefs, taboos, and ideologies are challenged.
While we need to make space to wrestle with difficult truths, people are not irrational to feel uneasy about evidence pointing towards behavioural differences between the sexes with far-reaching consequences for social outcomes, differences in aptitudes between people of different ancestry, genetic predispositions to violence, the limits to the power of parenting to change character, the problems with admitting the natural and healthy character of all sexual and gender identities, the biological foundations for conditions such as paedophilia, and the social dysfunctions that often accompany immigration and increased cultural diversity. It is irrational to flail against and repeatedly deny the strong evidence for certain dangerous truths, but I think we should recognize that such truths are not easy for many societies and individuals to metabolize in a healthy manner. For instance, official sanction for some of the inconvenient truths about the effects of immigration in Europe could merely intensify existing social tensions and antagonisms and exacerbate our problems. The truth needs to be recognized and grappled with, but it also needs to be expressed with the greatest of care and with especial concern for those persons who could be hurt were it addressed irresponsibly.
On Lost Boys and Girls
Laurie Penny has a long article on Milo and the ‘lost boys’ that surround him, from which the earlier quotation was excerpted. The article is pretty much what you’d expect from Penny: what she gives with one hand, she tends to take with the other. There is an element of compassion, but the ‘lost boys’ are ultimately slotted into her narrative of struggle with the patriarchy, in danger of finding themselves on the wrong side of the divide. Scott Alexander has some helpful remarks on Penny and the approaches of other feminists like her to ‘lost boy’ types here and here. There are similar issues with this recent piece by Dale Beran, the problem is patriarchy and gender roles and the solution for such boys seems to be bowing the knee to feminism and adopting more feminine ways of dealing with their emotions. Beran writes:
The left does more than simply declare their opposing viewpoint wrong, the radical idea of sex/gender-as-illusion denies their viewpoint an existence. To the left, a complaint stemming from being a man is null space, lying outside the realm of what it will acknowledge as true.
The irony here, of course, is the radical idea of sexual-difference-as-illusion is meant to solve the deplorables’ problem. It was created to liberate those who are oppressed by the concept of sexual difference by dispelling it as a cloud of pure ideas. But to these powerless men, it’s as if the left were addressing their issue by saying in an Orwellian manner, “There’s no such thing as your problem! Problem solved!”
There is little recognition on the left of the fact that these lost young men have an unfed hunger for manliness that feminism really cannot feed, and is in large measure responsible for starving. Sexual difference cannot simply be ‘dispelled … as a cloud of pure ideas’ as Beran or Penny would like: it has an obstinate and insistent presence in our natures. Young boys have a natural yearning to become men and, when society provides them with at most a treacherous and uncertain passage into secure manhood, many will be left adrift in dangerous waters of fragility and resentment.
Of course, Laurie Penny is/was herself the quintessential ‘lost girl’ of feminism, with all of the hallmarks of the condition. When she was around the age of the ‘lost boys’ she is writing about, she was in recovery, having been hospitalized with extreme anorexia. She has had the characteristic confusion about her sexuality and identity, the same tattoos and hair styles that tend to mark out a young woman struggling to shore up an uncertain sense of her embodied self, the same mental health issues, the sexual promiscuity and poor sense of boundaries, and the same childish shrillness coupled with a precocious linguistic ability that is not uncommon among the young social justice left, whose highly developed faculty of self-expression and ideological obfuscation is an unsettling contrast to the disarray of their personal lives.
We definitely should care about lost and wounded young people, but there is, as Scott Alexander has observed, something of a contrast between the way that we treat the lost boys and the lost girls of the world, and neither are well served as a result. Lost girls like Laurie Penny and many other leading Millennial feminists can become mainstream commentators and columnists, frequently invited onto serious programmes (even when they are clearly out of their depth), partially overcoming their lostness, but also normalizing, validating, and reinforcing it in other respects.
By contrast, the lost boys are more likely to be ridiculed and treated as social outcasts. This is perhaps on account of the fact that society doesn’t take male victimhood as seriously as female victimhood and is far less protective when it comes to males. Male victims are often harder to sympathize with and are far more likely than female victims to externalize their dysfunctions, wounding people around them in abusive behaviours, making them less likeable. Male weakness can be stigmatized, despised, and ridiculed by both men and women as both can expect them to be strong or refuse to acknowledge the possibility of men being weak in ways that threaten the tidiness of whatever their gender ideologies. More typical masculine ways of dealing with weakness through attempts to establish self-control and agency—things that really work for many men—can be pathologized because they don’t conform to a feminized notion of what emotional health looks like and because genuine manliness is perceived to be a threat to feminism.
They can feel further marginalized as the few reservations in which they could attain to a sense of shared masculinity are closed down by women entering into them, insisting on the governing institutions changing the culture and pathologizing them (this is why Gamergate so resonated with many of the lost boys). They can be labelled as ‘Nazis’—because ‘it works’—and open season can be declared upon them. Milo granted such lost boys a vicarious sense of identity and some public voice.
Navigating a Treacherous Passage
While sympathizing with the plight of the lost boys, it is very important that we do not validate the dysfunctional, escapist, and often abusive ways in which they are trying to attain to a sense of masculinity. The social justice warriors or SJWs, the bêtes noires of the lost boys, are in many respects their sisters. Like Milo’s lost boys, the SJWs are in large measure persons who have been blown off course on the passage into adulthood. As in the case of the lost boys, many of them will find some path to a maturity, but others will vanish into the mist.
Human beings are resilient and adaptable and the consequences of even significant mistakes are seldom as bad as we might fear. Nonetheless, many lives and relationships are damaged by our inattention to the traversal of the necessary but challenging human passage from adolescence into mature adulthood. This journey has become a particularly dangerous one in our present age, as it is increasingly undertaken without reliable guidance and in highly treacherous economic and social conditions.
There is nothing unusual about people making the passage from adolescence into young adulthood being vulnerable, thin-skinned, and insecure in their identities. This is not a novel phenomenon, nor are Millennials some exotic new species. Rather, the chief differences between Millennials and previous generations are to be found in the difficult conditions in which they must accomplish this passage. They are increasingly socially and geographically uprooted from robust intergenerational communities and they face uncertain and precarious economic and employment prospects.
The movement into young adulthood is a gendered movement. While gender roles are a social construct, they are also a necessary one, a means by which societies help their young people to take their place as adults in their midst. Gender roles answer to the natural contours of gendered yearnings, tempering and tailoring them for the common good. Ideally they are accommodating and affirming of variety, while also placing clear limits upon the tyranny of self-assertion. Feminism and the LGBT movements have attacked and dismantled many traditional gender roles, but they haven’t really provided workable alternatives. Particular forms of gender roles can be oppressive and restrictive, but some form of gender roles are needed if young people are to make a safe passage into adulthood. Young men, for instance, need the promise of the dignity of manliness: deep down almost all know that maturity must be a gendered reality.
The gender neutralizing of society, the drive to desegregate the gendered workplace, the changing shape of the economy and the insecurity of employment, the attack upon forms of healthy homosociality, the atomization and uprooting of a footloose young workforce, the postponing of fertility, the hyperperformativity of online identity, the shallowness and narrowness of the bonds of the nuclear family, the demise of a robust marriage culture, and the weakening of given bonds and of intergenerational society are all ways in which winds that once blew in the favour of those making the passage into adulthood now blow against them. What it means to be a man or a woman in such a world is a very open question, and a disturbing one for many. Where no clear path presents itself and the very authority figures who should be assisting with their transition are conspiring with their disorientation, it is not surprising that both men and women should jury-rig ever more bespoke, yet ever more vulnerable makeshift identities and communities.
The failure of older generations is a very important part of the problems that Millennials face on these fronts. The passage into adulthood is one that cannot easily be made alone, but which requires support, orientation, institutional structures, and guidance from those who have made the passage before, pilots who can help to steer young lives through dangerous hidden shoals and reefs. Unfortunately, this passage is increasingly one that is undertaken by young people without clear adult direction. Many of the most prominent voices directing us are themselves lost boys and girls. Instead of functional gender roles and wise older exemplars to help us to attain to them, guiding us into the maturity of our full stature, we have gender studies departments filled with disoriented persons who have clearly lost their direction, the dominance of young people in conversations about gender, and the vicious resentment of online feral masculinity.
A healthy society is one that adapts towards maturity and strength, rather than towards weakness and dysfunction. While such a society accommodates and protects the weak and the immature, it seeks to strengthen them and to overcome their weakness. The vulnerability and fragility of young people should be treated with care and compassion, yet they must be strengthened and matured through challenge.
Institutions such as universities or churches are supposed to be institutions of formation, institutions that serve to fashion mature minds and characters from the immature and unformed minds and characters of those who first enter them. The generational struggle that we currently face results in part from the failure of our institutions—often on account of structural inability, rather than wilful omission or neglect of duty—to play their part in the process of formation. Instead of patiently, kindly, yet determinedly helping young people grew out of their immaturity, dysfunctionality, and weakness and into maturity, functionality, and strength, they have pandered and adapted themselves to some of their weakest and most immature members. This has occurred in large part because universities and churches have ceased to function as formative institutions and have become consumer-oriented organizations.
The weakening and disruption of the processes of generational formation and passage are not a problem to be solved by recriminations. Both the ‘lost boys’ and the ‘SJWs’ are largely victims of the treacherous straits between adolescence and healthy young adulthood, and the consequences of their being blown off course may be playing themselves out for decades to come. They have been let down by their institutions, by the collapse of intergenerational community, and by the failure of their societies to offer robust and validating roles and structures in which young people can attain to a mature and fitting sense and expression of their manhood or womanhood. It is to the restoration of these that we must commit ourselves, if we are to rectify the situation.