“Feminism is cancer. Thank you very much.” With those words, Milo Yiannopoulos sat back down in his chair, not thirty seconds after walking to the podium and beginning the talk. I stopped taking notes on my phone in the back of the auditorium and looked up with my mouth agape. The crowd, mostly white men, stood up and cheered, drowning out the few women, trans people, people of color, and their allies booing with despair. Somewhere to my left, somebody started a chant of “USA, USA,” a mantra instantly adopted by the audience of musclebound men. Several waved their distinctive “Make America Great Again” hats in the air. The bro sitting next to me giggled with the mirth of a child muttering “fuck” to himself, delighting in his transgression.
This event, “The Triggering: Has Political Correctness Gone Too Far?” was held in the Bowker Auditorium of Stockbridge Hall at UMass on April 25th, and it was organized by the UMass College Republicans. I have never seen anything quite so horrifying in my entire life. The opening line was tame compared to what followed. Christina Hoff Sommers, billed as a more “academic” conservative perspective on the “dangers” of modern social justice movements by the UMass GOP press representative, went to the podium next. She started off by correcting Milo. According to her, feminism is not cancer, but “madness,” earning her whoops from the audience and a fist pump from a white guy with a neck as thick as a car tire and an American flag t-shirt. She gave an account of her visit twenty years ago to a conference of feminist scholars. Mocking their focus on marginalization (as if conversations about marginalization were to be unexpected at a conference about feminist theory?), she called the symposium “a victimology spinning out of control.” She described modern feminism as “about as credible as scientology,” and charged contemporary gender scholars with creating “an axis of intolerance.” Later in the talk, she alleged that the rate of prevalence of rape was 1 in 53, a stark difference from the slightly less than 1 in 5 reported by the CDC in 2012. She is the academic voice of the right? She is their intellectual riposte to the prevalence of leftism in academia?
Next, Steven Crowder took the stage, who (I was disappointed to learn) voiced “The Brain” in Arthur but more recently has been a stand-up “comedian,” Fox News talking head, and a talk-radio shock jock in Michigan. He opened his section by grabbing the mic from the podium and acting like the “comedian” he used to be, yelling at the audience and prancing around the stage like a knockoff Dane Cook. One of his earliest lines was this gem, directed at the hecklers in the audience: “You’re not fighting for free speech, you’re not fighting for rights, you’re fighting for the right to be a pussy, and not hear opinions you don’t like!” Later on, yelling at a heckler, he said, “I’m sure not your gender studies professor who has to cater to your trigger warning, microaggression, safe space bullshit.” By this point, a firm pattern had developed where the speakers would say something disgustingly offensive, get heckled, and sarcastically respond, all to hoots of approval from the knuckle-dragging dittoheads in the audience. The bro to my left kept giggling like sidekicks of high school bullies as they verbally abuse their hapless victims, all social conformity and no conscience.
Later on, Milo alleged that Mohammed was a terrorist. Shortly afterwards, I saw two men in matching American flag tank tops shouting down a woman in a hijab. I didn’t catch the content of the shouting match, but it’s certainly reasonable to assume the two men were parroting Milo’s Islamophobic pablum in their interaction with the poor woman. Indeed, throughout the night, the audience took their hateful, violent cue from the panelists on stage and harassed protestors (and even marginalized people who hadn’t heckled) until they left. Midway through the talk, one man walked around the whole mezzanine level, from stage left all the way around to stage right, sat himself down next to a female heckler, and shouted “Shut the fuck up” in her ear every time she heckled from then on. At one point, Milo argued he wasn’t racist because of his fetish for black men, something obviously racist, to raucous laughter and applause. After this, I saw a group of black women, tears streaming down their faces and muttering “this is bullshit,” walk to the exit using the aisle next to my seat only to be shouted at to “get the fuck out, pussies.” This was no discussion, no learning environment, no political forum. This was a Klan rally.
Crowder repeatedly misgendered trans protestors, describing one as an “androgynous amoeba” and shouting at another who had heckled Sommers that they “could learn something from a real lady for once. At one point, a Trump chant went up from the crowd, leading Milo to wave his own “Make America Great Again” hat in the air. (There were more of those infamous hats there that night than I ever thought I would see and hope to ever see again.) In the same breath as he accused the left of abandoning logical argument, Milo asserted that there has not been any violence as Trump rallies, something that has been exhaustively covered by the news media. (Slate.com’s list of violent episodes at Trump rallies currently stands at 16.) Fucking rich. One of the only times I laughed the whole night.
Eventually, we reached the question-and-answer section, the final scheduled section of the event. Several audience members asked sycophantic questions equal in substance to “What do we do with the SJW menace,” but others were more critical. One questioner simply walked up to the microphone and said “Fuck Trump, and black lives matter.” (Unproductive, but certainly cathartic.) Another asked the speakers to affirm that hate speech exists, which they firmly denied. Crowder responded: “When does free speech become hate speech? Yeah, that’s a silly question, hate speech is a figment of your imagination. If someone says something you don’t like you don’t get to call it hate speech.” You have to wonder whether Crowder thinks white people should use the n-word. On this line of argument, Crowder would be just fine with it.
Only one questioner even attempted a semblance of neutrality. This student, identifying himself as a moderate Muslim who took care to affirm the speaker’s right to speak, asked Crowder how he could argue, as he does on his talk show, that Islam is inherently repressive given the moderate nature of his own faith. To this, Crowder responded with the canard that wherever people of the Muslim faith achieve political hegemony, a conservative regime is installed. He asked the audience to name a country that is both majority Muslim and liberal, conveniently conflating strong-man governments with the people they repress. You have to wonder if Crowder would implicate the average American for the strength of the federal government, or whether conservatives would curiously escape blame.
I should have known better. I really should have—all the signs of a farcically toxic political atmosphere were there, and I missed them. Before the event, I interviewed the press representative of the UMass GOP, Nick Pappas. I found him to be an amicable, if harried, student, wearing a maroon UMass sweatshirt, responding to my questions with the comfortable ease of someone who has practiced the right’s talking points on many internet boards throughout his life. I instantly pegged him to be a Gamergater, a member of the misogynistic movement of internet users who harass female video games journalists. Initially, I was ashamed of my quick characterization of him, but what he said to me throughout the interview made me suspect I was spot on, though I never asked him whether he believed in ethics in gaming journalism. (I hate misogynistic internet nerds for their misogyny, of course, but there is something particularly odious about someone who flees the toxic masculinity of mainstream society only to replicate it in such disgusting form in another sphere. But I digress.)
Pappas gave the standard reply of the college right when I asked him why the UMass College Republicans thought an event like “The Triggering” was necessary: that conservatives aren’t listened to, respected, or given the institutional support afforded the college left. He invoked the faculty support for the concurrent occupation of UMass’s administrative building that called for divestment, contrasting it with the dearth of support for conservative causes. He alleged the college left was trying to suppress speech by protesting offensive speakers. The hypocrisy in such statements is close to the surface. Was Pappas trying to say that the left shouldn’t protest? If the right values free speech so highly, then shouldn’t it welcome protests? Or are they interested only in protecting speech they like?
Or maybe Pappas was trying to say that the left’s method of protest is intolerant? But criticizing the left for intolerance is silly once we see what causes the left chooses to protest. Analogies to criticisms of Black Lives Matter can shed light on the fallacies of the right’s criticisms of the burgeoning protest movement on the left. Consider the charges that BLM is anti-cop. Of course a movement protesting an encrusted, institutionalized culture of police brutality is going to be critical of police! Asking BLM to stop their critical discourse, including protests, is like asking somebody to accept an apology before the apology has even been rendered. Looking at the contemporary resurgence of leftist protest, we can see the consistent thread of objections to racial and sexual prejudice that have no place in a democratic society. The conservative trope that the left is home to the genuinely intolerant is on one hand obviously bullshit—the left, in its proper form, objects to discrimination and oppression—and on the other, a form of praise. All praise to the leftists who denounce intolerance! Conservatives who decry liberal intolerance (damn crybabies!) should feel real intolerance, the kind of bigotry that marginalized groups feel every day. Boo fucking hoo. Intoleration of intolerance is the precondition of any democracy that lives up to its creed.
I asked Pappas why the club invited a speaker like Milo Yiannopoulos, author of such articles as “Transgenderism is a Psychiatric Disorder,” and he responded that Milo was there to bring his comedic light-hearted take on the abuses of the modern left. “The left is so ridiculous you have to make fun of them,” Pappas told me with a smile. I smiled back at him when he said that to me, but inside my conscience was curdling. No matter your opinion on the psychological effectiveness of trigger warnings, only a fundamentally evil person would think attempts to help trauma victims deserve mockery. Perhaps their use can be debated, with strong input from the trauma victims who need them. But the immediate impulse to mock trigger warnings is clearly something else, something far removed from any compassion to people suffering trauma, something rooted in cruelty. It might be toxic masculinity that makes someone see making accommodations to trauma victims as weakness, or perhaps it is stigma against mental illness, or perhaps a combination of both with other species of sadism. Regardless of its cause, mocking the suffering of trauma victims is clearly barbaric, and something I hoped I would never have to see outside of the darkest cobweb-strewn parts of the web. But I saw it. And I saw it get a standing ovation.
The tagline of the event makes Pappas look even worse for his comment to me: “Come see Christina Hoff Sommers, Milo Yiannopoulos and Steven Crowder discuss topics like social justice, feminism, trigger warnings, micro-aggressions and more.” The left is ridiculous for its embrace of microaggressions? The right is ridiculous for its rejection of microaggressions, its denial that they constitute the bread-and-butter of casual racism. It is the curious insecurity of the modern right that even the smallest attempts of marginalized to chip away at oppression become portrayed as apocalyptic scenarios: Sommers claimed at one point that “freedom of expression is being trampled on.” That the college right’s reaction to leftist criticism would be the powerful resentment politics I saw on display demonstrates a complete lack of humility. The cognitive dissonance that results from this is astounding, a feat of construction rivaling Manhattan’s building stock. How fascinating that a conservative speaker would accuse leftism of being the real intolerance while also arguing that hate speech, something mainstream society recognizes as clear intolerance, is a myth of the left.
Unfortunately, the horror of the event began before it even started and would continue for days. The event’s Facebook page contains several comment wars between people who would eventually protest it in person and its rabidly ignorant defenders. Consider the following post: “Is there going to be a group therapy session afterwards? The idea of a woman and a gay guy not having the opinions that women and gay guys should have is triggering.” Never mind that nobody ought to think that only one in 53 women will be raped in their lifetime, a dangerous lie designed to silence rape victims even more than they already are. Never mind that nobody ought to think Mohammed is a terrorist, let alone voice that thought to a crowd that ended up harassing Muslim audience members out of the auditorium.
But the most lasting damage the event caused was not a result of anything that happened in the Bowker Auditorium; it has been as a result of the doxxing (the gratuitous release of personal information online as a means of harassment) of several protestors. Imagine: your name, address, age, college, and picture are posted as part of an article posted to a blog carrying advertisements for gun stores that calls the panelists’ response to your protests “the greatest social justice warrior beatdown of all time.” (It is worth noting that the author of that article was accused of sexually harassing a fan at a Buffalo Bills game in 2014.) Now imagine that a video is posted of you protesting with all of the above data points. Now imagine that video gets 1.7 million views on YouTube, replete with people calling you a “landwhale” and a “fat retard,” let alone the miles of 4chan threads where users brainstormed things they would like to call you if they met you. I’d say that that person has a very legitimate claim to feeling threatened by speech, wouldn’t you?
As an affirmed leftist, I knew I would hate the event, but I got lulled into thinking the event would be anything more worthwhile than the naked appeal to the male white cis id that it was. Some intellectual arguments can definitely be dangerous to democratic society, particularly in how they can come to give language to oppressors to wield against leftist criticism. (Lookin’ at you, Dr. Charles Murray). But real intellectual debates could not be more different from the farce I saw last week. What I saw last week was disturbing in a way that academic discourse can never be. In the classroom, I might react to readings that attempt to justify oppression with disgust or anger at the professor for assigning it (something that has yet to happen, to the credit of my professors over those of my friends at other schools). But “The Triggering” unleashed impulses far more dangerous than any essay hidden away in some conservative journal. It allowed the dittoheads in the Bowker Auditorium to celebrate their cultural power in a perverse orgy of oppressive ideology. It unleashed something much worse, more fascistic, hateful, tribal than I had even thought possible. We see this phenomenon play out every time Trump opens his mouth on national television, but also every time a state votes for him. “The Triggering” felt like a miniature Trump rally, replete with his hats and his signature blend of white male resentment-fuelled revanchist rhetoric. Seeing the hurt the event inflicted on my friends of color and the strangers in the audience made me ashamed to be a white cis man. I left that event feeling disgusted with humanity, but marginalized people left feeling downright unsafe—how lucky was I to be born as I was! Shame on the naïveté of a white man who did not presume his fellow white men were capable of such a despicable politics.
The most illuminating thing said that whole night was probably Crowder’s line, “The only diversity [the left] doesn’t care about is intellectual diversity.” But there are plenty of viewpoints we already censure from public discourse. In fact, this is simply what it means to have a viewpoint. To claim anything about the world is to be prepared to reject opposing claims, at least after performing enough reflection about why you think the way you do and finding that you have good enough reason to think that way. The public at large has little tolerance for flat-earth theories, conspiracy theories, or any other discourse that, from the outside, falls apart at the slightest touch, and it is a good thing that our society shuns these discourses. Why should the discourses justifying oppression be any different? They are as full of obvious fallacies as flat-earth theories, perhaps even more given the degree to which cognitive dissonance operates to maintain oppressive behaviors. We would be obviously more intellectually diverse if we entertained flat-earth theories, but we would obviously be worse off for having entertained them, if only for the time wasted. Intellectual diversity is obviously a public good, but like all goods, there are limits. If we entertain discourses that justify oppression, we sacrifice the good of limiting oppression. There are some viewpoints that are simply too harmful to deserve a place on the public stage. This is not to say that we should ban speakers like I saw last week, but anyone who thinks we ought to have such speakers is probably an asshole.