Yesterday, after bleached-blonde Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos fled the University of California, Berkeley due to the outbreak of a massive, violent student protest against him speaking on campus, right-wing pundits were quick to call foul play, citing that students at the predominantly liberal university had effectively blocked Yiannopoulos’s First Amendment right to free speech. Afterward, Yiannopoulos, who has proudly howled anti-transgender, anti-gay, anti-black and anti-women rhetoric since at least 2015, turned to the holy echo chamber that is Fox News to lick his wounds, stating, “My whole thing is, the left is profoundly antithetical to free speech these days, does not want to hear alternative points of view, and will do anything to shut them down. My point is being proven to me over and over and over again.”
Today, pundits on both sides are debating the difference between free speech and hate speech, the latter of which most Yiannopolous’s opposition accuse him of spewing on the white-supremacist-favored Breitbart as well as on his speaking tours, one of which was called “Dangerous Faggot.” Others are claiming the student protest amounted to pure censorship and, as Yiannopoulos hints at, proves the supremely moral left is supremely hypocritical in its determination to unite.
Yiannopoulos has since gained the support of President Donald Trump, who threatened to defund the public university. But the ethical discussion about whether students should have been allowed to silence Yiannopoulos is merely the 24-hour conversation. The greater conversation is that, for the first time, Yiannopoulos, proud Internet troll, loud-mouth contrarian, alt-right sympathizer and all-around fame whore, might have learned what happens when you exit the safe spaces that are the YouTube comments section and Breitbart’s website. By showing up on Berkeley’s campus, presumably still glowing with pride after accepting a $250,000 book deal with Simon & Schuster, Yiannopoulos entered the real world, populated by politically conscious citizens who protest out of real concern versus for the sake of celebrity. Yiannopoulos may cry foul and argue that students infringed upon his right to free speech, but what he’s forgetting is that in exchanging political correctness for notoriety, he’s become a celebrity. And when you become a celebrity in America, you are subjected to the entire public—not just the side that agrees with you.
Yiannopolous’s first foray into the national spotlight came last summer, when he planned his own celebratory event at the Republican National Convention called “Wake Up.” For those unfamiliar, Yiannopoulos is gay, Greek and a resident of the United Kingdom, a far cry from the usual straight, white male political puppets of the right. He has effectively used those qualifiers to distance himself from the right’s political commentator pack. In Cleveland, his “Wake Up” party felt more like Yiannopoulos himself had won the nomination instead of Donald Trump. The room was filled with admirers who seemed more impressed with his maverick personality than they were with the legitimacy of his controversial identity politics. Even Richard Spencer, famed alt-right leader and human punching bag whose viewpoints Yiannopoulos attempts to distance himself from, was in attendance. Attendees swooned over his youth and demeanor as much as his discourse. And like Trump, they welcomed an outsider who, in their words, “says it like it is.”
Two months later, in September, editors at Out, a pop-culture and gay-advocacy Bible for the LGBT community, put Yiannopoulos on their cover. The story led with an editor’s note: “It should not need saying that the views expressed by the subject of this piece in no way represent the opinions of this magazine, but in this era of social media tribalism, the mere act of covering a contentious person can be misinterpreted as an endorsement. If LGBTQ media takes its responsibilities seriously we can’t shy away from covering queer people who are at the center of this highly polarized election year.”
Yiannopoulos needs to realize an enduring American truth: Celebrities rarely get to execute their right to free speech.
Naturally, the LGBT community erupted with anger and disappointment, barking back at the magazine’s defense that it doesn’t “shy away from covering queer people” by pointing out Out’s long history of featuring white cis males like Nick Jonas, Ewan McGregor and Daniel Radcliffe on its covers in lieu of actual queer people. Rationalize their decision as they may, nobody in Out’s editorial offices were ignorant of the shitstorm they hoped to ignite. (If they were, they don’t deserve to be in the business of selling news.) But more than sparking a debate that was mostly contained within the LGBT community, Yiannopoulos’s cover and 5,000-word Vanity Fair-esque profile proved one thing: the man had successfully built himself into a celebrity.
Many Americans still don’t know how to pronounce his name, but with a public endorsement of the president, it’s clear that Yiannopoulos has nearly completed his ascension as a big-time talking head on par with Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie O'Donnell, Anderson Cooper and Bill O’Reilly. It won’t be much of a surprise if Fox News hires Yiannopoulos to replace Megyn Kelly at this point; no doubt his name has been thrown around production houses and editorial newsrooms around the country as money grabbers and journalists attempt to tap into his fire and exploit it for their own gains, much the way Out did.
But as a public figure who is capable of making headlines across the nation, Yiannopoulos needs to realize an enduring American truth: Celebrities rarely get to execute their right to free speech. When Gary Oldman defends Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic remarks, he has to apologize. When Jonah Hill calls a paparazzo a faggot, he has to apologize. When Paula Deen admits to saying the n-word two decades ago, she has to apologize. When Glenn Beck builds a career on fear mongering, he has to apologize (albeit years later). Celebrity doesn’t allow freedom of speech, hateful or otherwise. Celebrities don’t get safe spaces, which is essentially what Fox News and Breitbart are for the right. It’s a comfort you turn in when you accept your first big paycheck.
Unless, of course, it’s part of your brand, as it is with Donald Trump, perhaps the one TV star who has built an entire career out of not apologizing—and won the damn presidency for it. If Yiannopoulos is modeling his no-holds-barred political incorrectness on Trump’s method of success, so be it—but he’s not allowed to cry foul when his “freedom of speech” is snatched away. While fake news sites, YouTube and self-funded parties will always be safe incubators of free speech, the real world will always maintain its limits. For now, Trump’s rhetoric is insulated by bodyguards and a Republican-controlled Congress. But that doesn’t mean three million people won’t protest him around the world. If Yiannopoulos truly wants to further his notoriety past the alt-right base of Breitbart and the LGBT base of Out, he will have to realize that in all his work to become a nationally recognized provocateur, he’s provoked quite a few people. And unlike internet trolls, real people don’t exercise their right to free speech behind screens. They do it in the streets.