My alma mater, Davidson College, has invited alt-right icon, provocateur, and general sociopath Milo Yiannopoulos to speak next month. The event is open only to Davidson students and facstaff, not the general public. Here’s how the invite to that community was framed:
In keeping with the [Center for Political Engagement]’s dedication to discourse, we announce our first scheduled speaker for the 2016-2017 school year: Milo Yiannopoulos.
Yiannopoulos is a highly controversial writer at Breitbart and an incendiary public figure who loves messy and rough discourse, often intentionally using language and rhetoric to play on the emotions of his counterparts and undermine their argument.
We present him as he presents himself: a figure to grapple with, challenge and learn something from. We are incredibly excited to see what Davidson will bring to the table. We believe in your ability to rise to the challenges Yiannopoulos so purposefully puts forth. We believe in your ability to engage with ideas on any point of the political spectrum. We believe in your ability to take the ideas and rational, linear discourse of the classroom and translate that into a messy and real world interaction. We believe in the power of such conversation to both expand and hone our views and arguments.
The question now is: do you accept the challenge?
I have mixed feelings about this.
On the one hand, speaking at Davidson is a privilege, and I would rather that prestige, money and mindshare not have gone to someone who so gleefully contradicts most of what the college stands for, particularly its Honor Code.
On the other hand, this invitation reads like, if I may mix my metaphors, a shooting license to students: Come listen to this guy, and then, when he has had his say, cut him some new assholes. (And keeping the event Davidson-only means that Yiannpoulos won’t have his groupies on hand to disrupt the proceedings.)
I wouldn’t have done it. Inviting him — and accepting him on his own terms — gives him a legitimacy he hasn’t earned and doesn’t deserve and ignores the significant damage he and his groupies have done to reasoned public discourse in this country at a time when reasoned public discourse is rare, getting rarer, and probably more desperately needed than at any time since Dec. 8, 1941. It’s not quite as bad as inviting, say, Joseph Goebbels, but you can see there from here.
But now that the invitation has been extended, I also don’t think it can or should be rescinded. And I hope and trust that students will accept the invitation in the spirit in which it was extended, and show up with long, sharp rhetorical knives.