When a professional internet troll has to backpedal or apologize, it means he fucked up bad. Milo Yiannopoulos’s living is built largely on characterizing marginalized groups – women, immigrants, Muslims, black people, fat people, the poor – as bullies trying to oppress good, honest, white men. He’s been canceled by event organizers, banned from Twitter, and violently protested against, all of which propped up his brand as a First Amendment provocateur.
Now his provocations have alienated him from this base. During several podcast interviews, Yiannopoulos attempted to minimize and normalize pedophilia. After the remarks were publicized, a planned appearance at CPAC was canceled and a book deal with Simon & Schuster fell through. Yiannopoulos knows he’s in trouble this time, and he’s acting precisely as the free speech crusader he is – by backpedaling and worming out of his own words.
Several posts on his Facebook page attempt to set the record straight. Yiannopoulos starts by listing a number of articles he’s written exposing pedophiles. He says that the “relationships between younger boys and older men” he defended were those in which the younger partner is still past the age of consent, and maintains his insistence that consent at 18-years-old is “probably about right.”
Whatever truth there is in his defense, Yiannopoulos often sounds like a full-throated NAMBLA member. He speaks giddily of a tryst from his youth between himself and an older priest, defending the man by saying, “When I was 14, trust me, I was the predator.” Other times, his comments on sexuality and age of consent make him sound more like the kind of liberal humanities professor who is his archetypal villain.
Frankly, the controversy is a wasted opportunity for Yiannopoulos. Now that he’s drawn real heat – not the Ann Coulter-style heat that drives book sales, but heat that impacts his connection with his conservative audience – he wants to weasel out. Though he clearly went too far when he defended relationships between 13-year-olds and 30-year-olds, these may be the only remarks he’s made that have approached any intellectual interest.
Except in the eyes of the law, there’s nothing magical about turning 18 that bequeaths a person maturity and accountability. In England, the age of consent is 16, but we rarely accuse them of inferior morals for it. But just because it’s arbitrary doesn’t mean society can’t come to an agreement. Agreements, however, require complicated conversations. Yiannopoulos sparked one, was punished for it, and now wants no part of it.
As they are now, our age of consent laws have some unintended consequences. People caught up in the sex offender registry not only include active, predatory pedophiles, but also some unlucky adolescents. One man is on the registry for life because of a relationship he, at 19, had with a girl, then 15, who is now his wife. Surely this incident is not in the same category as a 50-year-old preying on elementary children, but there is often no legal distinction.
If he had any intellectual integrity, Yiannopoulos would re-articulate his controversial comments along these grounds, not pretend there’s no controversy to them. He could suggest modifications to the law that incorporate the wider range of possibilities and don’t needlessly ruin lives. He could admit that he, like other victims, perhaps processed his abuse in the wrong way by shifting blame away from his abuser and onto his precocious teenage self.
But doing that would require him to empathize with other abuse victims. And since victims of sexual abuse are among Yiannopoulos and his fans’ favorite targets for ridicule, that would damage his brand. What Yiannopoulos sells to the white male snowflakes who buy into him is the assurance that they are the most besieged people on earth. To acknowledge the suffering of anyone else contradicts his narrative.
It’s a moment that reveals just how damaged Yiannopoulos is. He could come out of it looking perfectly human, but for the man who calls campus rape culture a myth and spreads vicious lies about transgender people, such a moment of careful reflection may not be possible.
For the first time in his career, Yiannopoulos had an opportunity to expand the public’s base of knowledge and range of compassion. He proved instead that, contrary to his branding, he’s terrified of controversy. His only courage is in his bottomless capacity for meanness – calling liberal women ugly isn’t controversial in any meaningful way; it’s pandering to his pathetic right-wing audience. Now that he’s touched on a real hot-button issue, he’s retreating as quickly and fully as he can.