by A.L. Shaw
Milo Yiannopoulos is a creature of the internet: the erstwhile Twitter critter, former professional agitator for clickbait sweatshop Breitbart, and self-proclaimed “virtuous troll” heralds an online gaming-inspired conservative culture war against the political left in Dangerous, his debut book. Yiannopoulos portrays himself as one of the “provocateurs and clowns” needed “to grab the attention and challenge the biases of those who don’t want to be challenged” who pave the way for the “Debate Club Brigade” of intellectuals. Having thus delegated the serious work to others, the result is, indeed, clownish. The target audience may well derive voyeuristic pleasure from Yiannopoulos’ truculent “triggering” of feminists and Muslims. The critical reader, however, will derive about as much benefit from this trashy tract, devoid of almost any references to academic journals or studies, as from reading a primer on phrenology or flat earth theory.
Yiannopoulos’ professional career has its roots in technology journalism, starting at The Daily Telegraph, followed by the now-defunct technology e-zine The Kernel (which he founded) and, until this year, heading Breitbart’s technology section. This background makes Yiannopoulos’ conservative cultural war strategy, as advanced in Dangerous, unsurprising. The GamerGate controversy is presented as the prototypical online-premised culture war, where gamers used to competing in simulated environments ostensibly triumphed over the cyberculturally ignorant political left. Yiannopoulos’ diatribe against identity politics is not situated amongst properly acknowledged emotionally rich human beings with diverse personas and intertwined lives, worthy of respect even in the face of critical analysis. Instead, Yiannopoulos’ account is conspicuously presented purely in terms of identitarian, essentialised blocs – such as Black Lives Matters (BLM), Social Justice Warriors, and feminists, in the formulation ‘Why X Hate(s) Me’ – that would seem to exist solely for situational dominance rather than for awareness-raising and solidarity. Neither is there any consideration that while the simulated world may well still be complex, dynamic and exciting, it is also compulsive and, arguably, far more prone to manipulation and destructive behaviour than unsimulated social life.
The lack of considered analysis may surprise the critical reader expecting a heftier contribution to public political debate from a heavily trailed, controversy-mired, reputedly hard-hitting book entitled Dangerous. Yiannopoulos’ falling-over-himself striving to say the unsayable is consistently confined to uncritical statistical one-siders and tiresomely puerile one-liners. There are merely assertions speckled with sporadic statistics rather than proper arguments. This brattish bravado is maintained throughout: there is virtually no original argument presented at all, almost no references to academic studies or journals, and the use of statistically-supported prejudices is alarmingly unashamed. The following and other examples are used by Yiannopoulos to contend that minority representation groups choose to blame factors other than their own behaviour for their own ‘community’ problems. However, this is only sustained through plainly disingenuous argumentation: the following are examples advanced of “black problems” or “gay problems” – but the most elementary evaluation of these shows Yiannopoulos’ account to be lamentably fallible.
Among the most egregious statistical misrepresentations concerns black crime rates: for example, it is noted that over an 18-year period, while constituting 12.2% of the population, black people accounted for 52.5% of homicide offenders and, moreover, 93% of homicide victims. BLM, Yiannopoulos contends, compound the “black murder gap” by leaving the police little option but to withdraw from black neighbourhoods and conduct fewer stop-and-searches of black people. (For example, there is no consideration of the disputed effectiveness of stop-and-searches in places like New York City, which he mentions.) And once again, the representation group (BLM in this case) is reproached for its hypocrisy and dishonesty in blaming others other than black people for “black problems”.
One would reasonably expect some discussion of the relationship between poverty and crime. Of the many “gaps” discussed, there is no mention made of the black poverty gap, or the related impact of inherited or generational poverty. The use of crime statistics does not elevate this plainly loaded discussion into considered analysis, just as a barbarous assault is not transformed into qualified medicine simply by use of a surgical scalpel rather than a cut-throat razor. Only at a later point is poverty noted (very briefly) in the context of educational attainment – but this is conspicuously separated from the discussion on crime, thus presenting it as a separate issue.
The relationship between poverty and crime is a complex area, with many contrasting views, requiring a good deal of sensitive analysis of prevailing opinions by which to foreground one’s own contribution to the discussion. Even if one vehemently disagreed with the hypothesised link, it is flagrantly dishonest to: omit any mention of contemporary debate (thereby implying it simply does not exist); present statistics without suitable context or analysis; and allege wilful ignorance on behalf of campaign groups such as BLM seeking to address this – however imperfectly one believes this is being approached. Inclusion of such a discussion in a volume entitled Dangerous surely implies this is a gleefully brave foray into taboo territory.
It is hard to believe anyone has denied the existence of black crime or the disproportionality thereof compared to ‘non-black crime’; what has been cautioned against is allowing this to bolster racial prejudice with partial or non-contextualised statistics. Either Yiannopoulos simply cannot be bothered to mitigate against this, or incorporate countervailing critical views – such as those outlined here – or he is genuinely ignorant of them.
A similar issue arises with HIV infection rates. “Are gay rights leaders so far gone that fighting for the right to a gay wedding cake becomes top priority, when 40,000 people were diagnosed with HIV in the US in 2015?” Either this is calculated rhetoric or just sloppy editing: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirm that 39,513 total HIV diagnoses were recorded in 2015 (and represent a decline of 19% in the rate of new diagnoses since 2004); gay and bisexual men accounted for 26,375 (67%) of these (though these vary by ethnic grouping). (The remaining third were recorded among heterosexuals (24%), drug users (6%) and other groups.) No hypotheses are mentioned, let alone discussed; its placing in the chapter results in this implied judgment on the gay community simply being left hanging – “HIV is a predominantly gay problem”, Yiannopoulos all but states. He couches criticism of gay rights groups within a generally extolling passage on homosexuality, presumably to dispel convey a superficial sense of balance, but this is a horrendously poor substitute for intellectual honesty – a trend that galled me throughout Dangerous.
If one must stoop to this kind of facetious ‘gap analysis’, in the cases of ‘black crime’ and HIV infections, the single most fundamental factor is, surely, men: males are generally more likely to engage in illegal, risk-taking, irresponsible or impulsive behaviour (including infidelity). This is why HIV infections are heavily weighted among men (81%), of whom the greater proportion were LGBT men rather than all women: only 19% of HIV diagnosees in 2015 were women, but the great majority among these were heterosexual – i.e. resulting from sexual encounters with already-infected irresponsible, impulsive men. So even were this particular kind of ‘gap analysis’ useful, clearly sexuality is not a driver of such infections; the gender weighting outlined plainly contradicts such an interpretation.
Elsewhere, the male crime gap occurs because men are generally more violent and less compassionate or empathetic; according to Women in Prison, women account for just 5% of all UK prison inmates, and in 2010/11 less than 5% of that 5% were involved in violent, drug or sexual offences. And even there it is reasonable to suggest the women involved were used as conduits or agents rather than being criminal principals who should shoulder the lion’s share of responsibility. In short, in so many cases, ‘female crime’ is, arguably, essentially ‘male crime’. Such discussion would have introduced some level of argumentative complexity; its absence from Yiannopoulos’ text is conspicuous.
Nothing exemplifies the online-premised perspective of Dangerous more than the entire chapter devoted puzzlingly to GamerGate. A controversy in the wider online gaming community starting in mid-2014 concerning particularly vociferous online harassment directed at female gamers. Anonymous and pseudonymous users directed rape and death threats and other forms of abuse at female gamers. Media coverage often presented the female users as victims of online abuse, which some in the cybercommunity reportedly perceived as liberal interference and censoriousness. GamerGate fed through to broader media stories of non-virtual female harassment, thereby becoming symptomatic of broader social problems in even generally safer Western societies.
Yiannopoulos presents this as the gamers’ particular language codes being simply quoted away from the particular environment in which it is conceived and exchanged. Far from a serious matter in a relatively obscure location, for Yiannopoulos, this was a subversive cultural victory for geeky gamers over the lofty left. “GamerGate was hugely significant. It was the first time consumers of a major entertainment medium staged a mass resistance to the influence of the political left. Gamers showed frightened, isolated dissidents that it was possible to fight the cultural left, and win.” Really? This is the apex of Yiannopoulos’ fundamental lack of proportional judgment, further evidenced by the alleged political significance of GamerGate: “Their tactics helped inspire a new movement of cultural libertarians, setting off a chain of events that put Trump in the White House”.
Given the possibility of deliberately selective evidence-usage or simply defective authorship, I was increasingly drawn to the latter conclusion. It is not just opposing views that are improperly treated; I was just as struck by Yiannopoulos’ inability or lack of knowledge in developing his own arguments into something more substantial. For example, one of the stronger explanations given for GamerGate was the portrayal of gamers’ “language codes”, which include references to “rape, necrophilia and Nazism”. Yiannopoulos insists this is just cybercommunity repartee: “Nobody feels threatened because everyone knows the rules of the game.” But no further argument is developed.
This is puzzling: I read this as alluding to the language games arguments proposed by Ludwig Wittgenstein, or the speech act theory of J. L. Austin. Such a development would have been highly beneficial: not only would such philosophical inspiration imply some intellectual pedigree – useful rhetorically if nothing else – but it would also further substantiate other arguments, such as Yiannopoulos infinitely repeated appeals to free speech. Not only is freedom of expression often treated as an absolute, inalienable liberty, but Wittgensteinian theory is helpful in understanding various groups (such as BLM and feminists) as engaging in language games that are not always readily mutually compatible. This is arguably the simplest buttress against wrenching words from their original users’ implicit rules of engagement uncritically (such as in GamerGate), as certain words may genuinely mean something different and/or be used differently by the language gamers. This would have further enabled Yiannopoulos to map his contribution within a broader political context and bolster his own intellectual pedigree (by association at least); foregoing both opportunities repeatedly rendered his trumpeting of cybercultural mores directionless and, hence, irrelevant.
Yiannopoulos has developed a niche as a showman, conservative controversialist and provocateur, and, like many stand-up comedians, he has honed the ability to diffuse dissent or socially humiliate liberal hecklers. Much of Dangerous reads as an attempt to translate the act – especially the anti-heckler retributions – into written form. In his Breitbart articles, it was possible for Yiannopoulos to fashion an argument using much the same techniques as those outlined here and make these appear superficially persuasive.
However, in book form, with far fewer space restrictions, the author’s primary responsibility must be to use the resources available to form a much more substantial argument. In this, Yiannopoulos has totally failed. Dangerous reads like a newspaper column writ large, and which in book form looks far less persuasive, resorting to appeals to common sense and easy prejudices to compensate for the lack of critically supportive evidence; in this, I was reminded of Melanie Phillips’ Londonistan. The reader is there to be persuaded – not to have their agreement to the arguments blithely assumed in between self-indulgent puerile tangents.
Of a book that is easily dismissible on all conceivable critical grounds, the most abiding impression left by Dangerous is of Yiannopoulos himself: apparently unable to understand positive social bonds – especially empathy and solidarity between social segments – instead of depicting wholly negative or socially destructive interest groups; the lack of sense of proportion (principally evidenced in GamerGate); the staggeringly self-unaware ignorance and the sheer narcissistic lack of social and intellectual conscience; the inability to understand power relations in a socio-political context (particularly with reference to racism and sexism); the intellectual immaturity of the discussions presented and lack of originality; the abysmal absence of peer-reviewed research (I counted just one direct journal reference in the whole book).
Like Yiannopoulos himself, his style is the direct product of the internet: according to Dan Cassino, Breitbart followed a strategy premised on “The stuff that got them the most hits and the most attention is the most extreme clickbait they could come up with”. Under Steve Bannon, it “doubled down on an economic model that worked for the site: right-wing clickbait headlines.” This clearly establishes a financial incentive for outrage and controversy, as further evidenced by Yiannopoulos’ reported $250,000 advance for Dangerous. This, sadly, also skews the financial incentives away from non-shocking tolerant liberal material heavily in favour of financially-incentivised shock-value writing like Yiannopoulos’ – a trend that is likely to remain for the foreseeable future. But it also actively seeks countervailing abuse through “triggering”, to which it can respond – thus ensuring memetic reproduction – to sustain its business model. What is needed, therefore, is not just a sober counternarrative (such as that humbly offered here), but a viable, alternative business model favourable to left-wing politics. Ultimately, money talks: the only thing that will disincentivise the alt-right clowns of this world is not a diminution in readers’ appetites for outrage – a madly vain hope – but a decline in its profitability.