To the Editor:
Milo Yiannopoulos’ event at Pitt left me agitated and baffled — but not for the reasons one would imagine.
The litany of claims and accusations is familiar by now: racism, misogyny, disparagement of sexual assault victims, hate speech. Some people felt appalled, disgusted, threatened, unsafe and “in literal physical danger.” Parts of the litany appeared in The Pitt News, in official statements of student organizations and on social media.
These bold claims share a suspicious similarity: lack of evidence. Most of them don’t even use quotes or paraphrases from the event as evidence, relying instead on hearsay and interpretation. “Used hate speech” and “condoned racism” are interpretations, not evidence.
Conservative coverage of Yiannopoulos may be hypocritical, but the liberal outrage is unsupported — and mostly unsupportable. Direct evidence: is that so much to ask for with an 80-minute video to draw on?
Sometimes distortions are blatant. From The Pitt News: “Yiannopoulos argues free speech should have zero limits.” From the event: “Free speech does have limits. And its limits include incitement to violence, terrorism and various other horrible things we don’t want.” Yiannopoulos then argues that what he says falls within those limits, not that the limits should be abolished or expanded. If the two arguments are synonymous, then every attorney who argues that his client did not break a certain law is actually arguing that the law should be changed or abolished.
But usually it’s more subtle. The outraged ones seem to believe that the interpretations they foist off as facts are too obviously correct to require evidence, but that’s not so. After watching the event three times from start to finish, I found no evidence for most of the litany’s claims even when I was hunting for it. How dumb and callous I must be!
Consider the big one: hate speech. Its definition involves groups based on traits — race, sexuality, nationality, disability, etc. Yes, Yiannopoulos insulted contemporary feminists, but he did no such thing to women: feminism is not a trait. Yes, he condemned leaders and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, but he did no such thing to black people — support of a movement is not a trait. If criticizing BLM is racist, then criticizing ISIS is Islamophobic. Yes, he said that “the number one killer of black men in this country is other black men,” but he didn’t say or suggest that black people’s race is the reason. Yes, he insulted silent protesters, non-STEM majors and those who believe that the gender wage gap exists, but none of these groups is based on a trait.
Speech you hate isn’t always hate speech.
The claim that Yiannopoulos mocked rape victims is similarly misguided. It’s based on a misinterpretation of his criticism and mockery of the demand that safe spaces be enforced in college classrooms to address the needs of rape victims. Some misconstrued that as mockery of victims, without bothering to provide quotes to support their claims. Mocking the demand for something to help victims of X does not mock the victims or the suffering X inflicts.
Likewise, though he denied the existence of campus rape culture, he said nothing about victims’ experience or the nature of their trauma
It bothers me that the groundless claims flitting about the campus and social media have slipped into the realm of indisputable facts, beyond the scope of the notion of burden of proof. Much of the current outrage, hurt and anxiety is a result of a reckless game of Telephone. One can hear the litany 80 times in the time it would take one to watch the video — so why not take the claims at face value? Why bother checking whether anything Yiannopoulos actually said at Pitt supports them?
Even asking people to do so can be difficult: questioning the accusations of racism/misogyny/hate speech can get one branded as a defender of racism/misogyny/hate speech. Farewell, logic. Hello, emotion.
There’s a very good reason English and history teachers pester their students to always cite their sources, and the lack or untrustworthiness of evidence to support bold claims can earn a paper a D.
That’s the grade I’d give to the anxiety-mongers who disseminate the familiar litany of groundless, inflammatory claims.
But don’t take my word for it. Go look for evidence yourself. You’ll be surprised.
Physics and English Writing, Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, Class of 2016