Bill Maher thinks he can “expose” Milo Yiannopoulus on his show. He’s wrong.
Image: drew angerer/Getty Images
After a week like this — in which the country’s National Security Advisor resigned because of ties to the Kremlin, someone nicknamed "the foreclosure king" was put in charge of the economy and the president did something so shameful to a black reporter it’s actually too depressing to type it out — it’s borderline quaint to argue about someone like Milo Yiannopoulos.
But it’s well worth it for what’s coming on Friday.
On Wednesday, Bill Maher announced that he had invited the right wing provocateur/sentient glowstick to appear on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. The move immediately incited social media outrage and prompted a prominent guest to cancel. Maher issued a frothy response, arguing that "nothing could serve the liberal cause better than having him exposed on Friday night.”
Predictably, the comedian’s argument is grounded in the same misguided premise that guided coverage of Trump’s campaign — that by giving a microphone to provocateurs, we expose them — instead of doing what it really does: provide legitimacy.
People are truly bored of fighting about Milo
For many in the queer community, fighting Milo has been a grating and exhausting long-term battle. The former Breitbart columnist who commandeered the troll troops to attack Leslie Jones and claimed that "Islam is the real rape culture" has still managed to find his way to the public eye — first, by appearing in a glowing Out Magazine puff piece, then by touring college campuses nationwide.
Now, it’s by showing up on Bill Maher.
Every time he makes a public appearance that’s not on his Facebook page, he triggers the same outrage cycle:
1. People on Twitter rise up in protest, threaten to boycott "XYZ" and destroy it forever.
2. Someone writes a viral hot take arguing that, "Blablabla, you may not agree with him . . . but free speech!"
3. The internet then goes after the hot-taker, who proceeds to compose a middling tweet along the lines of, "Why can’t we just agree to disagree?"
4. Someone from the show issues a watered down statement that is literally impossible to decipher, 10 news organizations repost that exact same statement and call it a story.
5. Milo appears anyway. He builds his fan base. The cycle begins again.
Exposure doesn’t always expose hate speech; it normalizes it
Maher, a sporadically liberal free speech advocate, seems to be blissfully ignorant about the past half-decade of cyclical internet outrage.
"If Mr. Yiannopoulos is indeed the monster Scahill claims — and he might be — nothing could serve the liberal cause better than having him exposed on Friday night," Maher wrote in his statement.
If you’ve spent any time following Milo drama in the past few years, Maher’s approach feels like magical realism. How could he think he’s "exposing" someone who’s already been exposed and roasted time and time again?
That’s because the comedian follows the same logic most media lived by during the primaries. There was little danger in showering Trump with copious amount of free press, the argument went, because of how blatantly unqualified Trump was for president. Audiences would pick up on him immediately. By simply broadcasting Trump’s rallies on television, he would peacefully self-destruct.
As we’ve now learned, the opposite happened. Trump wasn’t exposed when CNN played his rallies without critique — his reputation was sometimes even burnished. Sure, internet progressives tirelessly mocked Kellyanne Conway for making up a massacre. Still, 51% of Trump supporters now believe that the massacre justifies Trump’s extensive Muslim ban.
Audiences who would have never been exposed to these characters now saw them in full light — and some liked what they saw.
By providing these people with a mainstream platform, hosts and journalists do little to expose Milo and Conway for their fringe ideologies. They normalize them and help make their extremist nationalist beliefs more palatable. It’s much more acceptable to defend "black crime" or "killer dykes" when there’s a handsome man on television defending it.
Oh please. Milo and Maher’s rights to free speech are not in any kind jeopardy
Maher’s motives don’t appear to be strictly adversarial either. In the past, the host was slammed for saying that Islam is the "only religion that acts like the mafia." When guest Jeremy Scahill cancelled and accused Maher of Islamophobia this Wednesday, the comedian defended his reputation and invitation to Milo by arguing the following:
"Liberals will continue to lose elections as long as they follow the example of people like Mr. Scahill whose views veer into fantasy and away from bedrock liberal principles like equality of women, respect for minorities, separation of religion and state, and free speech."
Of course, both Maher and Milo have a constitutional right to free speech — but neither of their rights are endangered. Maher has his show. Milo has his book. Liberals aren’t in danger of "losing elections" because they refuse to appear on some random late night comedy show. They’re in danger because those beliefs, which once represented the extremist fringes of conservatism, have now become the Republican mainstream — thanks, partially, to all the free exposure.
Oh well. Milo will appear tonight. Hot takes will appear tomorrow. A few people will stop watching Maher, a few more will join up. Someone will post about it. Someone will then hate share that post. The cycle will go on and on until it all becomes so familiar we forget we still need to stop it.