Breda O’Brien: Goodbye Milo Yiannopoulos, I will not miss you

People like the professional troll make it easier to dismiss all conservative objections

Every summer, our family goes on holiday to a small village in Co Galway where there is very poor mobile signal and no broadband access, which is part of the charm of the place.

It takes several days to get over the feeling that you are missing something essential, but then cortisol levels drop and you realise how stressful the online world really is.

When I returned from holidays to what now passes for a normal level of connectivity, I felt even more disoriented than usual.

In recent weeks, Britain has begun a process of leaving the European Union, there was a crazed attack on innocent people in Nice, and Turkey is savagely punishing anyone associated with an attempted coup.


Yet for a day or two, the trending hashtag on Twitter was #freeMilo, in response to Twitter banning professional provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.

It reminded me of the so-called Green revolution in Iran in 2009, when everyone on Twitter seemed to be an expert on Iranian politics until Michael Jackson died, and the attention of the internet switched to that.

Yiannopoulos is a professional troll, or the champion of the misunderstood and disenfranchised white male, depending on your perspective.

Flamboyantly gay, he is a Trump supporter and opponent of what he terms political correctness. He is not so much a conservative as a libertarian.


Some of what he parodies is beyond parody – for example, the students who want to create safe spaces on their campuses where they will never be forced to hear an upsetting opinion, or engage with ideas – but his mockery of it is often more intemperate and polarising than the original offence.

A perfect example of his style is his declaration that his birthday will be World Patriarchy Day, and his suggestions for celebrating it range from calling every woman employee “darling” to “impregnate something”.

He claims his aim is to provoke thought through outrage, and to show up the hypocrisy of extreme feminism which treats all men as if they were potential rapists.

Parody and satire are important tools, but he goes too, too far, including wearing a T-shirt featuring the outline of a gun in rainbow colours, with the slogan WE.SHOOT.BACK.

Twitter decided to bar him for life, allegedly for co-ordinating an attack on a black actor, Leslie Jones, one of four women who star in the reboot of Ghostbusters.

The attacks on Jones reflect the ugliest side of the internet, where people feel free to say loathsome things. Jones could not win.

Responding to the kind of people who think it is witty to compare her to a gorilla is certain to inflame her attackers to further levels of disgusting insults.

Ignoring them simply cedes the field to people who have absolutely no empathy or compassion.

While Yiannopoulos did write a cruelly scathing review of the film, he cannot be blamed for the kind of insults that were flung at Jones.

Nor, however, did he call off the trolls, even though it is also doubtful whether it would have had any impact.

Reinforcing prejudices

His influence lies in reinforcing his followers’ prejudices, but how much power does he have to challenge those views? None, I suspect.

He appeals to many people who feel that we live in age of near-Orwellian thought control, where the range of acceptable opinions is severely limited, and who feel alienated as a result.

However, because of the way he chooses to attack the hypocrisies of the left and feminism, Yiannopoulos falls into the danger outlined by cultural critic Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly.

Although Postman concentrates on television because both books were written before the rise of the internet and social media, he identifies a problem that has only become more acute.

Postman does not condemn television, but says that its emphasis on entertainment reshapes every other area, whether it be religion, politics, education or journalism. It trivialises the most important issues.

Yiannopoulos is entertainment dressed as outrage – the self-styled most fabulous supervillain on the internet.

He thrives on controversy, but also ends up trivialising every issue that he touches by his desire to remain fabulously outrageous.

He is bright, but appears to have a very low boredom threshold. I suspect he would go insane if he had to spend two weeks in Connemara without his mobile phone or social media accounts.

Some defend Yiannopoulos on the grounds of free speech, though surely it is possible to challenge ideas as robustly as you like but draw the line at attacking and demeaning people?

Ultimately, banning Yiannopoulos from Twitter is pointless because it just makes him a martyr.

The danger with people such as Yiannopoulos is that by existing to provoke and entertain, he makes it easier to dismiss all conservative objections to contemporary culture, even those objections that are far more nuanced and valid than his are.

Like many professional outrage merchants, Yiannopoulos’s taboo-smashing sensibilities sometimes lead him to say true things that no one else will touch.

But just like Twitter, his erstwhile weapon of choice, he mostly creates less space for alternative ideas, not more.