Discovering my sons’ school had invited back former pupil Milo Yiannopoulos as a guest speaker was the highlight of an otherwise terrible parents’ evening. I chatted with the Head of School about the teenage Milo and whether there had been any clues as to his future transformation into a darling of the alt-right and anti-hero of American college campuses.
This was a great opportunity, we agreed, for current students to challenge such a notorious figure. I also mumbled something about the school being brave. But I don’t think either of us, at that point, realised quite what a torrent of criticism the school would be expected to withstand.
Today we learn that despite the willingness of Canterbury’s Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys to withstand the onslaught, the critics — those who prefer to censor rather than challenge views they disagree with — have won. What’s more, they’ve won in the most hypocritical and despicable manner — by calling upon the government’s Counter Extremism Unit to weigh in on their side, who contacted the school to check they had 'considered any potential issues'. The school then decided to cancel the event in the light of the government's meddling.
In national press coverage and social media outrage, the school stood accused of giving a platform to a mouthpiece of the alt-right and a proponent of hate speech. Such accusations were undoubtedly fuelled by Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart news as his Chief Strategist. Milo, banned from Twitter, is Breitbart’s technology editor.
I’m no Milo acolyte. His determination to challenge political correctness through being as offensive as possible with the defence of ‘it’s only a joke’ is barely tolerable in adolescents. A psychologist could usefully be kept busy analysing Milo’s references to Trump as ‘daddy’.
But like it or not, Milo’s political outlook has a growing audience and one that seems to be increasingly influential with America’s President-elect. Milo’s talk would have given senior pupils, young adults, the chance to hear Milo’s arguments and practise challenging them. Sunlight is the best disinfectant and Simon Langton pupils are terrifyingly bright.
Yet rather than helping pupils marshal arguments and dig deeper into what Milo preaches, the response — largely from people such as local academics with no connection to the school — has been an explicit call for censorship. The regional secretary of the National Union of Teachers said: ‘I am extremely concerned that, in these times of increased tension and sensitivity, a well-respected local school should invite a man who is well known for his inflammatory views to speak to their pupils without contest.’ Critics demanded that, having issued an invitation, the school should then revoke it. The youngsters themselves are no snowflakes and rather than complaining they enthusiastically signed up to hear Milo speak.
The critics and censors assume that Milo, given a platform, would incite hatred and spout racism and misogyny. They assume that naive and gullible pupils would be brainwashed into uncritically accepting the alt-right view of the world. This flatters Milo beyond all credibility. His ego, already impossibly large, can only grow further when he learns of the power and influence he is thought to have. At the same time as bigging-up Milo, critics of his appearance do down the school’s pupils. Milo wouldn’t have spoken unopposed; there would have been an audience of 200 intelligent, engaged, confident and perceptive young men and women ready to take him on.
All the bluster and outrage at Milo’s visit reveals the fear and insecurity of his opponents. It sends out the message to school pupils that the alt-right can’t be challenged and so must be banned. What’s more, the current clamour also reveals the hypocrisy of the left. Having opposed the government’s Prevent Strategy for impinging upon free speech and promoting Islamophobia, they were, it seems, all too happy to evoke it to prevent Milo’s visit from radicalising pupils into right-wing extremism. This is scandalous.
The consequences of the professionally outraged's actions will be long-lived. A cohort of sixth-formers, before entering a university, has been taught that the way to deal with ideas you find politically distasteful is to howl in protest and insist they go away. Schools around the country have learnt not to invite speakers who may be remotely controversial. And badly needed opposition to Prevent is in tatters.
Thankfully, Simon Langton pupils have teachers and leaders who tried their best to take a stand against the censorious mob and who have faith in their ability to listen to alternative views without being brainwashed. I, for one, am prouder than ever of the school my sons are lucky enough to attend.
Joanna Williams is education editor at Spiked