The Ignore Button

So let’s recap:

Milo Yiannopolous’s career thus far consists entirely of a rhetorical con. He insists that he is a champion of free speech and that people only shut him down because they are scared by the correctness of his ideas. Meanwhile, he is silly, flamboyantly offensive, needlessly cruel, hopelessly recalcitrant, and endlessly self-absorbed. But that’s the trick, you see. He has already stacked the deck. If you turn off his mic, he becomes right! If you leave his mic on to debate him, you probably can’t, because out-trolling a troll is difficult and usually ends up making the original troll look reasonable by comparison (this is what happened on Bill Maher’s show to Larry Wilmore, when he couldn’t control his temper and ended up cursing Milo out like an insecure middle schooler).

Because our culture has somehow imbibed the idea that ignoring ridiculous, powerless people is out of the question, and that we must respond to trolls rather than simply mute them or leave them alone, Milo’s platform has flourished. And in almost every instance, Milo’s con–that the people who control society are too frightened by him to let him speak–has appeared, in some way, vindicated. Now let’s be clear: People who destroy property and inflict violence on others because of words should be condemned. Free speech means nothing if it doesn’t include speech you dislike, and part of growing up is learning not to follow your anger to its physical consummation. All that is true. But it’s equally true that Milo’s con is guaranteed to work, because trolls are good at exactly one thing: Getting people to react to them. And reacting to a troll whose entire troll is that if you don’t engage him you concede that he’s right is nothing more than a “heads I win, tails you lose” gimmick. If you agree to play, you will lose.

So now, because we can’t help but play, Milo has received a book contract–and lost it. He’s also received an invitation to speak at CPAC–and lost it. Imagine for one moment you’re not a Milo fan, but you are sympathetic to his free speech mantras. What does this look like to you? Why, it looks like Milo is exactly right! The cultural gatekeepers can’t handle him. They have opted to suppress his free speech because they can’t debate him. Doesn’t this look like someone who understands his opponents so well, he must be on to something?

And so, irony of ironies: In trying to make it clear that  Milo isn’t right about his free speech’s being suppressed, CPAC and Simon & Schuster invited him to build a bigger boat. Well, oops: It turns out Milo says some really nasty things, things that would outrage normal, morally sane readers and listeners. So no book, and no conference. And now what? What started as an effort to say, “Look! We can engage him, we aren’t deserving of his scorn,” now results in Milo looking prophetic. Man.

Why do we engage trolls? Because clicks. There is so such thing has a “hate click” in the online economy. A click is cash. Trolls get clicks. Trolls get cash. You can’t monetize the Ignore Button. Heads they win, tails you lose. The only way to not lose is to not play.