Whenever the ACLU is criticized for lacking the fortitude to take on tough cases and unpleasant individuals, the immediate response is the Nazis in Skokie. And, indeed, it was the epitome of defending constitutional rights in the faces of despicable speech, a defining moment in the ACLU’s, and our, commitment to the Constitution.
But that was 1978. Forty years later, what else have you done? This is where the unduly passionate miss the point, that defending and representing those who we want them to defend aligns well with their mission and our feelings, but is no Skokie. The point is that the ACLU defended the principle of free speech, expression, association, for those whom its supporters would find despicable. That’s what makes it hard.
Milo. The dangerous, and despicable, faggot. The provocateur.* The mother lode of hate speech. And in 2017, the ACLU is taking on Milo’s cause.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a free speech lawsuit on behalf of one of the nation’s most prominent right-wing provocateurs on Wednesday, arguing that Washington, D.C., transit officials violated Milo Yiannopoulos’ 1st Amendment rights by removing advertisements for his new book.
Yiannopoulos, who is British, is not the group’s only client in its lawsuit filed in federal court against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. The ACLU’s lawsuit also objected to the agency’s decision to block ad placements for the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the abortion provider Carafem and the ACLU itself.
It’s significant that there were four advertisements refused, including the ACLU’s ads with, ironically, the words of the First Amendment. Three align well with the ACLU’s supporters. Except Milo’s. Would they have leapt to the cause had it been Milo alone? We’ll never know.
Had the ACLU sued on behalf of itself, PETA and Carafem, but left Milo off the caption, the optics would have been horribly hypocritical. Rather than demonstrate that it was still the organization it was in Skokie, it would have conclusively proven the opposite. That was inconceivable, as it should have been.
But the backlash was hard and fast. The ACLU was constrained to explain itself to its supporters, and James Esseks, Director, LGBT & HIV Project, posted an answer on its website to the question, How Could You Represent Someone Like Milo Yiannopoulos?
Milo Yiannopoulos trades on outrage. He is a professional provocateur who has turned insulting different groups of people into a specialty.
He has claimed that the very existence of transgender people is the product of delusional thinking. He has compared Black Lives Matter activists to the KKK.And he has fostered both anti-Muslim bias and disdain for women in one breath, characterizing abortion as “so clearly bad for women’s health that it falls second only to Islam.”
After all, Milo represents all that the ACLU’s supporters despise, and listing what makes him so hated comes first. The problem isn’t that Milo, who uses shock to attack the fundamental values of progressivism, isn’t sufficiently well known to the audience that he needs an explanation, but that Esseks and the ACLU needed to acknowledge the hurt of their supporters before getting to the point. Yes, Milo is despicable. Yes, Milo is awful. Yes, yes, yes, we feel your pain. But.
Yet even though we know how wrong-headed Mr. Yiannopoulos’ speech is, the ACLU today filed a lawsuit to defend his free speech rights.
We did not take this decision lightly. We understand the pain caused by Mr. Yiannopoulos’ views. We also understand the importance of the principles we seek to defend.
And Esseks went on to explain, quite well, the reason why it was necessary to defend someone as horrifying as Milo for the sake of principle. That an explanation was needed is a testament to the effectiveness among the tribe of turning speech into hate speech, speech into violence. Defending the rights of murderers was easily acceptable. Defending the rights of a hate speaker? That was a hard pill to swallow.
Not just hard, but impossible for some, notably ACLU staff attorney, Chase Strangio. Strangio, a zealous representative of LGBT interests, not only found this more than he could stomach, but felt compelled to tell the world about it.
The sentence that nails down Chase’s point is that he “doesn’t believe in protecting principle for the sake of principle in all cases,” which means he doesn’t believe in principle at all. From the perspective of his feelings, this is understandable. He has dedicated himself to serving a cause, focusing particularly on transgender people, and few embody the enemy to his cause worse than Milo.
Yet, the core of principle is defending the worst case. Defending the palatable is no big deal. If the ACLU, and James Esseks, can’t persuade their own staff lawyer that the principle is worthy of defense, then it speaks to what’s become of principle in the Age of Emotion.
It’s understandable that a great many laypeople and political panderers can’t grasp principle. The message of hatred and intolerance of ideas has been very effective, and the capacity to appreciate principle requires thinking, rather than feelings. It’s hard work.
But Chase Strangio is hardly the only lawyer who is so dedicated to his truth that he’s lost the capacity to grasp the need for principles. This has become a pervasive dilemma, from the Lawyers of the Left on Facebook to the #AppellateTwitter social justice tribe. Whether you agree with the cause in general, or the specific rules imposed by the scolds. Their repertoire ranges from insipid to intolerance, from insinuation to insults. Principles? They don’t need no stinkin’ principles.
The ACLU has chosen to defend Milo’s First Amendment rights, even if Chase needed to announce that he wouldn’t. It’s no Skokie, given the mix of plaintiffs, but it would be unfair to speculate that the ACLU would have refused had it been Milo alone. Yet, there is a lesson in the reaction to the decision to include Milo in the mix, that the righteous cannot use their moral suasion to undermine principles, the First Amendment, when it suits their cause, then expect their fans to appreciate the need to defend principles when it doesn’t.
Shakespeare was wrong. It isn’t necessary to “kill all the lawyers.” Just persuade the sanctimonious that their feelings matter more than principles and they will pave the path to authoritarianism. As the ACLU learned from the backlash, inside and out, we’re well on the way down that path already.
*Characterizing Milo as a provocateur is meant as a slur, but is it? Provoking a reaction can be an effective means of making a point. While not close to Milo’s league, I, too, am a provocateur. When I use the word “girls,” it’s a deliberate trigger meant to offend the sensibilities of faux feminists and SJWs for whom words are inherent evils.
Why be so awful? Because the claim of wanting to have a “discussion” is a lie, a pretense. They want to lecture, and they want white men, or self-loathing women, to sit in silence and nod obsequiously. To disagree, or even question, is to commit heresy, which demands the flurry of tropes and insults that insulates them from hearing, no less thinking about, reasons why their fantasy world is untenable.
Perhaps the provocation is just as ineffective as any other method. Perhaps pushing it to the extreme, as Milo does, is not merely ineffective, but counterproductive. But the alternative is to give up on principle and watch as they spiral down the social justice toilet bowl. If the worst that can happen is that you become an enemy of the tribe, a fate that will eventually happen to everyone, SJWs included even if they don’t realize it, there is nothing to lose.