Defending the Indefensible?

On January 5, the CBLDF, an organization revered for their devotion to protecting free speech and providing legal defense for comic book artists maligned for exercising that right, lent its name to a statement in support of Simon & Schuster's right to publish the memoir of Milo Yiannopoulos, a gay, alt-right, self-styled "provocateur" who has made controversial statements that amount to little more than hate speech. The statement was written in response to calls to boycott Simon & Schuster over their decision to pay Yiannopoulos an advance of $250,000 for his memoir, and prominent book review venues deciding that they will not review any of the publisher's output this year. Other signatories include the American Booksellers Association, Association of American Publishers, Authors Guild, and the Freedom to Read Foundation.

We at Geeks OUT wanted to have a discussion to try to parse the complicated feelings that arise when discussing such issues as freedom of speech versus hate speech, the responsibility of publishers and media outlets to both these ideals and their audience, and how to meaningfully protest hate speech without condoning censorship.

Niala: This is always a complicated issue. On the one hand, we should all be against censorship, especially in books, so I get why people are defending Simon & Schuster, but we as a society need to seriously think about the moral implications and possible consequences of giving a national platform to people like Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos is not just a "provocateur," but a legitimately dangerous man. That might sound like hyperbole, but the hateful views against women, people of color and other minorities that he espouses create an atmosphere of danger for those groups. He's like a commander in a so-called "alt-right" army with legions of true believer soldiers ready to attack whomever he points them in the direction of. And after an attack that he has instigated, cheered on, and participated in, he distances himself from the melee by hiding behind the time-honored disclaimer of "it was just words," and supposedly trying to start a national conversation about what he believes is the inherently oppressive (ah, irony) nature of progressivism, identity politics, and safe spaces. Publishing Yiannopoulos legitimizes his views by essentially saying they are compelling enough to pay a significant advance for them and devote the resources of a giant publishing house to get them to market. That's quite a statement.

The author in question, covered in cow's blood at an art show last October (photo courtesy of The New Yorker and Kimberly Flores Guzmán)

Gavin: I agree completely, Niala. I find it unfortunate that Simon & Schuster has taken these measures, and question why they felt $250,000 was a good investment in Yiannopoulos's output. Furthermore, it's fairly unusual for a publisher to release the amount of an advance. Add to this that Yiannopoulos is a first-time author [although he has written two books of poetry under the pseudonym Milo Andreas Wagner]. Often, first-time authors get no advance, and are paid only once they fulfill the obligations of their publishing contracts. For these reasons, the deal between this publisher and author smells of a marketing stunt. It's almost as if Simon & Schuster wanted to court controversy, and reflected how the outrageous actions of the POTUS brought their author free publicity. That kind of attention is now officially legitimate.

Regarding the CBLDF's actions, I wonder why they addressed this controversy and felt it needed to be defended as freedom of speech. They are not publishers. Yiannopolous is not a concern of the comics industry. They have no investment in this deal. Why choose to stick their necks out when industry and public backlash is assured? The first reaction to the CBLDF's statement that I witnessed was Chicago comics shop Challengers Comics + Conversation making a short video of tearing their CBLDF sticker off their front window. They are entitled to this reaction, but the CBLDF should have had the savvy to realize this kind of response would occur, especially when one considers the ever-growing diversity of comics readership and retailers. Homoerotic comics creator Dale Lazarov responded to the controversy via Facebook on January 7:

I realize Simon & Schuster and the CBLDF are entitled to their positions, and that free speech is a thing, but their actions don't exist in a vacuum. Yiannopolous, Simon & Schuster, and the CBLDF are complicit in endorsing and legitimizing bigoted ideology. Then again, there is freedom of speech. Can we stay mad at Simon & Schuster and CBLDF forever? Probably. Is there redemption? I can't picture it. I'd like to believe they will both evolve as they learn new information, but that's growth Yiannopolous himself has proven he is incapable of.

Dale Lazarov, wearing a shirt he has now retired (photo courtesy of Richard Rivera)

Niala: Gavin, you bring up things I hadn't considered, such as Simon & Schuster announcing the amount of the advance they gave to Yiannopoulos. It does make me think about their motivations for publishing him. It would certainly be a smart business move. As much as we love reading, and hold books as sacred objects (at least I do), we must remember that the industry itself is a business. In a capitalist society, a business is not your friend. It will care about giving a platform to hate only if it affects their bottom line.

However, this does not explain the position of the CBLDF. The only thing I can imagine is they are taking a hard, principled stance for free speech of all kinds. That can be noble, but CBLDF would do well to remember that there are limits to free speech. Hate speech, for example, is not protected speech. I absolutely consider Yiannopoulos's views to be hate speech. On those grounds alone, I would think that CBLDF would err on the side of caution. If that weren't enough of a deterrent, there's always the bottom-line capitalist approach. As we've seen, lots of people are disassociating from them. Is it worth it? Is Yiannopoulos worth it? I'm going to call it now and say that the white supremacist/alt-right is, like it has always been, on the wrong side of history. In 10, 15, or 20 years, I can't imagine Simon & Schuster or the CBLDF will want to be known as having supported, having given money to, or having endorsed racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, and anti-intellectual people. History and future generations rightfully tend to judge those people pretty harshly.

Real free-speech hero Can Dündar (because Devin wanted to include an image of someone worth reading)

Devin: In 20 years, the hypothetical minority writers who will be harmed by this boycott will be well regarded, whereas I doubt the hatemonger's infamy will last that long. This is cold comfort, though, when right now they will be arguably worse off due to the proliferation of hateful ideology that specifically targets them and was written by someone who got paid five times as much as they did for one tenth of the talent.

Simon & Schuster did not reveal the amount of the advance. The author himself bragged in an interview about the "wheelbarrow full of money" he got for desperately trying to offend the representatives of a right-wing publishing imprint. As celebrity advances go, it's relatively small, though more than most writers see after several years of much harder work. He's also not a first-time author, Gavin. Years ago, he self-published a book of poems that turned out to be plagiarized song lyrics. (I guess that means he is a first-time author, after all.) He claimed it was an intentional artistic statement. Earlier, I referred to him as a "self-styled 'provocateur'" because that word is a misnomer—in order to be a provocateur, one must first say something provocative. This man says plenty of things that are shocking, but only because of the ignorance, entitlement, and crassness on display. He is a mewling bully with no depth or originality.

The CBLDF defended Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, but it actually has artistic merit.

The CBLDF is a rightly lauded organization that has done great work defending the freedom of speech. Of course they would want to advise caution and understanding. Anything that encroaches on free speech makes anyone justifiably nervous. Slippery slope arguments are easy to make. “If we boycott this book, what’s to stop us from burning it?” But no one is calling for that. Let this man write his book and spew his hate. But let Simon & Schuster know there are consequences to giving this man more money than most people see in their lives.

There's a fundamental confusion at the root of the controversy, I think. No one is arguing against Simon & Schuster's right to publish this person's work or his right to say it. I interpret the actions of these protestors as an attempt to illuminate the responsibility of Simon & Schuster not to spend one quarter of a million dollars to disseminate hate speech. No one is expecting Simon & Schuster to go out of business or for their latest author to stop talking, but both parties need to be held accountable for this decision.

Should the boycott be limited to the imprint of Threshold Editions instead of the parent company as a whole? Should the CBLDF have abstained from the statement? It's too late for either of these things. Would we be having this discussion if the author were an anarchist or extreme leftist? Are we only supporting a boycott because we find the ideas represented execrable? These are the questions worth asking, and telling in the distinctions they invite. To me, the question that then arises is whether or not people will be harmed if our hypothetical leftist is published. Is there a possibility that hate crimes or violence would result?

The statement the CBLDF signed reads, in part, “the suppression of noxious ideas does not defeat them; only vigorous disagreement can counter toxic speech effectively,” which is noble, just, and good. Unfortunately, it is being applied to the promulgators of ideas that would deny this open exchange, all while claiming to be victims.

Gavin: I agree with you and Niala that there needs to be action taken against bigotry, not just talk. I hope to see Hero Initiative and comics publishers form a reaction at some point in the near future. IDW and DC Comics recently released the anthology Love is Love, to honor the victims and support the survivors of the massacre at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, and I hope to see more activism in the form of creative expression from artists and publishers, as well as organizing and initiating policies to counteract the hate that has gripped this country. If we are to be a global leader, we have to be among those who speak out against bigotry, and promote diversity and human rights. We can't go backwards. We've come so far, but the work is clearly far from over.

Cover of Love is Love, a comic book anthology to benefit the Equality Florida Institute.

Niala: As I said earlier, I do think this book can cause real harm. Normally, I would mean some sort of intellectual harm, like bringing hate speech into the national conversation under a veneer of legitimate discourse. But when we write of this man and this book, I mean real physical harm. Anyone can be a hateful racist and misogynist on the internet—every comment section on every single article on the internet is proof of that—but not every hateful troll becomes famous. Yiannopoulos has a cult of personality that has gotten him a lot supporters in a relatively short period of time. I could see this book becoming some sort of manifesto that disaffected angry straight white men read over and over until one of them decides to do something about these women, liberals, and people of color who don't know their place and who should rightfully be on top. Maybe the next Dylann Roof.

Simon & Schuster know what they are doing. We claim to despise the Milos Yiannopouloses, Ann Coulters, and Bill O'Reillys of the world, yet Coulter has 11 best sellers and O'Reilly has many more than that. Hate speech sells well. This is America, and everyone is supposedly free to do what they want and that's what makes America great (so I've been told). Yiannopoulos can write his book, Simon & Schuster can publish it, CBLDF can defend them, and we, the public, can read it. No one is arguing these points. However, we can choose not to read it, we can encourage other people not to read it, we can ask Simon & Schuster not to publish it, and we can be angry at CBLDF for defending them. This is how capitalism, the free market, and America work. But is there room for questions of ethics? Or morality? CBLDF can defend a legal right and free speech, while simultaneously questioning Simon & Schuster's decision to give hundreds of thousands of dollars to a professional bigot. At the end of the day, everyone has to do what they think is best. You alone have to live with your own conscience.

Devin: Well put, Niala. It does feel as if everyone has taken the easy route with this. What is more difficult is the active work needed to fight back. We can condemn Simon & Schuster, and the CBLDF for defending their rights, but will we lift up those writers who need and deserve it? Will we provide havens for those who would be victimized? In his January 10 farewell address, President Obama said, "If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing." This is what is necessary. Sniping at each other only gets us so far. It should come as no surprise that no one here is a fan of hate speech, and neither is the CBLDF. What we should be working towards now is making sure that hate speech doesn't take root.

Devin Whitlock's picture
on January 23, 2017

I've enjoyed comics since I was ten years old, but won't reveal how long ago that was. I'm a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago, and can usually be found at a local bar with a book in one hand and a drink in the other. I'm so happy to be contributing to Geeks OUT!