Because Ignoring It Worked So Well

Yesterday, an article was published in The Observer1 to let us all in on the exciting secret that Milo Yiannopolous likes attention. He even actively seeks it out.

Someone like Milo or Mike Cernovich doesn’t care that you hate them—they like it. It’s proof to their followers that they are doing something subversive and meaningful. It gives their followers something to talk about. It imbues the whole movement with a sense of urgency and action—it creates purpose and meaning.

You’re worried about “normalizing” their behavior when in fact, that’s the one thing they don’t want to happen. The key tactic of alternative or provocative figures is to leverage the size and platform of their “not-audience” (i.e. their haters in the mainstream) to attract attention and build an actual audience. Let’s say 9 out of 10 people who hear something Milo says will find it repulsive and juvenile. Because of that response rate, it’s going to be hard for someone like Milo to market himself through traditional channels. His potential audience is too spread out, and doesn’t have that much in common. He can’t advertise, he can’t find them one by one. It’s just not going to scale.

You’re shocked I know. Me too. I never would have guessed this before I saw people sharing it on Facebook in yet one more attempt to find an acceptable way to say, “Don’t feed the trolls.” I thought he was shy and retiring.

All right. That’s 100% obvious bullshit. Yiannopolous didn’t invent shock jockery. It’s not at all a new concept. We all know that protests draw attention to the thing or person being protested. We do it anyway, and for very good reason.

Looking at Facebook memories is hard right now. I spent a big chunk of the last year and a half trying to get people to pay attention to Donald Trump, to take him seriously. I don’t know how well I did at either, but whatever I managed wasn’t enough. People ignored him. They laughed at him. What many of them didn’t do, including people who are protesting him now, is fight him.

It turns out that someone like Donald Trump doesn’t dry up and blow away because you turn your back on him, or even because you silently disapprove of him. It turns out that ignoring the rise of radical white supremacy doesn’t starve it of oxygen. It turns out that assuming your ideals are widespread and obvious to all doesn’t make that so.

It turns out, in fact, that there’s a very good reason that awareness is such a basic part of activism people often confuse making people aware of a problem with doing something about it.

Photo of three elementary-aged schoolchildren in black and white uniforms in front of a chalkboard, covering their eyes, ears, and mouth respectively.
“See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” by Jennifer Murawski, CC BY 2.0

Denial is one of the basic ways we make ourselves feel better about a problem without fixing it. “Lol, no. You’re exaggerating for attention, making yourself a victim. Crybully. Everybody has to deal with stuff like this. How bad can it be?” Pretty bad, actually. Look around you. But even now, people are refusing to look at the real consequences of electing Yiannopolous’s “Daddy”.

While our goal is to change people’s behavior, we can’t do that unless those people look at the problem and recognize that it is one. Only then will they even see a point in change.

Take harassment in the atheist and skeptic movements, for example. When those of us being harassed first started complaining about it, many leaders and “thinkers” focused on our behavior, not on harassment. Some went so far as to condone it, but even those who spoke against it on principle were reluctant to confront it directly.

It took two years of making people look at the harassment in question to change this. It took documenting slurs and threats, lies and incitement. It took linking, emailing, private and public conversations.

All those things delighted the people harassing us. Their words and images were spread further. They got more attention. They got to claim they were hurting our feelings and being effective.

Then David Silverman chewed one of them out very publicly. I won’t say harassment stopped at that point, but it went into a decline. Advocating for it had costs in the movements. Other people jumped on board the confrontation train and followed Silverman’s lead. When Dawkins shared and defended harassment, multiple organizations pushed back. Now politically weak, it’s once again relatively safe to ignore the people trying to harass us, and they know it too.

None of that would have happened if we hadn’t made people look. That’s true no matter how our harassers felt about it. It’s true even if more people heard them because of it. It would be true even if they made some money off the attention in the short term.

A problem we don’t or won’t know about is a problem we can’t fix. If only 1 of 10 people have heard what Yiannopolous has to say and half those people find it disgusting, then yes, calling lots of attention to him might double his audience. But if 4 of 10 people now know what he has to say, there are now six times as many people who may be ready to do something about him.

That is actual progress. Pretending he doesn’t exist is not. That’s no small part of what got us where we are today.

  1. I really need people on the Left to start thinking more critically about pieces published in a magazine Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, owned until last month and which is now run by Kushner’s brother-in-law. Any place that tells you to vote for Trump should be scrutinized harder than this. 
Because Ignoring It Worked So Well