Editor’s Update February 20, 2017: In light of today’s troubling news regarding Milo Yiannopolous, we felt it important to underscore and reiterate that we do not endorse Milo (nor Maher for that matter), but we do believe in the value of diverse opinions and complex dialogue. Unfortunately Milo has proven to be an even less admirable representative than previously suspected. That said, the spirit of this piece and our belief that conversations across diverse opinions are to the benefit of all remain intact.
Stuck in the Middle with You
By Norman Golightly
February 17, 2017 – After much ado about Bill Maher’s booking of Milo Yiannopoulos on HBO’s Real Time, the two finally sat down together and the gloves came off – not to box as many predicted, but rather to shake hands. Instead of the much-anticipated heavyweight bout between liberal comedian and alt-right provacateur, host and guest found common ground on freedom of speech and humor. On turf where they didn’t see eye-to-eye (items ranging from “Black Lives Matter” to the Ghostbusters reboot), they agreed to disagree. The fireworks never really fired during the cable portion of the show, but those left disappointed by the lack of shrapnel might be missing the larger point.
Maher’s scheduling of Yiannopolous was so combustible that The Intercept co-founder Jeremy Scahill slated to appear on the show dropped out in protest. Not the strange bedfellows one might think, Maher and Milo share the experience of causing ruckuses at UC Berkeley – Maher was nearly boycotted from delivering the commencement address in 2014 and Milo didn’t even get to speak this year after his scheduled event was pre-empted by riots. The suited Maher and pearl-necklaced Yiannopolous were only meeting on the show for the first time.
The best exchanges of the night came when the talk turned to comedy:
Milo: The reason they want to police humor…is that they can’t control it – because the one thing that authoritarians hate is the sound of laughter…
Maher: And also because when people laugh they know it’s true.
Milo: Nothing amuses people or annoys people like the truth
Maher: Laughter is involuntary.
Milo: Humor isn’t how you drive people apart. This policing humor for racism and sexism is utterly wrongheaded. Not just because normally it isn’t there, but because that’s how we build bridges, not how we break them. When you make a joke, that’s how you connect with somebody.
Their staunchest agreement was ironically found when mutually chiding the sensitivity of Maher’s own following:
“Stop taking the bait, liberals!” shouted Maher. “The fact that they all freaked out about this little, impish, British fag? You fucking schoolgirls!”
It wasn’t all hug and kisses though. Things deteriorated quickly during the show’s YouTube Overtime segment after Milo falsely claimed that transgender people are “vastly disproportionately involved with sex crimes.” Panelist Larry Wilmore quickly rebuked him to which Milo turned to Maher, “We were having such a nice time but you always invite such awful people on your show. You need to start inviting higher-IQ guests.”
That prompted Wilmore’s first “you need to go fuck yourself.” The next came after Milo referred to SNL‘s Leslie Jones as “barely literate.”
Ok so maybe there were some fireworks…and that’s ok too.
Early in the show, Yiannopoulos called out Maher’s guest who boycotted his appearance. “That silly man who had a hissy fit…If you don’t show up to debate, you lose.” I personally don’t agree with Mr. Yiannopoulos on much, but he’s right about that. Not about the hissy fit, but about showing up. We all need to do a better job of showing up, and then more importantly, actually listening.
In a world where Milo is going to exist whether I like him or not, I’d rather he be in the mixed company of a Larry Wilmore who can then rightfully (IMO) tell him to “go fuck yourself.” Similarly, everyone is better served when Tomi Lahren sits down with Trevor Noah instead of shouting mercilessly straight into her own camera. I’d rather have Glenn Beck becoming buddies with gay Muslim Hollywood liberal Riaz Patel than not. Our extreme curation of opinion is exactly how we ended up so divided and for some of us so shocked on election night. Think how impotent the term “fake news” would be if we all actually got our facts from a diverse but common source.
When it comes to Maher and Milo, you might like one, both, or neither, but we could all take a lesson from their attempt to meet in the middle, even when the results are mixed.
Maher opened the interview by saying:
“I’m gonna start with an open mind. Look, I think you’re colossally wrong on a number of things, but if I banned everyone from my show who I thought was colossally wrong I would be talking to myself.”
And isn’t that exactly what so many of us have been doing? Talking to ourselves. Ourselves and people who think like we think. It’s time we all start listening to the other side – and maybe even laughing with them too.