On last week’s episode of “Real Time with Bill Maher,” the host — a liberal comedian known for his blunt bludgeoning of the right and controversial statements about Islam — invited Breitbart editor and conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos to be his opening guest. Maher used the entire interview to hammer home the single point on which the two admitted they can agree — that free speech is good, even when hateful, inaccurate, stupid, controversial, or evil. This is a point with which essentially everyone does, and should well, agree.
But it was not necessary to interview the intentionally-unnuanced Yiannopoulos in order to make that point. By doing the interview, Maher only served to make “mainstream” the ignorance and bigotry on which Yiannopoulos thrives. There are many other controversial thinkers and speakers, including ones here at Princeton, with whom Maher could have had a genuine and fruitful conversation about the value of dissent and disagreement, even on (in fact especially on) deeply held beliefs about identity and moral values. By not challenging Yiannopoulos on any of his ridiculous claims, Maher needlessly gave a platform to the type of fact-free trollish provocateurs who already dominate too much of our discourse in the Trump era.
I understand that “Real Time” is not intended to represent the pinnacle of journalistic ethics. But it was hard not to cringe at the ease with which Maher let Yiannopoulos get away with making comments that would shock any reasonable person. Yiannopoulos’s hate speech went unchallenged by Maher, in segment after segment, from claiming transgender people are sexual predators to saying that Islam is a threat to civilization to defending pedophilia. Instead of making a challenge, Maher preferred to pivot again and again back to the one shared point he and his guest were there to make: that it’s good that Yiannopoulos has the freedom to say such abhorrent things.
Maher’s stunning degree of laziness is doubly challenging because it was not necessary. Yiannopoulos was not a necessary guest. Many serious political and academic thinkers, public intellectuals, politicians, and even celebrities could have spoken far more eloquently, and with much greater nuance than Yiannopoulos, about the value of dissent and free speech. The difference is that they would have done so without the hypocrisy of praising child abuse while being a childhood abuse victim, or vowing, as a gay man, not to hire an LGBT person, and expressing his disapproval of immigrants as an immigrant himself. African American studies professor Cornel West GS ’80, for example, is already a regular guest on Maher’s show, and also routinely overflows McCosh 50 when he co-hosts events with Robbie George on exactly this topic.
Were Maher’s point simply to promote the value of free speech, even at its extremes, then it was clearly unnecessary to actually host and broadcast those extremes to hundreds of thousands of viewers. But of course, there is always the incentive of the boost in ratings that Yiannopoulos provides. This is, of course, the entire problem with media provocateurs, as Maher himself pointed out — that the “left always takes the bait,” e.g. that the UC Berkeley protests against Yiannopoulos made him arguably a household name. This is a phenomenon Maher has himself engaged in to bolster the success of his own show on countless occasions. Maher makes a point of phrasing his arguments in the most blunt, quippy, and quotable ways, so that they have the greatest chance of making it into a soundbite on cable news shows and Facebook newsfeeds the next day. But it is wrong to do so in light of the views this particular guest has espoused, views that anyone with basic decency, of any partisan affiliation, would see as repugnant and untrue.
Ryan Dukeman is a Wilson School major from Westwood, Mass. He can be reached at email@example.com.