Two weeks ago, conservatives were up in arms about the treatment of Breitbart tech editor and alt-right online superstar Milo Yiannopoulos, who was, to hear them say it, being rudely deprived of his free speech by triggered liberal snowflakes in the name of political correctness. After Yiannopoulos was forced to cancel a speaking event at UC-Berkeley due to protests on campus, President Donald Trump tweeted: “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view — NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”
On Saturday, Yiannopoulos was invited to give a speech at Conservative Political Action Conference, an influential gathering of conservatives in Washington where President Trump is also scheduled to speak. American Conservative Union, which organizes the event, said that Yiannopoulos’ message was important to hear “at a time when political correctness is properly being discarded.”
If the specter of political correctness can move a political institution like CPAC to embrace a glorified internet troll, it’s probably worth examining what political correctness is. Conservatives say that it’s the antithesis of free speech: the idea that there are some things you shouldn’t be allowed to say. The truth, of course, is more complicated. Of course you’re entitled to free speech, but you’re not entitled to a platform, and institutions with control of particularly influential platforms — like the American Conservative Union and UC-Berkeley — should be discriminating about which voices they decide to elevate.
In other words, people with platforms should know where to draw the line. That’s not a radical idea.
Where do conservatives draw the line? As the last year and a half has proved, that’s a hard question to answer. It’s not at mocking prisoners of war for being captured. It’s not at proposing to ban more than one billion people from the country on the basis of their religious beliefs. It’s not at picking fights with the parents of a fallen soldier. And it’s not at sexual harassment.
CPAC’s embrace of Yiannopoulos last week only deepens the mystery. It means they don’t draw the line at someone who, despite being gay, has advocated for “forcing gays back into the closet” in order to preserve the nuclear family. It means they don’t draw the line at someone who instigated an army of racist trolls against comedian and Saturday Night Live star Leslie Jones. It means they don’t draw the line at aggressive transphobia, hate speech against Muslims, or ad hominem attacks against feminism.
But this week, we got some answers. On Sunday, a video emerged in which Yiannopoulos “appears to condone statutory rape and sexual relationships between boys and men.” For once, there was universal outrage at his comments, and in the span of 48 hours he lost his speaking slot at CPAC, his book deal and his job at Breitbart.
So it turns out conservatives do draw the line, not at bigotry or harassment or hate speech, but at pedophilia. Whether they like it or not, the right subscribes to the same basic idea behind the UC-Berkeley protests — namely, that there should be standards for elevated public speech. They just have vastly lower standards.
Groves is a government sophomore from Dallas. Follow him on twitter @samgroves