But there is something missing from my analysis, and it’s something Laurie Penny touched on in a much praised and much derided piece for the Pacific Standard. Before I get into what Penny did and didn’t say, though, let me tell you a story.
When I was 22, I met a young 18-year-old straight boy. We’ll call him Jacob. Jacob was white, blonde, heterosexual, and totally lost in this world. Beyond anything, he was impressionable. Jacob only wanted to be liked. To belong somewhere. Gangly, bumbling, and painfully awkward, Jacob and I met through student government. I took an instant liking to him. He was sweet, goofy, and though intellectually inelegant (as 18-year-olds are apt to be), clearly intelligent.
Jacob looked to me as a mentor, and I to him as a kid I could help. I nurtured him and invited him to hang out with friends and go to parties. Eventually he pledged the fraternity I always hung out with (but didn’t belong to). I didn’t think this a good idea – Jacob was too sensitive, too vulnerable, and frankly too cerebral to really fit in with this hard-drinking, fast-fucking crew. I’ve written about my own college years drinking and fucking my way up and down fraternity row, and I was afraid that blend of toxic masculinity (which at the time I got a high off of) would kill poor Jacob.
Fast forward eight or so years, and he probably disagrees. I still don’t. Jacob was relentlessly picked on, though I must stress not hazed, by the guys in the fraternity. Most of it was the good-natured banter that twenty-something men tend toward. Some of it was a lot crueller. All of it proved too much for Jacob, who began drinking heavily and was prone to becoming violent when intoxicated. It got him banned from some fraternity parties and even, for a time, my house – unless he stayed sober.
Around this time, Jacob took a women’s studies class at my behest, and even began dating a lovely feminist woman. It seemed that he would sort himself out. But a year after I moved to Chicago, I got a call from him saying they’d broken up, and that he was in a very dark place. No stranger to dark places myself, I took a Megabus to see him. He rebounded, and I left.
As friends who live hundreds of miles away from one another often do, we drifted apart. It wasn’t really until last year when I drunkenly called him to catch up that I realised the boy I’d met who entered this world of toxic masculinity grew up into a misogynistic man and Trump supporter. We’ve not talked a lot since.
I’m from Kentucky, so the fact that people I know and even considered friends voted for Donald Trump isn’t all that surprising. But reading Penny’s piece, I thought specifically of Jacob and the strange, drunken, and desperate course he travelled from a dorky college kid to a self-identified feminist to the type of guy who, had he been born a few years later, could’ve been in that car with Penny and Yiannopoulos, evacuating UC-Berkeley.
I’m going to quote at length from Laurie’s piece here, because I think she makes two important points – one clumsily and one cogently. First, this:
It is vital that we talk about who gets to be treated like a child, and what that means. All of the people on Yiannopoulos’ tour are over 18 and legally responsible for their actions. They are also young, terribly young, young in a way that only privileged young men really get to be young in America, where your race, sex, and class determine whether and if you ever get to be a stupid kid, or a kid at all. Mike Brown was also 18, the same age as the Yiannopoulos posse, when he was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014; newspaper reports described him as an adult, and insisted that the teenager was “no angel,” as if that justified what was done to him. Tamir Rice was just 12 years old when he was shot and killed in Cleveland for playing with a toy gun. The boys following Yiannopoulos are playing with a toy dictator, and they have faced no consequences as yet, even though it turns out that their plastic play-fascism is, in fact, fully loaded and ready for murder.
This is the bit that seems to have gotten Penny the most flack, and to be fair, I get it. Writer Mikki Kendall summed it up best in a Twitter thread, in which she points out that Penny building her argument on the bodies of dead Black martyrs is callous and insensitive. I take that point. (I’m posting the first tweet in the thread below; please read and consider it.)
Still, engaging with who gets to be seen as a child, or an innocent, or have their behaviour excused because of youth is a worthwhile intellectual exercise, because in our culture not everybody gets to have youthful indiscretions. That is, in fact, almost exclusively the purview of straight cis white men.
So while perhaps Penny’s word choice was unfortunate, I don’t think her point was far from the mark. And yes, impact matters more than intent, but I have always believed that intent should be considered when thinking of how we respond, because it does still matter.
I say this not only as a defence of Penny’s own work and intentions, but because it plays right into the next very important point she makes. While, as she writes, “these are little boys playing games with the lives of others,” she also points out that Yiannopoulos
…exploits vulnerable young men. Not in a sexual way. Not in an illegal way. Yiannopoulos exploits vulnerable young men in the same way that every wing-nut right-wing shock-jock from the president down has been exploiting them for years: by whipping up the fear and frustration of angry young men and boys who would rather burn down the world than learn to live in it like adults, by directing that affectless rage in service to their own fame and power. This is the sort of exploitation the entire conservative sphere is entirely comfortable with. What happens to these kids now that the game has changed?
If you think that centring white male Trump supporters is the antithesis of everything you stand for and the very thing both Penny and I have dedicated our careers to not doing, well, you’re right. So let me say before we go any further that I will absolutely side with any marginalised community over angry, privileged, adultalescent men – whether 17 or 70 – who leverage their power and privilege to harm the most vulnerable. As I’ve said many times, to many friends, and on many panels, I say now for the first time in print:
Explanations are not excuses
There is absolutely no excusing the behaviour of Yiannopoulos, his fanboys, President Trump, or any of the enablers, gatekeepers, or even voters who propelled them all to where they are today. None. But I do think the left, the resistance, and for that matter American culture generally could benefit from asking ourselves what brought them to this point.
If you read Penny’s piece, it’s clear that it wasn’t economic anxiety. If you look at the polling data on who voted for Trump, it’s clear too. But I think Penny hit the nail squarely on the head when she labelled these groupies “the lost boys.” Because I know a boy like them. I know Jacob.
Jacob graduated university in 2013 and moved to a mid-sized southern metropolis in search of the elusive American dream. He found dead end after dead end, working a sales job he didn’t like which (if I recall) he was eventually fired or laid off from. He found dating hard, impossible even. Women just didn’t seem interested in him.
At some point between 2014 and 2016 he moved back to his parents’ house in a small southern city and resumed working at the fast food restaurant he worked at while in high school. Last I talked to him, which was probably last spring, he was the manager. He was still living at home. He was still single. And he was noticeably and perhaps understandably angry about it.
It was at that time he told me that he thought, like Yiannopoulos, that feminism was a cancer on Western society. It had damaged the natural order of men on top and women subservient. All the social progress we made wasn’t working for him, so it obviously wasn’t working for anyone. Best to go back to 1956.
This is of course absurd. It is also straight up sexism.
Yet – consider one of the young men in Yiannopoulos’ posse, who told Penny that “I think a lot of people in this crew wouldn’t be part of the popular crowd without the Trump movement. I think that some of us are outcasts, some of us are kind of weird. It’s a motley crew.”
This quote gave me pause, and I reread it probably four times before going on, particularly the phrase “popular crowd,” which is one most often heard in high school cafeterias, not political discourse. That phrase in and of itself conjures up adolescence, immaturity, and a childlike longing to be recognised as part of the crème-de-la-crème of your social unit. That is not the phrase a well-adjusted adult uses unironically.
I have often times thanked God that I’m gay, because I think it saved me from going down this darkly bigoted path. Being openly gay in Kentucky from 2001 – 2011 did for me what it clearly never did for Yiannopoulos: it made me empathetic to other minorities. But if you read the essay I wrote for Salon about trying so desperately to belong to Greek life at my alma mater, you’ll see that I tried desperately to fit in with the oppressive class:
But from under them I could still obtain a certain level of social cachet. My reputation as someone who would fuck but didn’t talk grew, and with that, came a certain level of trust. “Put a cock in his mouth and he’ll shut up,” one of my buddies once joked. Suddenly, I was invited to the premier parties, not just from the fraternity I was hanging out with, but others. And I went, because it felt good. Being invited signaled acceptance, even if it was only on their terms. I might not be one of them, but I could hang with them, and that meant something.
I was a women’s studies minor. I knew better. Yet I still fell for the trappings of white heteropatriarchy, which as I said in that essay, is one helluva drug – especially to a working class gay kid who had never found any semblance of social acceptance anywhere else.
The sociologist Paul Kivel has a theory he calls the “act-like-a-man box,” which explains the pressures men feel to achieve, to provide, to dominate women, and to suppress their emotions and how these things can negatively impact not only their mental health but their politics. It’s basically a handy diagram to explain the theory of toxic masculinity, and square in the middle of it can be found Jacob and the Milo Yiannopoulos fan club.
Yiannopoulos first came to American prominence through GamerGate, which was a sexist backlash against women playing video games masquerading as being about journalistic ethics. He built his cult following of basement dwelling, Red Bull chugging nerdy men by tearing down the women who many of them felt were invading a space where they could live out their misogynistic, violent fantasies without retribution or critique. Games were all they had, because for many of these men, they were social rejects. (I can say this with some certainty, as the gamers I know who are well-adjusted adult humans reject GamerGate, Yiannopoulos, and Trump without hesitation.)
Yet these are men who were, for a variety of reasons – whether because they were nerdy, or more effeminate, or overweight, or socially awkward – emasculated by the patriarchal norms described in the act-like-a-man box. Instead of burning the box and liberating themselves, they retreated further into it, where they found Donald Trump and Milo Yiannopoulos waiting to exploit their anxieties and insecurities for profit and for power.
Jacob wasn’t a gamer, but he was in the act-like-a-man box too, and Trump and Yiannopoulos found and converted him too. These Lost Boys, as Penny calls them, were lost because they – for whatever reason, or for many reasons – couldn’t live up to the pressures of socially constructed toxic masculinity. So they turned to people who could help redefine that.
This is probably key to why Milo Yiannopoulos so appealed to these young men. Sure, as Penny points out, they weren’t gay, but Yiannopoulos simultaneously defied the norms of masculinity – camping it up, wearing his pearls, openly talking of sucking dick – while being embraced by the patriarchy. If he could do it, they likely thought, so could they. It actually makes perfect sense that Yiannopoulos was the standard bearer of these Lost Boys. He accessed the social currency they desperately want to possess.
Of course key to all of this is how they viewed what it means to be a man. The toxicity isn’t only what it does to them, but what it does to others. That to them being a man meant dominance, violence, and sexual control of women is exactly what enables rape culture to thrive and domestic violence rates to stay abysmally high. It’s patriarchal, white supremacist bullshit that keeps women, racial minorities, LGBT people, and other marginalised groups oppressed. But – and this is a fact many leftists don’t want to grapple with – it also hurts white cis straight men who are denied agency unless they fit these narrow parameters of what it means to be a man.
It has been pointed out numerous times that Yiannopoulos was brought down not by his bigotry but the bigotry of others, whose homophobia was so triggered by what he said about the pederastic paradigm (and I do believe that’s what he was trying to say) that they exiled him from Trumpland. Whether his Lost Boys continue to follow him remains to be seen. Judging from the comments on his Facebook page, I think many will. I also think, as someone who has followed Yiannopoulos’ career since 2009 (which is around the time Penny and I first followed one another on Twitter), that we’ve not seen the last of him. His career has at least six lives left. What the next one manifests as, though, is anyone’s guess.
If Yiannopoulos can’t rehabilitate his image in the alt-right and even mainstream conservatism, someone will surely rise to take his place. As Penny’s article shows, there are plenty of Lost Boys waiting to play Peter Pan. One of them will assume the mantle in due course.
When they do, though, I hope we have a better understanding of who they are and what they’re all about. Because I think understanding the toxic masculinity – and the denial of it – that gave rise to Yiannopoulos and his cult following is important. Besides the obvious “know thy enemy” trope, if we’re ever to successfully deconstruct white heteropatriarchy, we have to know how it harms men too, and also what it can propel them towards. I chose feminism, socialism, and queer theory, opting to burn this shit to the ground. Yiannopoulos, Jacob, and others chose instead to find alternative means of accessing the power and privilege they felt they were denied. That is the more pernicious and dangerous path, one which has undoubtedly led us to where we are today – an era where the progress we’ve collectively made over the past 50 years is in its greatest peril.
We need to think about how we can reach, maybe not these men who are already lost causes, but other boys and men who could become them. And to do that, we need to grapple with toxic masculinity. We need to include it in our analyses and activism.
That doesn’t mean we stop centring women, people of colour, LGBT folks, disabled folks, immigrants, or any other marginalised group. We can’t. That work is too important – more important – and frankly more pressing. Lives are at stake. When you’re in the middle of a war you don’t ask the soldiers to think about how they’ll rehabilitate the enemy after victory. But for those of us who have the currency to spare, we should start examining these questions and considering how to raise principled and purposeful boys into feminist men.
None of this is to excuse any behaviour. “I was just following orders” wasn’t an excuse at Nuremburg, and it isn’t an excuse here. These assholes need to be held to account, full stop. And they cannot be let off the hook. Again, explanations are not excuses. But to not examine how they became who they are is to risk raising the next Milo Yiannopoulos.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a journalist and essayist based in Chicago. He writes about British and American politics and pop culture. His work has appeared at The Independent, The Huffington Post UK, The Daily Dot, and Salon. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan.