Last Wednesday, the USC College Republicans hosted British journalist and businessman Milo Yiannopoulos for a rollicking evening of denying the existence of rape, rape culture and trauma all at once.
Nearly four years ago now, I was raped by a fellow USC student during my first undergraduate year. Today, as a graduate student, I work at a campus-based crisis center and lead a student coalition, RISE, that is attempting to address issues of sexual and gender-based harm. Given these experiences, it should surprise no one that I find the premise of Yiannopoulos’s visit appalling.
However, I also see it as evidence of a troubling trend I wish to address: the fallacious use of free speech arguments to silence individuals impacted by sexual violence and other forms of trauma.
College Republicans President Jacob Ellenhorn states that the organization brought Yiannopoulos to campus because “free speech is constantly under attack.”
They see Yiannopoulos as a free speech champion persecuted by leftist ideology. I see a grown man throwing a fit because people don’t want to listen to him. Yiannopoulos has exercised his right of free speech to make inaccurate and hateful statements, yet can’t understand why so many people have judged his discourse as harmful, counter-productive and a waste of their time.
Yiannopoulos, in his turn, denies the possibility that opinions can be harmful, or that words can shape reality, calling such ideas “preposterous.”
The Declaration of Independence? Certainly didn’t play a role in inspiring the American Revolution.
Mein Kampf, a manifesto of genocidal intent toward Jews? Who could have known?
How about the opinion held by a high-level university administrator that sexual violence isn’t a problem demanding serious attention? I can’t imagine that would have the slightest bearing on how a school chooses to approach the issue.
It is difficult to argue that words don’t carry power, particularly if you are Yiannopoulos, who makes a living off of them. For someone who laments the “assault [on] the First Amendment” over and above the assault of human bodies, Yiannopoulos certainly seems like the kind of person who thinks words, particularly his own words, matter a lot.
Directly acknowledging the power of words, however, sets Yiannopoulos at odds with his core argument: that rape culture isn’t real.
Rape culture does not necessarily mean a society that outwardly promotes rape. Rather, it refers to a society that commonly engages in behavior that excuses or otherwise tolerates sexual violence and affirms perpetrators’ choices to commit sexually violent acts.
Such is the effect of statements like Yiannopoulos’s, which justify the harassment of women based on their body type and declare the results of numerous studies on sexual assault to be “rubbish.”
Such is the effect of student organizations that prioritize their right to debate whether or not rape is a problem over stopping the rape that continues to be committed against our students.
Such is the effect of the repetition of myths about trauma coping mechanisms, so as to belittle the real impacts of trauma on the body and the brain.
We see an example of this last one in Daily Trojan’s own coverage of the Yiannopoulos event. In Kestine Thiele’s Oct. 8 piece, trigger warnings are described as disclaimers on academic texts which “allow students to opt out from reading them if they contain content that might cause unfavorable, emotional responses.”
From a trauma-informed perspective, this is simply not true. Trigger warnings are intended as an advisory to individuals who suffer from varying degrees of post-traumatic stress that may, within a particular text, trigger a traumatic flashback. This might happen when a veteran reads or watches a graphic account of war violence, or when a survivor of sexual abuse hears language similar to that used by their abuser.
It is both illogical and repulsive to suggest that trauma survivors are attempting to lighten their course load, or are not emotionally mature enough to handle the content of the course. Quite to the contrary, they are making their best attempt to manage their trauma symptoms and minimize the impact they might have on their learning and the learning of others. Yiannopoulos suggests that anyone triggered by classroom content should immediately be expelled; if we read between the lines, he is essentially saying that any student who has experienced trauma does not have a right to be here.
Acknowledging the impact of sexual violence and other trauma within the campus community does not prevent “the hard conversations”; it is the hard conversation. And it is Milo Yiannopoulos, the College Republicans and others who deny or dismiss violence who are refusing to engage.
Masters of Public Diplomacy second-year student