Talk show host Bill Maher has a thorn in his side, and it’s college kids.
His statements last Friday on Real Time with Bill Maher seemed to ally himself with conservative commentator Ann Coulter in her recent efforts to speak at the University of California, Berkeley. But they also spoke to Maher’s broader annoyance with university students across the country.
“They invite someone to speak who’s not exactly what liberals want to hear, and they want to shutter it,” he complained to that evening’s guest, conservative commentator S.E. Cupp.
Though Maher does not himself proclaim to be politically liberal, it is noteworthy that his efforts to reach out to extremely conservative personalities such as Coulter largely separate him from other political talk show hosts who use their air time to promote mostly liberal views.
In February, Maher rose to some notoriety for hosting far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos on Real Time after the infamous far-right personality was prevented from speaking at Berkeley for his own safety, due to campus protests that turned physically destructive. And yet, Maher’s preference to attack students’ voices and favor lectures from Yiannopoulos and Coulter demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding on his part, of what free speech entails and the media’s responsibility to handle it productively.
It goes without saying that free speech is paramount to American democracy. But it is difficult to understand how that translates into Maher’s hosting a hateful person on his show and imploring college students to listen to prejudiced speakers on campus. And moreover, it is curious that for someone as adamant about free speech as Maher claims to be, he is also just as fixated on not speaking: specifically, the silence he demands from college students who may have something to say about the nature of certain speakers on their campus.
Of course, it is important to note that Yiannopoulos was prevented from speaking at Berkeley because protests made the environment physically unsafe — and destructive action should never be tolerated, no matter how reviled the subject of a protest. But for those students who protested peacefully, who exercised their free speech respectfully, it was offensive and obnoxious for Maher to render their voices useless by extending an invitation to Yiannopoulos to come on his show, in a quiet studio unreachable by dissenting opinion.
What Maher and critics like him — who all, incidentally, tend to be of his age — don’t seem to understand is that students have every right to speak as the adults they are protesting. Evidently, Maher does not seem to grasp the motivation of peaceful student protesters — that students speak out not just because they disagree with Yiannopoulos and Coulter but also because they are worried what will come of those who listen to them. Will someone agree? Will someone change their minds on previously held values? Will someone begin to believe them?
It’s where Maher’s statement about Yiannopoulos — that “nothing could serve the liberal cause better than having him exposed” — begins to crumble, because if everyone knows Yiannopoulos is an idiot, why then must the media take him seriously? American students are right to be worried: Give a man a microphone, and there will always be those who walk away swayed by him.
Most tellingly, if Maher purports that exposure alone will rip the rug from under Yiannopoulos’ feet and the feet of speakers like him, then it is incomprehensible why when Yiannopoulos made the statement about actress Leslie Jones: “I said that she looked like a dude, which she does.”
Maher then replied: “Right.”
Yiannopoulos has an ugly history of trolling Jones, harassing her so vehemently that he drove her from Twitter. But for Maher to utter even a single syllable that agreed with the vitriol of his bitter guest? It is this statement that most firmly draws back the curtain on Maher’s costume of free speech warrior, that proves he called Yiannopoulos onto his show not to challenge or prove him wrong, but instead to make a point in the most highfalutin, overhanded way.
Even if it meant giving this man a platform through which he could reach millions.
Yes, Yiannopoulos made a fool of himself on Maher’s show, but this is not a revelation — no matter how much Maher would like to pat himself on the back for it. Yiannopoulos is a known provocateur and bigot, and the media has given him enough attention in the span of his short-lived, vocal career. It is true that in the past few months, the American public has witnessed Yiannopoulos’ downfall (due to recent statements from him that seemed to condone pedophilia), but it had nothing to do with Maher.
If Maher must insist on putting spotlights on controversial people, he need only look to fellow talk show host Trevor Noah of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show for how to do it right: specifically, an episode where Noah grilled conservative Tomi Lahren, formerly of TheBlaze, on her extreme views against issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement.
Lahren has, in the past month, stepped away from conservative pundit-dom for her pro-choice views on abortion — which resulted in her being fired from TheBlaze, leading her to promptly sue for wrongful termination. But that’s beside the point. What is the point is that her and Noah’s conversation on The Daily Show proves a shining example for how to handle controversial, conservative guests whose viewpoints may disagree with those of the majority of the show’s audience: engage them, challenge them and use words — not silence — to prove them wrong. That is the point of free speech, not to give the likes of Yiannopoulos a platform to talk unabated and then shush the people who take offense by his rhetoric.
Perhaps because he himself was once almost kept from speaking on the UC Berkeley campus, Maher seems to take a particular issue with that school, the same college where protests prevented Yiannopoulos from speaking and which now also shut out Coulter. On last Friday’s episode of Real Time, Maher condescended to his audience that “Berkeley, you know, used to be the cradle of free speech, and now it’s just the cradle for f-cking babies.”
Crybabies, snowflakes, whiners … where have students heard that one before? Perhaps most gravely of all, Maher’s criticism reflects the pushback many students felt in the days after Trump’s election, when white and conservative voters told them not to overreact to the prospect of a Trump presidency.
But the fact remains: Only a very specific demographic of the population can point at the diverse, colorful, sprawling American student body and tell them they are exaggerating about today’s whirlwind political climate. And the very act of accusing someone of overreacting to current events is so rich in unrealized privilege that it makes Maher seem naive. His penchant for jumping so quickly to criticize America’s youth aligns itself exactly with the sensitivity and narrow-mindedness he claims to oppose in students.
Maher’s move to congratulate himself as a free speech, anti-political correctness advocate, when what he’s actually advocating for is student silence, is not something young people should easily forgive nor forget. Maher displays not a penchant for free speech but instead a deep and imbedded contempt for American youth and their rights to express themselves. It has always been so easy to make fun of young people and what they say and believe in, but from someone as acerbic as Maher — it is disheartening to see and not worth young people’s time to watch.