Thousands of people called Simon and Schuster in the last few weeks to ask them to cancel the lucrative book deal they offered self-styled libertarian “bad boy”, Milo Yiannopoulos. That there are things to loathe about his ideology should be fairly obvious to my readers–his sexism, racism, and even threats to people’s life and safety speak for themselves. Despite, and probably because, of the public uproar, S&S persisted in keeping the contract in place.
What eventually led to the book deal’s cancelation, as well as the cancelation of his CPAC participation, was his commentary on pedophilia. All around me, people are treating this outcome as good news.
A few folks have bitterly remarked on the fact that all of Yiannopoulos’ other transgressions were not sufficient to put him in political and commercial disfavor. I share the bitterness, but I also think it’s fairly naive; I am familiar enough with the book publishing business, and have seen enough of the current administration, to understand that any such controversy simply means more publicity and better business. More people clamoring to cancel the book deal directly translate into more books sold. Controversy is good for commerce. I was one of the thousands of callers, but did so reluctantly, for precisely this reason.
The other part of the bitter equation is a bit more difficult to see through the lens of our own biases, and that is the broad consensus, shared apparently by conservatives and progressives alike, that anyone perceived as reaching out to pariahs should become a pariah by association. As Chrysanthi Leon explains in Sex Fiends, Perverts, and Pedophiles, one of the marked trends in our treatment of sex offenders in the last few decades has been to lump everyone into the same reviled group, even though there are many distinctive and different categories of sex offenders, and even though sexually deviant propensities do not necessarily translate into sexually transgressive behavior that victimizes others.
This dangerous focus on pedophiles is a distraction from the fact that most sex crimes against children are perpetrated by someone known to the child–a family member or a friend of the family. And unsurprisingly, it is precisely these crimes that go underreported. We tend to confuse pedophilia (the transgressive propensity) with sexual molestation (the transgressive behavior) because of availability bias: the people whom we know as pedophiles are familiar to us because they were caught. Not all child molesters are pedophiliacs, and not all pedophiliacs are child molesters. If anything, our attitude of revulsion and ostracism against pedophiliacs is what, perversely, might lead some of them to act out their fantasies.
Since the Yiannopoulos affair ended up working in “our” favor (whoever “our” refers to), people are less likely to examine and critique the perniciousness of our treatment of pedophiles, and far less likely to see how this vast consensus stands in the way of people’s rehabilitation and therapy. They are also less likely to examine another pernicious aspect of this: that Yiannopoulous happens to be gay is going to lump him, in the eyes of a considerable part of the population, with the pedophiles he was presumably supporting. Even if you don’t find that you can extend sympathy to someone who cannot help their proclivities (even though they absolutely can refrain from acting on those proclivities), you might feel less sanguine about this whole situation when you consider that one of its unfortunate outcomes is that it will solidify, for some conservatives and centrists, the link between gay people and child molestation, which we have worked for so many decades to overcome.
The publisher’s decision in this case shows not only that controversy sells, but that biases and ostracism are alive and well. I find it a pyrrhic victory.