‘The Triggering’ Was The End of the Beginning

Treat Shepardson


If you were at Hampshire last spring semester, you may remember it as a chaotic and recriminatory time for our community. Controversies boiled up over the status of dining commons workers, the management of the cultural center, the school’s handling of sexual assault, and the role of students in making decisions—and came to a head in a fateful community meeting, that went downhill quickly. I’m not writing this to dredge up old grievances, but to remind you of a controversy from that time which you might have forgotten about—or, if it affected you personally, that you may never have been able to stop thinking about.

On April 25th of last year, UMass Amherst’s College Republicans, a coalition of dullards presumably killing time while coasting towards lucrative careers in finance, and previously known for inviting septuagenarian neocons like Karl Rove and John Ashcroft to the school, hosted a very controversial panel, titled “The Triggering: Has Political Correctness Gone Too Far?”. It was a hat trick of entertainers glomming on to the incipient alt-right movement to command a higher speaking fee. First, Steven Crowder, a conservative comedian who hit a lifetime peak when, as a child, he briefly voiced The Brain on “Arthur,” and who has since distinguished himself by rapping at CPAC (the annual conservative leadership conference in Washington) and making Youtube videos with titles such as “HIDDEN CAM: Transgender Dog Prank.” Next, Christina “Based Mom” Hoff Sommers, who is a sort of confidence artist that appears on various major media outlets to argue that feminism is harmful to women and victimizes men. Sommers’ other gig is at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank known for offering scientists $10,000 to publish skeptical opinions on global warming.

Then there was Milo. If you didn’t at the time know about Milo Yiannopoulis–  a Breitbart contributor and human cartoon whose brand is basically made out of the three pillars: transphobia, Islamaphobia, and dressing like Itchy & Scratchy’s one-time guest star Poochie–  you probably know about him now. But we’ll get back to that.

Naturally, there was a great deal of displeasure about UMass hosting this event, and a desire to see the panel disrupted or denied a platform, especially in our neck of the woods. Weeks in advance, the event’s Facebook page had become a sort a proxy war between supporters of the UMass GOP and prospective protesters. I was banned from posting on this page after attempting to share several unedited screenshots from Steven Crowder videos, but, naturally, conservative students have a right to a safe space online, so I get it.

There were, also, efforts at organizing underway; groups of students trying to decide how best to disrupt the event, whether to protest outside or shut it down, how to get the word out. I followed these efforts for a while, but ultimately decided not to go to the event. I figured the speakers didn’t have much of a platform anyway, and creating controversy around them would only play into their hands by raising their profile. In the past year, I have seen myself proven wrong, and the students who did turn out to protest vindicated.

A group of Hampshire students showed up to the panel, and were among those who would become notorious for yelling and interrupting the speakers. The initial response to all of this, though, was tepid. The Amherst Wire, one of the school’s student newspapers, published an article a few days afterward essentially bashing the protesters and recapitulating the “free speech” argument in favor of the event. The Daily Collegian, which had published a mild criticism of the panel beforehand, covered it in totally neutral terms. In fact it was the Tab, not a student paper at all but an amorphous sort of social media platform, that hosted the only published condemnation of the event and (partial) defense of the protesters I could find for a very long time, under the title “Here’s Where ‘The Triggering’ Went Wrong.”

Then the story started to go viral. First a video circulated, then a series of conservative outlets I had never heard of and will never hear of again picked up the story about “outrageous” protesters; before you knew it, students were being doxxed and harassed online, featured on a notorious Worcester, Massachusetts sexual predator’s blog, and mocked on Fox News and Breitbart. As things got worse, no apology was forthcoming from UMass, the College Republicans, the speakers, the event organizers, or the students who had posted the videos online.

Since the event, there has been a gradual, eerie mainstreaming of the ideas it represented, particularly by Milo. It wasn’t only Breitbart becoming the de facto organ of the Trump campaign, and Steve Bannon becoming a major player in American politics. It wasn’t just the bizarre rise to prominence of white supremacist Richard Spencer (or his being punched in the face on inauguration day, although that was a truly joyful moment). It was not even only Trump’s election; it’s the fact that we have, for the better part of a year now, had to take seriously the prospect of a fascist America, and that if peaceful, liberal answers to hatred and violence ever seemed reasonable or practical to you, they shouldn’t still.

In June of last year, Emmet Rensin, a graduate student and contributor to Vox, was suspended for tweeting what in 2017 feels like a popular sentiment: “If Trump comes to your town, start a riot.”

Milo’s had a busy year. In December of 2016, he outed a transgender student at UW-Milwaukee during a speaking stop. The student in question wrote an open letter in response to the college president’s non-apology, which went viral. Earlier that month, he had attacked a professor at West Virginia University who publicly presented himself as an advocate for LGBT and minority students, calling him a “fat f—t.” In January, he displayed the Immigration and Customs  Enforcement (ICE) Hotline’s number in a slide show at the University of New Mexico, essentially encouraging students to snitch on their undocumented peers.

At the end of January, a man was shot while protesting at a Milo event at the University of Washington in Seattle. The man was unarmed,and nonviolent, said to be attempting to de-escalate the protest when he was shot.

Milo’s done plenty of other reprehensible things this year as well, including depositing money he had raised for a scholarship into his personal bank account, and endorsing libel laws that give the lie to “free speech” having anything to do with his cause. But I’m not here to convince you he is a bad person–I’m sure you can figure that out on your own. I am here to argue that the damage Milo does wherever he appears is intolerable, and that the resistance he was met with here was the beginning of a rising tide.

At the beginning of this month, in the same week that people assembled at airports around the country to protests the president’s Muslim ban, something like a riot broke out at the University of California, Berkeley. It was a mass demonstration against a Milo speech, the biggest and most organized yet, and it ended as a confrontation with the police and a presidential tweet threatening to defund UC. That should sound familiar to Hampshire students, as the last time the then-president-elect got riled up about college campuses by Fox News, he was watching their coverage of our “flag burning” controversy.

Kumars Salehi, a PHD student at Berkeley, tweeted after the incident that Milo’s event would have included “the outing of undocumented students and show[ing] College Republican dickwads how to do it, too.” It is not right to shut down the alt right just because it feels cathartic or our cause is righteous. Each victory takes away some of their ability to do material harm to vulnerable people.

So I am going to express a point of view that is considered unacceptable at a major media outlet, but would be suicidal not to hold at an underfunded college: when the alt right comes to Western Mass, make UMass look like UC Berkeley. Or at least stand by the people who will; don’t moralize to them, or ignore them, or write something equivocal and call it a day. Lend your voice to them. Your community and your school may be on the line.

All of our enemies are friends. Milo’s third-favorite target after transgender people and immigrants is the livelihood of college professors, particularly those who work in fields that relate to social justice in some manner: cultural studies, gender studies, queer theory. The people who book him get gigs writing for websites like Campus Reform, the College Fix, Red State, the Daily Wire, and Breitbart. Often these organization are directly plugged into the wider conservative lobbying and think-tank networks that seek to subvert the things that make higher education as it exists possible: pell grants, federal student loans, affirmative action, and public university systems. It makes no sense for schools to invite as guests people who want to destroy them, tolerant or not.

Nor do these people stop doing harm when we tolerate or ignore them. The harassment campaigns continue long after protests subside. Milo, in particular, excels at this: he commands a small but dedicated legion of fans who will essentially go after anyone online, for no cause. Though he is able to distance himself from the worst actions of his followers at will, this tactic has been familiar since he first rode to prominence on the coattails of “Gamergate,” which was little other than a campaign against women on the internet. The people that want to attack your school and your friends are anonymous and geographically disperse. As the Hampshire students who went to The Triggering know, there is little we can do to hold them accountable legally or institutionally.

So yes, when the alt right comes to your town, start a riot. But also, don’t do what we did last spring. Don’t let those who go to oppose them go quietly or in vain. Support them, celebrate them. Throw a party.


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