The School That Helped Make Milo Yiannopoulos
by Ansgar Allen
As a self-designated troll, Milo’s entire ‘brand’ is built on his ability to rile others. The public face of Milo Yiannopoulos is based on excess, wanton offence, and limit-testing transgression. Apparently it’s all over now, again, with further reports of the fall of Milo. But Milo will not disappear so long as the society that made him denies its collusion in his rise to fame. Milo is not a one-off, a social excrescence, a perverse and accidental creation of a social setup that remains, at its core, fundamentally decent. Nor is he simply the product of a ‘grotesque convergence of politics, entertainment and the internet’.
He is not so very deviant after all.
Milo’s hypermasculine taunts have clearly endeared him to the alt-right. But his reach extends far beyond it. His first Melbourne gig last year was distinguished by the apparent mainstream nature of the audience; ‘obvious members of the alt right were outnumbered by those conspicuous only by their ordinariness’. There were ‘even a few family groups’ and a ‘surprisingly high proportion of women’. As another example of Milo’s reach into the mainstream, the BBC’s website still hosts its own dark-lit, sultry interview with Milo. In part, this is down to the fact he deliberately confounds expectations of what a white supremacist should look and sound like, where Milo, of course, stridently denies that label.
There is also the disturbing ease with which those on the far right mobilise the idea of ‘free speech’, tying liberals in knots. See, for example, all the commentary and First Amendment handwringing that accompanied Milo’s planned Berkeley appearance last February. Though public figures such as Milo cultivate themselves as toxic individuals, deliberately confecting and publicising offensive opinions, they are very much the product of the liberal order they exploit.
Milo’s cultural crusade against the so-called tyranny of the left and the ‘cuckservative’ right draws from the liberal culture it taunts. Commentators complain that the alt-right has ‘weaponized the concept of free speech’, using ‘free speech’ against itself, to attack colleges and universities that have long promoted a more tolerant liberalism. The use of free speech by the alt-right is undoubtedly an excessive, unpleasant outgrowth, but an outgrowth nonetheless.
So what of the school that helped make him? This boys’ grammar was a school I also attended in the 1990s, with Milo a couple of years below me. Though we did not know each other, I recognise aspects of the personality type our school encouraged.
Our former school has also been in the news. Under a later headmaster, it invited Milo back in 2016, an invite that was ultimately cancelled following an intervention by the Department for Education Counter Extremism Unit. Last November, it was back in the headlines, this time for creating an “unsafe space” – where texts such as Hitler’s Mein Kampf might be read – to offer an “antidote to the poison of political correctness”.
The school that I knew in the ’90s did not pull such stunts, though the effects of school culture were invidious. Describing himself as a “perpetual 14 year old”, it is easy to see how Milo’s toxic masculinity borrows in part from a school environment that was largely made up of white, middle-class boys.
Harder to pinpoint, but recognisable nonetheless in Milo’s public demeanour, are the rhetorical skills of public speaking and debate we were rehearsed in, and the kind of outward comportment and confidence this encouraged.
The school was run under a headmaster who would arrive on stage enrobed, and silently take position in a throne-like chair, with a similar though slightly less elaborate chair for the visiting speaker, or failing that, the deputy head. It was a performance, a daily ritual that set the tone for the school.
The outward comportment modelled here, was very much part of the whole school culture, encouraged most explicitly in the daily assembly where chosen boys would deliver a religious or secular text to the rest of the hall. These boys were picked for their apparent confidence and force of delivery. The same characteristics were encouraged in the school plays, debating society, and youth parliament, where the latter introduced us to democracy in its most reduced contrarian form, with boys simply assigned a “side” to defend. The local conservative MP was invited to our rehearsal and promptly fell asleep. Teachers and boys alike pretended he was awake, and did their best to mimic the combative braggadocio of the Commons.
With puffed up chests, and posh voices, we were engaging in yet another performance that privileged rhetorical display and self-projection above socially and politically contexted thinking. We were, in effect, kept unaware of the social consequences and context of such debate, which was reduced to an exercise in delivery. This is not so very distant – in form, though not content – from the “self-aggrandizement and scattershot thinking” identified by Ivers in his editorial comments on Dangerous.
The moral bankruptcy of the school (and the grammar school system) was evident in the symptomatic behaviour of its pupils, as it was acted out in further, more debased forms. One example, which Milo may well have witnessed, was the performance our sixth from gave for the rest of the school.
Every year the upper sixth would put on a show for the lower years. The assembly was ours for a morning. These were traditionally fairly gentle affairs. Those selected to represent our year, however, staged a whole sequence of deliberately irreverent acts, including the inevitable Ali G impersonator, and streaking through the quad. The most perverse and offensive performance was the staged beating of a boy pretending to be a wheelchair user. I recall the headmaster at the back of the hall as he quickly, silently retreated to the staff room, perhaps himself dimly aware of what the school had not so much unleashed as provided the framework for.
Milo undoubtedly travelled far beyond the moral outlook of that school. To the extent it helped produce him, it did so unwittingly. Yet the culture of privilege and self-entitlement that accompanies a selective school such as this lives on, distantly related, but distinguishable nonetheless. It can be found in the socially malignant, self-championing spectacle he cultivates.
Photograph by Max Klingensmith.
About the Author:
Ansgar Allen is Lecturer in Education at the University of Sheffield. He is the author of The Cynical Educator (Leicester: Mayfly, 2017) and blogs at ansgarallen.wordpress.com.