Free Speech Fundamentals: Building a Platform

Milo's platform
It is without a doubt one of the sillier complaints that protestors at Milo's talks have regularly made when they are trying to shut him up for having conservative political opinions about freedom of speech.

For example, at UC Davis, where the protestors effectively shut down Milo's event the night before with their violence, after which the next day one of them demanded of Milo as he was talking to the crowd gathered outside to hear him speak (see video at 4:01): "Where's my platform? Where is everyone else's platform?" Milo admonished him: "You had it last night, brother," but of course the young man was not satisfied. He thought that it was Milo's fault that nobody wanted to listen to him.

Trigglypuff at UMass Amherst had the same complaint, if imperfectly expressed (see video at 1:26): "But this is free speech! If you're so concerned about free speech..."--meaning presumably hers, as she clearly wanted to continue shouting, "Fuck you!" in the middle of Christina Hoff Sommers's remarks rather than sit quietly and wait for the Q&A.

Somebody needs to get these kids a conch. (Does anyone still read Lord of the Flies in high school, or does it cut too close to the bone?) Not only do they seem to have no understanding of taking turns while speaking, they don't seem to have a clue about what it means to have a platform from which to speak. Maybe they think all they need is a megaphone--like the one Milo used at UCDavis when he was speaking outside--or a podium, like the one from which Sommers was attempting to speak.

Well, I have news for them. Nobody cares what they think. If they don't have a platform, it is not because someone has taken it away from them. It is because they have not built one in the first place.

UC Davis protestor's complaint
Much as they would like to think that they are striking a blow for freedom of speech, their response to popular, invited speakers like Milo and Sommers is pure envy. In effect, they are saying: "Why are all these people listening to him or her and not me? Shut him or her up, I want to speak!" It is they who want to steal somebody else's platform and make it their own, but as Milo has proven over and over again with his campus talks, that doesn't work. They can shout him down and make him change the venue for his talks, but they cannot steal his platform because his platform isn't a thing like a megaphone or a podium. It is the audience that he has built through his writing and speaking. And that is something that they cannot steal, only enhance by drawing attention to his speaking through their protests.

I have a message for all of Milo's protestors, as well as some words of advice that I hope will be helpful to his fans. If you don't want people giving their attention to particular speakers or writers, censorship and shouting is not the answer. What you need to do is build your own platform and offer something better.

Vox Day put it perhaps most powerfully: "Give a man a platform and he will speak his mind. Deny him a platform, and he will build his own...and you will never silence him again."

Here's how to build your own, starting with what not to do:

1. It's not about you. Nobody except possibly your mother is ever going to care as much about you as they do about themselves. Less bluntly, if you want to capture people's attention, start with something that will be of benefit to their own lives.

This, in a nutshell, is why identity politics are so seductive: they provide a ready-made platform for capturing people's attention. Everyone likes hearing about themselves, so if you give them something to identify with--being a woman or man, being white or black, being straight or gay, being American or Christian--you've already got them partially hooked.

Even Milo does this. If you aren't paying proper attention, you might think he talks only about himself, but in fact he almost never does. Sure, he talks in general terms about his black boyfriends and his hair, but what his audiences hear him talking about is themselves and the kinds of things that they are worried about.

It is much harder to get people to pay attention when they cannot see how what you are saying has any relevance to them. It is next to impossible when you have not earned their trust by offering them something of real value in exchange for paying attention to you.

2. Content matters. This should go without saying, but if you want people to listen to you, you have to have something to say beyond, "Fuck you!" You may get As on all your papers for school, but your teachers are paid to read them for you. (Your mother will read them for free.) Out in the marketplace of ideas, if you want someone to pay attention to you and perhaps even pay you for your words, you have to have something to sell.

Ideas do not come cheap. It may not take precisely 10,000 hours to become expert in your field, but it is going to take a long time and a lot of hard work. The reason that people invite Milo and Sommers to come speak to them on campus is because both have put in the years of work that it takes to become skilled and knowledgeable in a particular field. (I know, Milo is ridiculously young, but Brits mature early. It has something to do with their schools, although even there, they are doing their best to change it.)

Nor is it enough simply to know a lot of things. You need to be able to express your ideas clearly, which means practicing writing and speaking. All those papers you have written in school are just the beginning. Most writers have drawers and drawers full of journals, drafts, unpublished papers, notes from college and graduate school, exams, more unpublished papers, blog posts nobody will ever read. Nobody becomes a writer or a speaker overnight, even if the vicissitudes of fame sometimes make it seem that way.

If you start now, it will most likely take a minimum of ten years before you develop sufficient expertise and skill to impress anybody other than your dissertation committee. It will take even longer to impress your colleagues at your tenure review. Or to get a literary agent to read your work.

3. Sell yourself. You have ideas, you want to share them. And still nobody will listen. This is because you have forgotten lesson number one: it is not about you.

Attention is humanity's single most valuable resource. Nobody is going to give it to you unless you can persuade them to make the exchange. Sure, you could tie them to a chair and force them to listen to you (you can untie your mother now), but ideally you use words to capture their interest. Images can work, too, such as the photo of Milo looking gorgeous that I used to capture your attention for this blog post.

Aristocrats like Tocqueville could expect their readers to put up with almost anything--the more dignified and recherché the better--but those of us living in rough-and-tumble democracies have to build our audiences from the ground up. (Seriously, are you surprised that Trump was good at sales?)

Which is a good thing. It means we have to dig deep down into ourselves and figure out WHY what we are doing matters and then communicate that WHY to others. It means we have to learn how to make a pitch.

Pitches come in lots of sizes. They may be a single word: "Prayer." A question: "Would you like to learn how to pray like a medieval Christian?" They may rhyme: "Fencing Bear at Prayer." Or come in a subject line of an email or as the title to a blog post. Unless you're Milo or Martin Shkreli, they might even come in a Tweet.

If you're Pixar, they will come in the form of a story: "Once upon a time people prayed to the Virgin Mary. Every day they would say her Hours. One day a famous Frenchman named Voltaire made fun of this practice. Because of that everybody got embarrassed. Because of that nobody says her Hours anymore. Until finally Fencing Bear wrote a book explaining how important these prayers were for the history of Western civilization."

As Daniel Pink has shown, for a pitch to be successful, it needs to do one of two things: arouse curiosity or offer something useful. Promise to explain "how to" or get someone to wonder "why," and it is much more likely they will read your blog post or come to your talk. If you do it really well, they might even buy your book.

Pro tip: It also helps if you frighten them or make them think about sex. As in: "The Dangerous Faggot Tour."

4. Serve others. Are you sensing a theme here? Again, it is not about you. If you have gotten their attention, you now have a responsibility to come through with your promise to teach or entertain. This is why capitalism, contrary to everything you have most likely ever heard, is not just effective, but ethical. It depends, as George Gilder has shown, on thinking first about others and what they need.

In Gilder's words:
Capitalism begins with giving. Not from greed, avarice, or even self-love can one expect the rewards of commerce, but from a spirit closely akin to altruism, a regard for the needs of others, a benevolent, outgoing, and courageous temper of mind... Not taking and consuming, but giving, risking, and creating are the characteristic roles of the capitalist, the key producer of the wealth of nations, from the least developed to the most advanced.
Academics have a hard time with this truth. We think everyone should want to read our work because it is finely crafted and well-thought. But, again, we're not aristocrats; we have no captive audience, not even our students (who pay us to teach them). If we want them to listen to us, we need to think first about what they need. We need to learn to say what every shop assistant learns to say on the first day on the job: "How can I help you?"

Trump won because he promised to help Americans: "Make America great again." Clinton lost because she was worried more about herself: "Ready for Hillary."

5. Build relationships. Start long before you have something to say. Attend obsessively to the media in which you hope to build a platform. If you want to write, read books, journals, magazines, blogs, even the news. If you want to make videos, spend hours of your day watching YouTube. (You already do that? Good!) If you want to make music, listen to music. Pay careful attention to the writers, video and film makers, musicians, and other artists whom you admire. Follow their work, notice how it changes over time. Think about what they are doing to sell themselves and why you are attracted to their content. And then find ways to get in touch with them.

This is essential advice for those thinking of going to graduate school. Professors are people, too. (I know, we seem like robotic monsters sometimes, but trust me on this!) If you want to learn how to become a professor, you need to talk with a few of us. (Pro tip: That's why we have office hours.) And if you want to apply to the institutions where we teach to study with us, you need to convince us that you know something about our work that would make us a good fit to teach you.

Other professions have similar cultures of building contacts and relationships, but all have this feature in common: the people in them care more about themselves than they do about you. (They are not your mother.) Take an interest in them, their work. Find out what they are interested in, study it if it interests you. This way you will have something upon which actually to build a relationship, other than your desire to participate in their status, which, see above, is more about your wanting to steal their platform than serve them. Pro tip: They will know in an instant if your interest in their interest is faked.

Begin by listening to what others have to say. Encourage them to talk about themselves and take a genuine interest in their interests. You will win more friends if you make them feel important than you will by trying to make yourself seem important to them. Be sincere in your interest and your attention. Smile. Know their name.

6. Watch for envy. You know the saying, I'm sure. "Academic politics are so bitter because the stakes are so low." But, in fact, the stakes are incredibly high, they just don't always involve money. They involve something even more precious: attention. And nothing is more bitter than seeing somebody else get the attention that you feel like you deserve.

Well, you don't. Nobody deserves attention (except from his or her mother, and not even always then).

Here's the other thing about attention: you can never get enough. With the corollary: there will always be others who get more than you do.

Suck it up, and don't be greedy. This, as Bob Sorge has brilliantly shown, is the real lesson of the parable of the talents that Jesus told. Not, as those of us who grew up Presbyterian usually think about it: "Don't let your talents go to waste!" (Good Protestant work ethic there.) But rather: "Acknowledge the importance of having even one talent, rather than feeling envious of the ones who have two or five."

Every writer at some time or another obsesses about how many hits she is getting on her blog or how many copies of his book have sold. In academia, we get to practice this discipline every time we do a job search and have to eat our guts out over how much more our colleagues have managed to publish or how many invitations to lecture they have received.

It is the green-eyed demon who is goading you on to scream at other speakers so as to shut them down. Don't listen to it. Get on with your own work.

7. Give yourself a medal. Because no one else will. No, it is still not about you. But it is you who is trying to build a platform from which to speak. And this will take courage because nobody but you (and your mother) will want you to.

Your family will most likely mock you. Your friends will be nervous, lest you say something embarrassing about them. Or worse, say nothing about them at all. Others will be afraid of you, especially when it becomes clear that, thanks to the hard work you have put into developing your expertise, you know something that they don't. And if you say something that conflicts with what they have believed about themselves or their place in the world, they will come howling for your blood. At which point, even your friends who encouraged you in your earlier efforts will desert you, and you will be on your own. And this is if you are lucky: it means someone will have noticed what you have said.

The Cowardly Lion's medal for courage
It may take years for you to capture enough people's attention to be considered a threat. It may never happen. But if and when it does, cherish the few who do not desert you. Like Wisdom, they are more precious than rubies.

You think it is easy to stand up in front of an audience, even one that is not trying to shout you down? Thrilling, yes. Easy, no. Not even when you are as popular as Milo.

It is even worse having no audience at all, other than your mother. But in the end, she is the only one who really matters.

All other rewards for speaking are but dust in the wind.

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