Understanding behaviour and condoning behaviour are two different actions. They only sound alike, and in our era of instant "likes" and emoji disapprovals, it can be difficult to sort out the intent from the response. To say you "get" why a person has done a bad thing often leaves you open for the criticism that you are endorsing said bad thing. I use this rule: I understand why a drunk driver crashes his car into a tree. Because he was drunk, and behind the wheel. I do not condone drinking and driving, because it kills people (and trees).
Distasteful celebrities like former "alt-right" darling and professional bigot Milo Yiannopoulos, however, make this distinction more difficult to parse. Yiannopoulos is a nasty and cruel hate-monger, a vicious creature propped up by the U.S. far-right who enriched himself by selling prejudice, racism and lies. And until his spectacular fall from the conservative clouds earlier in February, Yiannopoulos was being touted as the "new Ann Coulter."
Again, no reasonable person could ever condone Yiannopoulos's writings or the ideas he disseminated. Personally, I am unable to read more than a paragraph of his essays. I cannot bear to watch him on television. And yet, to my horror, I think I now understand what propels a person like Yiannopoulos to make a living off of hate.
Yiannopoulos has been set adrift by his former comrades in the alt-right due to the ill-informed (to put it mildly) comments he made while being interviewed for a podcast. In that interview, he cited his own experience of sexual abuse as a child to then suggest that some sexual relations between adults and children could be "perfectly consensual." When I first heard of these career-killing remarks, I suddenly realized how much sense his dreadful behaviour made to me.
Like Yiannopoulos, I am also a survivor of child sexual abuse, and I'm glad the life choices I made in my early adulthood did not turn me into a monster. And hell knows my own ground was fertile for just such a result.
When you are sexually abused as a child, you grow into your adult sexuality full of rage. Your first experiences of sexuality are poisoned by distrust, anger and confusion. You have learned to hate being sexual. And yet, there you are, out in the world, horny and trying to have fun and new experiences.
You are faced with an infuriating interior conflict: any act of sexual expression feels toxic, no matter how romantic or thrilling it might be at first, but you nevertheless want sex, like everybody else, like all the happy people. Subsequently, you lash out at everything that seems normal and contented. I certainly did.
Sexual-abuse survivors easily drift into what a friend of mine once dubbed "rageaholism." The only reaction, sometimes the only emotion that makes sense to you as a young adult is anger, mountains of anger. Anger, you know; anger is your oldest friend. I lashed out at everyone around me in my twenties. I sought out aggressive social movements and politics. I made very angry art. And every time I lashed out, directly or via my works, I felt confirmed in my actions because anger feeds on itself. And then I sought help and broke the cycle. I consider myself lucky, not smart.
Now, let's state the obvious: People make choices. Yiannopoulos chose to become famous by hurting others. He chose to transform his rage into a one-man campaign of vitriol. He even turned on his own (and my) community and became an anti-gay gay. There is no way to make his behaviour acceptable. But there is a way to understand it. Perhaps that sounds too kind, too generous? But I will never apologize for trying to understand other people, even those least worthy of the gesture, because I don't want another Milo Yiannopoulos to take up where the original left off.
As a victim of childhood sexual abuse, he was, in essence, trained by the abuse and its lingering aftershocks to become a spectacular monster. That's what sexual abuse does to the adult survivor: It offers you an opportunity to become what you dislike most about yourself and then regard that persona as your correct, natural identity. Sexual abuse leads you down a hall of mirrors and rewards you with a false sense of (always temporary) calm if you decide that the most warped reflection, the most broken mirror, matches your reality.
Yiannopoulos's decision as he walked down that shiny hallway, the decision to not fight the lowest instincts he was taught to naturalize, and indeed to profit off his basest impulses, makes him all the more repellent. He chose the easy way out of the looking-glass nightmare, chose to keep on raging.
I cannot condone his actions. But I recognize that furious, screaming child that lives inside of him.