It’s easy to laugh, as some of us do, at the phrase “conservative intellectual.” When the most prominent public spokesmen for the right’s ideas include Milo Yiannopoulos, Charles Murray, and Dinesh D’Souza, one might conclude that the movement does not have anything serious to offer beyond “Feminism is cancer,” “Black people are dumb,” and “Democrats are Nazis.” (Those are, as I understand it, the central intellectual contributions of Yiannopoulos, Murray, and D’Souza, respectively.)
But according to the New York Times, it would be a mistake to write off Conservative Thought so hastily. For we would be overlooking one crucial figure: Ben Shapiro. Shapiro, we are told, is “the cool kid’s philosopher, dissecting arguments with a lawyer’s skill and references to Aristotle.” The Times quotes praise of Shapiro as a “brilliant polemicist” and “principled gladiator,” a quick-witted man who “reads books,” and “takes apart arguments in ways that make the conservative conclusion seem utterly logical.” Shapiro is the “destroyer of weak arguments,” he “has been called the voice of the conservative millennial movement.” He is a genuine intellectual, a man who “does not attack unfairly, stoke anger for the sake of it, or mischaracterize his opponents’ positions.” He is principled: he deplores Trump, and cares about Truth. Shapiro’s personal mantra, “Facts don’t care about your feelings,” captures his approach: he’s passionate, but he believes in following reason rather than emotion. Shapiro, then, represents the best in contemporary conservative thinking. And if the cool kids have a philosopher, it is worth examining his philosophy in some depth.
I will confess, I had not spent much time listening to or reading Ben Shapiro before reading about him in the New York Times. That might be a damning sign of my own closed-mindedness: here I am, a person who considers himself intellectually serious, and I have written off the other side without even engaging with its strongest arguments. So I decided to spend a few wearying days trawling through the Shapiro oeuvre, listening to the speeches and radio shows and reading the columns and books. If Shapiro had arguments that Destroyed and Decimated the left, I wanted to make sure I heard them. I consider myself a bit of a leftist, and I like to know when I’ve been decimated.
I’ll admit that I was not immediately dazzled by the force of Shapiro’s intellect. I started with his controversial recent Berkeley speech. Toward the beginning, he addressed Antifa protesters, whom he called “communist pieces of garbage”: “You guys are so stupid… you can all go to hell, you pathetic, lying, stupid jackasses.” According to the Times, there is a wide gulf between Trump/Yiannopoulos-style vulgar conservatism and Shapiro-style Logical conservatism, but I just am not sure that I see in “Go to hell, you communist piece of garbage” the kind of “polemical brilliance” that Shapiro is reputed to demonstrate. The rest of the speech, when it got beyond making Botox jokes about Nancy Pelosi, was strong on insults (“pusillanimous cowards,” “hard-Left morons,” “uncivilized barbarians”) and light on actual argumentation and substantive factual claims. Shapiro did say that the alt-right are full of “bullshit” and that the left overstates the threat posed by Shapiro’s speeches. (Both true.) The main thrust of the speech, though, is that America is the greatest country in the world, that there are no real injustices facing black people, women, and poor people, and that if you don’t do well economically here it’s entirely your fault. As he says:
This country is an amazing place full of opportunity. Nobody, by and large, cares enough about you to stop you from achieving your dreams. That includes you, people who are shouting out there in the audience. No one cares about you; get over yourselves. I don’t care about you; no one cares about you…That means, in a free country, if you fail, it’s probably your own fault.
Shapiro scoffs at all claims that racism is a serious problem facing black people. This is in part because “I wasn’t an adult when Jim Crow was in place… and I would bet you money that the people in this room haven’t acted in a racist manner, that they haven’t held slaves, or voted for Jim Crow.” He says the idea that black people’s disproportionate poverty has anything to do with racism is “just not true,” and tosses out a few points to prove that the importance of race is overstated: First, Asian Americans are wealthier than white people, which would be impossible if racism determined economic outcomes. (Shapiro doesn’t mention that the vast majority of Asian American adults are immigrants, and they are disproportionately from the wealthier and more highly-educated segments of their own countries.) Second, he says, people of any race who work full time, are married, and have high school diplomas tend not to be poor, meaning that poverty is a function of one’s choice not to do these things. (In fact, this theory, widely cited by conservatives, turns out to be vacuous: of course people who have full-time jobs usually aren’t in poverty, the problem is that black people disproportionately can’t get jobs.) Next, Shapiro says that because black married couples have a lower poverty rate than white single mothers, “life decisions” are what creates poverty. (Actually, even when two black people pool their wealth in a marriage, “the median white single parent has 2.2 times more wealth than the median black two-parent household.”) Finally, Shapiro says that the disproportionately black population in America’s prisons say nothing about racism, because black people simply commit more crimes, and “if you don’t commit a crime, you’re not going to be arrested for it” because “the police are not going around arresting black people for the fun of it.” (I have some black men in Louisiana I’d like Shapiro to meet so that he can explain his theory that people do not get arrested for crimes they haven’t committed. But I’d also like to hear him explain why black men receive 20% longer sentences for the same crime as white men with similar backgrounds.)
What dispirited me about Shapiro’s approach is that he’s clearly not actually very interested in Facts at all. The role that race plays in American life is a serious sociological question, one that isn’t answered easily. But Shapiro plucks only the statistics that suggest race doesn’t matter, and pretends the statistics that suggest it does matter don’t exist. Nobody can trust him, because if he comes across a finding showing that incarceration rates more closely follow crime rates than racial demographics, you can bet it will appear in his next speech. But if someone shows that a white man with a criminal record is far more likely to receive a job callback than a black man without a criminal record, you’ll never hear it mentioned. It would be perfectly reasonable for Shapiro to critique these findings; sociologists critique each other all the time. Instead, he selects only the parts of reality that please him. Just look at his reply when he was asked about the black-white wealth gap: “It has nothing to do with race and everything to do with culture.” That’s a strange thing to say, because the wealth gap has existed continuously since the time of slavery: average black net worth has always been lower than white net worth, and there were massive structural obstacles to the black accumulation of wealth well into the 20th century, as we can see in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writings on the lasting impact of housing policy. Family wealth is passed down intergenerationally, and so it’s hard to conclude that the fact that the average white family has $13 of wealth for every $1 of wealth held by a black family is the sole result of spontaneous contemporary black cultural choices, with no historical component whatsoever. The impact of human decisions on outcomes, and the factors that shape the available range of choices, are difficult topics in social science with no easy answers. But one thing we do know is that, since black people were enslaved for 246 years (and free for 152), and Jim Crow was in operation during the time of people who are still alive (thereby being a core determinant of both their life outcomes and the capital that they were able to pass onto their own children), anyone who says “culture is everything” and “race is irrelevant” is not actually seriously interested in trying to figure out how the world works.
In investigating Shapiro’s works, then, the first sign that he might not be a “philosopher” was that he didn’t seem especially interested in the central task of philosophy, namely the critical scrutiny of your own beliefs. Shapiro’s worldview is fixed and immovable. Watch the video of his answer on the racial wealth gap: when his black co-panelists laugh at his answer about culture, he does not think to himself “Hm, perhaps they know something I don’t know about what it is like to be black,” he thinks “They must be irrational and in need of my wisdom.” He doesn’t listen to anyone, he just confronts them.
My initial impressions were also soured by Shapiro’s casual bigotry. That may not be the wisest observation to lead with: I’m sure Shapiro would be very pleased with himself to hear me call him a racist. (Though Shapiro always looks somewhat pleased with himself.) Nothing could better prove his point: the left has no arguments, so they resort to calling people they dislike “racists.” And since he explicitly says that he isn’t a racist, what am I doing if not using the classic left-wing “bullying” tactic of dismissing your opponent as a nasty, bigoted individual?
But, well, I don’t know what else to call a statement like this: “Israelis like to build. Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage.” (Shapiro followed it with the hashtag #SettlementsRock.) Arabs like to bomb crap and live in sewage. Perhaps I’m crazy. Perhaps there’s a definition of the word “racism” that wouldn’t include a statement like that. But since the statements “Black people are violent and want to live in sewage” or “Jews are violent and want to live in sewage” would both sound… somewhat racist, I don’t see how the conclusion can be avoided. What do you call a crass pejorative generalization about an entire ethnic group? I know one word, but I’m open to others. (By the way, it’s amusing that Shapiro can see Gazan children swimming in sewage and think “Wow, Arabs must just really have a thing for sewage,” a train of reasoning roughly akin to “Wow, Haitians must really love dying in earthquakes, since a lot of them seem to have done it.” Though I am reliably informed that Shapiro is a master of logic, so I am sure there is more to this than mere simple-minded prejudice.)
Shapiro’s thoughts about Arabs are all along similar lines. Usually conservatives are careful to draw a distinction: they are not condemning an ethnicity, but rather adherents to an ideology, namely Islamism. Not so with Shapiro: for him, the problem is not Islamism or even Islam writ large. It’s Arabs: “The Arab-Israeli conflict may be accurately described as a war between darkness and light. Those who argue against Israeli settlements—outposts of light in a dark territory—argue for the continued victory of night.” Arabs “value murder” while Israelis “value life,” and “where light fails, darkness engulfs.” Arabs are therefore, as an undifferentiated unit, a people of darkness. Palestinian Arabs are the worst of all: they are a “population rotten to the core… Palestinian Arabs must be fought on their own terms: as a people dedicated to an evil cause.” The “Arab Palestinian populace… by and large constitutes the most evil population on the face of the planet.” Since they’re “rotten to the core,” there’s no such thing as a good Arab: your evil is defined by your ethnicity, by being a member of the People of Darkness and Murder rather than the People of Goodness and Light. Again, it may just be my failure to understand Facts and Logic, but I am having trouble understanding how population-level generalizations about the moral characteristics of particular ethnic groups can be anything other than bigotry.
Shapiro has been clear about the implications of his view of Arabs as a dark and murderous people. He has said that “Secular Zionism[, which] requires that Arab citizens of Israel be guaranteed equal rights,” “has always provided the seeds of [Israel’s] destruction.” Instead, “God’s road map requires the Jews to kill those who seek to kill them.” Since Arabs universally “value murder,” I can’t see how this is anything other than a philosophical justification of genocide. Shapiro has said that Arab nefariousness could be stopped without resorting to genocide, and is offended by anyone who tries to invoke the g-word to describe his beliefs. But since he has said (1) that Arabs are inherently murderous and bent on destroying Israel and (2) God permits Jews to kill those who seek to kill them, it’s hard to see how he could disagree with anyone who did advocate genocide, except on pragmatic grounds.
Shapiro once explained his actual preferred solution to the problem of the dark Arab hordes: mass expulsion. As he said, bulldozing Palestinian houses and subjecting them to curfews are insufficient “half-measures”: the only solution is to drive every last one of them forcibly from their homes and take their land:
The Arab enmity for Jews and the state of Israel allows for no peace process. The time for half measures has passed. Bulldozing houses of homicide bombers is useless. Instituting ongoing curfews in Arab-populated cities is useless… Some have rightly suggested that Israel be allowed to decapitate the terrorist leadership of the Palestinian Authority. But this too is only a half measure. The ideology of the Palestinian population is indistinguishable from that of the terrorist leadership. Half measures merely postpone our realization that the Arabs dream of Israel’s destruction. Without drastic measures, the Arab dream will come true… If you believe that the Jewish state has a right to exist, then you must allow Israel to transfer the Palestinians and the Israeli-Arabs from Judea, Samaria, Gaza and Israel proper. It’s an ugly solution, but it is the only solution… It’s time to stop being squeamish. (Odd that the NYT didn’t choose to quote this passage in its profile.)
Every last Arab—even those who are Israeli citizens—must be deported, Shapiro said, because their ethnicity means that they harbor a murderous “Arab dream.” But to anyone who thinks this sounds like the textbook definition of “ethnic cleansing,” he has a firm response: “It’s not genocide; it’s transfer. It’s not Hitler, it’s Churchill.” Shapiro is referring to the Allied expulsion of German-speakers from Polish territory immediately after World War II, in which “Anywhere from 3.5 million to 9 million Germans were forcibly expelled from the new Polish territory and relocated in Germany.” Shapiro favorably quotes Churchill’s desire that “There will be no mixture of populations to cause endless trouble … a clean sweep will be made.”
There is only one problem with the precedent cited by Shapiro: it is actually a forgotten historic atrocity, which was characterized by mass rape, torture, and murder, and left at least 400,000 people dead. Germans were interned in concentration camps and endured horrific journeys in which pregnant women froze to death. As Tara Zahra explains in a review of R.M. Douglas’s Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans After the Second World War:
After the Nazi defeat, the Volksdeutsche fled or were expelled to the West, and were stripped of their citizenship, homes and property in… “the largest forced population transfer—and perhaps the greatest single movement of peoples—in human history.” Douglas amply demonstrates that these population transfers, which were to be carried out in an “orderly and humane” manner according to the language of the Allies’ 1945 Potsdam Agreement, counted as neither. Instead…. they were nothing less than a “massive state-sponsored carnival of violence, resulting in a death toll that on the most conservative of estimates must have reached six figures.” …Ironically, then, the postwar population transfers completed a process of segregation and ethnic cleansing that Hitler himself had begun….Interned women throughout Czechoslovakia and Poland were subject to rampant sexual abuse, rape and torture. Germans were also forced to wear armbands or patches marked with the letter “N” for Nemec (German)—collective payback for the humiliation that the Nazis had inflicted on populations in the East. When they were finally transported west, the expellees traveled by cattle car, sometimes going with barely any food or water for up to two weeks. One victim recalled that each morning, “one or more dead bodies greeted us…they just had to be abandoned on the embankments.”… Douglas concludes by calling the expulsions a “tragic, unnecessary, and, we must resolve, never to be repeated episode in Europe’s and the world’s recent history.”
This is the model that Shapiro believed should be applied to the murderous Arabs. (Perhaps Israel could even have them wear patches with little “A”s on them. But that might seem a little racist, and Shapiro is firmly against racism.) Shapiro has since suggested that his position on ethnic cleansing has evolved (without admitting that he ever endorsed it), in part because large-scale population transfer is simply impractical. His position on the inherent evil of Palestinians, however, does not appear to have softened.
As I say, I realize I am playing right into Shapiro’s hands by invoking the r-word to describe his belief that Arabs are bomb-throwing sewage-dwellers who deserve to be ethnically cleansed. But I happen to think Shapiro is a bit inconsistent on this. His standard of evidence for what constitutes ethnic prejudice seems to vary based on who the target is. When it came to George Zimmerman, Shapiro concluded that “there’s no evidence of Zimmerman’s racism.” Bear in mind that Zimmerman: approached a stranger because they had a Confederate flag tattoo so he could brag about killing Trayvon Martin, got thrown out of a bar for calling someone a “nigger-lover,” ranted about his girlfriend sleeping with a “dirty Muslim,” tweeted that the lives of “black slime” don’t matter, labeled Barack Obama an “ignorant baboon,” posted memes comparing Michelle Obama to Chewbacca, and literally had a Confederate flag profile picture and sold paintings he did of said flag. (Oh, and he also murdered an unarmed black teenager and proudly posted a photo of the boy’s corpse on Twitter, but Shapiro has made it clear that he believes Trayvon Martin deserved to die.)
From that, we might conclude that Shapiro has an extremely high threshold for evidence he will consider sufficient to deem someone a bigot. But it doesn’t apply universally: Shapiro seems rather quick to accuse his opponents of anti-Semitic prejudice. That could be because they have described him as a “neoconservative,” which Shapiro considers an anti-Semitic slur. Or they could, like the “Nazis” at PETA, have diminished the relative value of Jewish lives by elevating the importance of animal lives. But nobody is quite as bad as Barack Obama, who Shapiro believes harbors a deep hatred of Jews. As president, Obama was a “philosophical fascist” whose anti-Semitism was “clear-cut.” To support the “fascism” charge Shapiro cites evidence like Obama’s “dictatorial demands (‘I want a jobs bill on my desk without delay’),” the “scornful looks and high-handed put-downs directed at his political opponents,” and the “arrogant chin-up head tilt he uses when waiting for applause.” Shapiro says that Obama’s vision for America is totalitarian, citing Obama’s hope that “the American people [should have] a government that matches their decency; that embodies their strength.”
Alright, well, we may disagree over whether pressuring Congress to pass a jobs bill makes you literally Mussolini. But Shapiro says the anti-Semitism part is clear-cut. Why? Well, the first piece of evidence is that when the Israeli military stormed an aid flotilla bound for Gaza, killing nine activists, the Obama administration soon released a statement saying that “The United States deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries sustained.” “How else are we to interpret [this] lightning-fast, knee-jerk anti-Israel response?” except as evidence of anti-Semitism, Shapiro asks. But perhaps you’re not convinced. Well, Shapiro has more. In 2009, Rahm Emanuel went to speak at AIPAC and told the audience that U.S. efforts to thwart Iran’s nuclear program would be conditional on successful resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict. This, Shapiro says, showed that Obama harbored a deep animus against Jews, because he holds Israel to a higher standard than he holds anyone else. And while it may have turned out that Rahm Emanuel never actually said anything like this, leading at least one other columnist to issue a correction, Shapiro stood firm. Not only did he not amend the story, but he later called Emanuel (who held Israeli citizenship for nearly two decades, whose middle name is literally Israel, and who even Jeffrey Goldberg thought made the idea of Obama being anti-Israel seem “a bit ridiculous”) a “kapo,” i.e. a Jew who does the Nazis’ bidding. Shapiro said that any Jewish person who voted for Obama was not really a Jew at all, but a “Jew In Name Only” serving an “enemy of the Jewish people.” They may “eat bagels and lox,” but by supporting an “openly” anti-Semitic administration they are “disgusting” and a “disgrace,” and the “twisted and evil” “self-hating Jews” who “enjoy matzo ball soup” and “emerged from a Jewish uterus” but nevertheless choose to “undermine the Israeli government” “don’t care a whit about Judaism” and in fact hold “anti-Semitic views.” (Those may be snippet-length quotes but go and read the columns if you suspect me of excising context or nuance.)
You must forgive me, then, for being somewhat confused by Shapiro’s conception of prejudice, which includes people who say “these deaths are regrettable” but excludes those who use the n-word and shoot black children in the face. But I realize I am missing the meat of the Shapiro philosophy. Nevermind Shapiro The Ethnic Cleanser, what about Shapiro The Destroyer Of Weak Arguments? Shapiro has built his reputation on his formidable ability to dismantle liberal orthodoxies, his dazzling use of logic to expose leftists as vacuous bullies who must stifle conservative speech because they cannot actually refute or debunk it.
I’d like, then, to closely examine how Shapiro destroys a liberal argument, in order to see his famous method at work. Let’s look at how Shapiro “debunks transgenderism.” When a student questioner confronted Shapiro about his belief that transgender women should not be considered women, here’s the argument he gave in defense of the position:
You’re not a man if you think you’re a man…. As far as the actual psychological issues at play, it used to be called gender identity disorder; now they call it gender dysphoria. The idea that sex or gender is malleable is not true. I’m not denying your humanity if you are a transgender person; I am saying that you are not the sex which you claim to be. [I]f you’re going to dictate to me that I’m supposed to pretend, I’m supposed to pretend that men are women and women are men, no. My answer is no. I’m not going to modify basic biology because it threatens your subjective sense of what you are.
When the questioner replied to suggest that transgender people just wanted to fit in, Shapiro hit her with a burst of Stone Cold Logic. After asking her how old she was, he asked her why she wasn’t a different age. Answer: because age is a fact not a choice. Then he asked her why she didn’t just change her species:
If I call you a moose, are you suddenly a moose? If I redefine our terms…
That’s a completely different thing.
Yes, that’s right. Men and women are a completely different thing. This is true. Have you ever met a man or a woman? They are completely different.
Shapiro’s position on transgender people is very simple then. He rejects “the pseudo-scientific nonsense that a man can magically turn into a woman,” because it is no different than thinking an undergraduate can turn into a moose. Shapiro says that “individuals who believe they are a different sex than that of their biology are psychologically ill—self-evidently so” and has compared the idea of being transgender to his schizophrenic grandfather who thought the curtains were speaking to him.
But for a man who loves Logical Argumentation and would never “mischaracterize his opponents’ positions,” Shapiro doesn’t actually seem to grasp what the left argument about gender actually is, or what it is he’s actually supposed to be disproving.
Here is the actual argument that is made: the traditional conception held by people like Shapiro has treated “sex” and “gender” as synonymous. You’re either a man or a woman. Which one you are is defined by your chromosomes. And because chromosomes are part of biology, and can’t be altered, you can—as Shapiro says—no more change your sex/gender through your state of mind than you could change your age. There are men and there are women:
The argument made by the left is that this simple story doesn’t account for something important: in the real world, we don’t form our understanding of whether someone is a man or a woman by their chromosomes. Instead, we form it by how they look and act. What people mean when they say that “gender is a social construct” is not that “chromosomes are a social construct” but that in practice, gender isn’treducible to chromosomes. In the two pictures above, the person on the left is actually a transgender man and the person on the right is actually a transgender woman. It would seem strange to call the person on the left a “woman” and the person on the right a “man,” because the fact that we associate gender with “masculinity” and “femininity” rather than just “chromosomes” means those words don’t seem to fit those people very well.
This is the reason why people started to draw a distinction between “sex” and “gender,” with sex referring to the biological component and gender referring to those qualities that seem much more fluid. Transgender people do not “think they are a different sex.” Instead, they realize that their “gender” doesn’t match their sex. As a transgender person explained in response to Shapiro, “most of the trans people I know, including myself, are under no delusion about what we were born as or what biological sex we are, we just feel uncomfortable with the features of our biological sex and seek treatment, usually, to alter those features and minimize our dysphoria.”
The dysphoria is not the “delusional belief that you don’t have a penis when you in fact do.” It’s the distress that comes from feeling like a member of the “female” gender despite having the “male” sex, or vice versa. The argument being made is that the existing way we classify sex/gender is not adequately describing the actual fact, which is that because gender captures more than just chromosomes, the traditional terminology causes confusion and needs revising. Scott Alexander has a poignant and funny essay explaining why categories like “male” and “female” are malleable and why we should adjust them depending on the goals we’re trying to accomplish:
In no case can an agreed-upon set of borders or a category boundary be factually incorrect. An alternative categorization system is not an error… Just as we can come up with criteria for a definition of “planet”, we can come up with a definition of “man”. Absolutely typical men have Y chromosomes, have male genitalia, appreciate manly things like sports and lumberjackery, are romantically attracted to women, personally identify as male, wear male clothing like blue jeans, sing baritone in the opera, et cetera. Some people satisfy some criteria of manhood and not others, in much the same way that Pluto satisfies only some criteria of planethood… For example, gay men might date other men and behave in effeminate ways. People with congenital androgen insensitivity syndrome might have female bodies, female external genitalia, and have been raised female their entire life, but when you look into their cells they have Y chromosomes. Most people seem to assume that the ultimate tiebreaker in man vs. woman questions is presence of a Y chromosome. I’m not sure this is a very principled decision, because I expect most people would classify congenital androgen insensitivity patients (XY people whose bodies are insensitive to the hormone that makes them look male, and so end up looking 100% female their entire lives and often not even knowing they have the condition) as women. The project of the transgender movement is to propose a switch from using chromosomes as a tiebreaker to using self-identification as a tiebreaker.
Shapiro thinks being transgender is a mental illness, just as he believes homosexuality should still be considered a mental illness (and was only taken off the list thanks to “pressure group influence”). But mental illness is another situation where the classifications we choose are choices: homosexuality does not “inherently” fit in the category of mental illness; a society decides what it wants to call “illness.” And since there seemed to be very little good to come from calling some perfectly ordinary human trait an “illness,” all this did was create unnecessary stigma. Likewise, it was decided that there was no reason to see “believing your gender identity to be different than your biological sex” an illness, so the DSM was revised accordingly, to focus on what did actually seem a problem, namely the distress this can lead to.
Gender and sex are complicated topics. There are a lot of unanswered questions (e.g. What is identity? Should gender be entirely subjective? What are the differences between racial and gender identity?) All of these, though, are attempts to work out how we should revise our categories in the way that best reflects the human reality and allows us to talk coherently. The traditional categories were just too simple to capture the more complicated facts of how gender actually works. (Actually, Shapiro himself inadvertently proved this. In discussing why he would never recognize Laverne Cox as a woman, Shapiro accidentally referred to Cox as “she” before quickly correcting himself. Why did he slip? Because Laverne Cox does seem like a woman, based on how the category “woman” is applied socially, and it feels weird to call her a man. Even Shapiro’s subconscious is telling him that transgender people should be referred to by the gender they present as rather than by their biological sex.)
Shapiro isn’t interested in discussing any of this seriously. Just look at how he distorted his questioner’s response about moose: he says “Why aren’t you a moose?” and when she replies “That’s different,” he interjects “That’s right, men and women are different.” She clearly said that species and gender are different (which they are, in that there’s a good argument for revising one of the categories but not for revising the other). But he tried to convince his audience that she had essentially conceded his point, by seizing on and spinning the word “difference.” (We call this “sophistry” rather than “logic.”)
At every turn, Shapiro shows that he simply wants to make his questioners look foolish, rather than present the facts fairly. Just look at his discussion of suicide and bullying:
The idea behind the transgender civil rights movement is that all of their problems would go away if I would pretend that they were the sex to which they claim membership. That’s nonsense. The transgender suicide rate is 40%. And according to the Anderson School at UCLA ….it makes virtually no difference statistically as to whether people recognize you as a transgender person or not… It has nothing to do with how society treats you… The normal suicide rate across the US is 4%. The suicide rate in the transgender community is 40%. The idea that 36% more transgender people are committing suicide is ridiculous. [Note: Shapiro has misconstrued a statistic on suicide attempts as a statistic on successful suicide] It’s not true and it’s not backed by any science that anyone can cite. It’s pure conjecture. It’s not even true that bullying causes suicide… There’s no evidence whatsoever that the suicide rate in the transgender community would go down in any marked way if people just started pretending that men were women and women were men.
I can’t find a study from the Anderson School about transgender suicide. The one UCLA study I can find on the subject, the one I think he must be referring to, directly contradicts Shapiro’s contention, concluding that “a higher than average prevalence of lifetime suicide attempts was consistently found among NTDS respondents who reported that they had been harassed, bullied, or assaulted in school by other students and/ or teachers due to anti-transgender bias” and “the prevalence of suicide attempts was elevated among respondents who reported experiencing rejection, disruption, or abuse by family members or close friends because of antitransgender bias.” (Another study found that “social support, reduced transphobia, and having any personal identification documents changed to an appropriate sex designation were associated with large relative and absolute reductions in suicide risk.”) So when Shapiro says that there’s “no evidence whatsoever” and it’s “not backed by any science,” it’s actually backed by the exact study he has just cited. (That study also demonstrates why another Shapiro talking point, that transgender suicides can’t be caused by prejudice because black people have low suicide rates, is false: a crucial determinant of suicide likelihood is people’s level of family support, and if black people have strong support networks, similar levels of discrimination could lead to differing levels of suicide.)
For a man who cares about Facts rather than Feelings, Shapiro doesn’t seem to care very much about facts. There are plenty of minor mistakes that cast doubt on the Times quote that Shapiro “reads books.” Some are just the little slip-ups that come from careless writing, e.g. the U.S. abolished slavery in “1862,” “atheistic philosopher Gilbert Pyle” [sic]. Others are suspicious unsourced generalizations, e.g.“Walk into virtually any emergency room in California and illegal immigrants are the bulk of the population.” But there are also major embarrassing bloomers, like Shapiro promoting the false rumor that Chuck Hagel received a donation from a group called “Friends of Hamas.” A New York Daily News reporter had made up the group’s name, as something so ludicrously over-the-top that nobody could possibly believe it, but Shapiro credulous enough to think the organization could exist, and published an article demanding answers. When it was pointed out that there was no such group, Shapiro did not retract the story. Instead, he doubled down, insisting that because he reported that sources said there was a Friends of Hamas, and the sources did say that, his reporting was sound. (Note: this is not how journalism works.)
There are plenty of other points at which Shapiro has showed that his command of Logic may not be terribly strong. He loves Facts, but will make statements like “monitoring mosques is the simplest and most effective way of preventing terrorist attacks” and cite “simple common sense” as his source. He will look back fondly on the era of the Hays Code, in which movies that did not portray correct moral messages were censored, and state that it is “no coincidence” that many great films were made during this time. (Someone ought to introduce Shapiro to the idea that just because two things occur at the same time does not mean that one of them was responsible for the other.) The ACLU’s attempt to bring Abu Ghraib photos to light was “designed as a direct attack on American soldiers abroad.” (Again, there’s no argument here, he just says it.) Hip hop is “not music,” people only say it is because of “cultural sensitivity,” and it is the product of a “disgusting” culture; again, one presumes these are just Facts, not Feelings. (No, he didn’t like Hamilton either, and spent part of a radio show playing Hamilton and West Side Story side by side, like a cool kid, in order to show that Hamilton has “forced rhymes that aren’t actually rhymes” and has “no harmony, no melody, just rhythm, and this is my problem with rap generally.”) The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act was literally worse than Plessy v. Ferguson and the case that allowed mentally ill people to be sterilized. (Shapiro believes the decision “said that the federal government can force you to do anything” because it can “tax nonbehavior,” though since there is zero practical difference between providing “a tax penalty for not doing something” and “a tax credit for doing something,” this framework means every tax credit is a form of totalitarianism.) Some of his arguments just make no damn sense at all: witness his contention that capitalism doesn’t mean the greedy pursuit of self-interest, corporatism does, while capitalism just means… I’m not sure. (Try to reconcile his statement that capitalism isn’t about economic self-interest with his statement that capitalism values people by their economic usefulness.) Or his case that socialism is racism because in capitalism people are valued entirely in accordance with their market worth, irrespective of race. (Shapiro has argued that shop owners who discriminate among customers would go out of business, which might be true if there wasn’t a huge racial wealth gap and no consumers ever preferred to patronize racially segregated establishments.)
Shapiro mocked T.I. for naming his children “Zonnique and Deyjah.” (It’s not clear what the Rational basis for disliking black names is.) When Barack Obama said that “we need to keep changing the attitude that punishes women for their sexuality and rewards men for theirs,” Shapiro wondered why Obama thought anyone should “be rewarded for their sexuality.” (I am curious how Shapiro did on the Logical Reasoning section of his LSAT if he believes “Don’t punish X or reward Y” means “reward X and/or Y.”) He thinks that criticisms of those who seem to love wars but decline to fight in them are “explicitly reject[ing] the Constitution itself, [which] provides that civilians control the military.” (Go ahead and try to figure out the reasoning on that one.) He was strongly against a federal ban on using cellphones while driving, because it would take away drivers’ freedom of choice, yet he believes it is “morally tragic” that we no longer use the police to stop people from making and watching pornography, because it follows the “silly” philosophy that “as long as what I do doesn’t harm you personally, I have a right to do it.” (Shapiro said that if pornography is legal, there would be no logical reason not to legalize the murder of homeless people, without addressing the potential meaningful distinctions between “having sex” and “killing a person in cold blood.”) Shapiro may be The Cool Kid’s Philosopher, but on the rare occasions when he actually dips his toe into metaphysics, the results are catastrophic: he argues that atheism is incompatible with the idea of free will because religious people believe that free will is granted by God. (“My beliefs say that your beliefs can’t be true therefore they can’t be true” is known as “assuming the conclusion.”)
But separate from Shapiro’s shaky ability to tell the truth and understand simple reasoning, I find his actual moral values somewhat horrifying. These can’t be “debunked” or “disproven,” of course: they’re matters of differing instinct. But I don’t share Shapiro’s religiously-derived conviction that “any moral system condoning homosexuality” will lead to a “fluid, careless amalgam of values” that will cause America to “suffer the fate of ancient Rome.” (Nor do I see any Facts to support this hypothesis.) I’m especially troubled by Shapiro’s stance on war. In defending the invasion of Iraq, Shapiro specifically praised imperialism, saying that for the United States, “empire isn’t a choice, it’s a duty.” Nevermind “weapons of mass destruction”: maintaining U.S. global power is an end in itself, even if 500,000 Iraqis had to lose their lives a result. Shapiro even endorsed invading countries that do not pose any immediate threat, suggesting that almost any Muslim nation could legitimately be attacked if doing so served the interests of our “global empire”:
Did Iraq pose an immediate threat to our nation? Perhaps not. But toppling Saddam Hussein and democratizing Iraq prevent his future ascendance and end his material support for future threats globally. The same principle holds true for Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Pakistan and others: Pre-emption is the chief weapon of a global empire. No one said empire was easy, but it is right and good, both for Americans and for the world.
(We could call this the “Better Kill Everyone Just In Case” doctrine.)
What’s more, Shapiro doesn’t believe that criticizing the American government during a time of war ought to be legal at all. The champion of Free Speech has literally called for reinstating sedition laws. When Al Gore told a Muslim audience that he believed the United States’ indiscriminate rounding-up and detention practices after 9/11 were “terrible” and abusive, Shapiro called the statements “treasonable,” “seditious,” and “outrageous” and demanded that the law respond:
At some point, opposition must be considered disloyal. At some point, the American people must say “enough.” At some point, Republicans in Congress must stop delicately tiptoeing with regard to sedition and must pass legislation to prosecute such sedition… Under the Espionage Act of 1917, opponents of World War I were routinely prosecuted, and the Supreme Court routinely upheld their convictions…. During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the internment of hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans, as well as allowing the prosecution and/or deportation of those who opposed the war…. This is not to argue that every measure taken by the government to prosecute opponents of American wars is just or right or Constitutional. Some restrictions, however, are just and right and Constitutional—and necessary. No war can be won when members of a disloyal opposition are given free reign [sic] to undermine it.
The Wilson administration’s crackdown on critics of the war, and the imprisoning of dissidents, were actually a low point in the history of American liberty, and the legal decisions upholding these acts are now discredited. But Shapiro sees this, along with the even more disturbing mass internment of Japanese Americans, as a model for eliminating critics of America’s wars. (Although elsewhere Shapiro has called the Supreme Court’s decision upholding Japanese detention “evil and disgusting.” Consistency, as I have indicated before, is not his forte.)
Having surveyed Shapiro’s work, and pointed out the various ways in which he is not terribly logical, not terribly consistent, and not terribly well-informed (in addition to being not terribly humane), it is worth asking why so many people think of him as a “principled” and “brilliant” dismantler of arguments. The answer, it seems to me, is largely that Shapiro is a very confident person who speaks quickly. If he weren’t either of these things, he wouldn’t seem nearly as intelligent. Because he doesn’t care about whether he’s right, but about whether he destroys you, he uses a few effective lawyerly tricks: insist that there’s “no evidence whatsoever” something is true, demand the other side produce such evidence, and when they stammer “Buh-buh-buh” for two seconds, quickly interrupt with “See? What did I tell you? No evidence.” Or, just pluck some random numbers from a study, even if they’re totally false or misleading, e.g. “40% of transgender people commit suicide and the risk doesn’t go down if they are treated better,” which was nonsense but sounded good. Cross-examine people with aggressive questions that confuse them: Are you a moose? I said: are you a moose? No? I didn’t think so. I rest my case. Use shifting burdens of proof: demand a wealth of statistical evidence before you will admit that black people face any unique hardships, but respond to every criticism of the Israeli government by calling the speaker a “proven” and “undeniable” anti-Semite. Disregard all facts that contradict your case, but insist constantly that the other side despises facts and can’t handle the truth. Call your opponents “nasty,” “evil,” “brainless” “jackasses.” All of these techniques work very well, and with them, you, too, can soon be Owning and Destroying your political opponents on camera. (I would probably lose a debate with Ben Shapiro quite badly, as my instinct in public conversations is to try to listen to people.)
Let me tell you why Ben Shapiro actually aggravates me. It is not his voice or demeanor, though I understand why others find these characteristics grating. Nor is it the way he inserts references to first-year law school doctrines even when they aren’t actually relevant. It is, rather, that Ben Shapiro is lying to his audience, by telling them that he is just a person concerned with the Truth, when the only thing he actually cares about is destroying the left. “Facts don’t care about your feelings” is a fine mantra, albeit kind of a dickish one. But it’s worthless if you’re going to interpret every last fact in the way most favorable to your own preconceptions, if you’re going to ignore evidence contrary to your position, and refuse to try to understand what your opponents actually believe. The New York Times actually quoted a sensible-sounding ex-Shapiro fan, who said he realized over time that Shapiro was just concerned with convincing other people he was right, rather than actually being right. Shapiro is annoying because he claims to love speech and discourse, to believe you should “get to know people… get to know their views…discuss,” but if you’re an Arab he’s already convinced you’re a secret anti-Semite, and if you’re a poor black person he doesn’t need to know you to know that you’re culturally dysfunctional.
The encouraging news is that if Ben Shapiro is the sharpest thinker among millennial conservatives, millennial leftists don’t have too much to worry about. You may feel as if Shapiro is a Vaporizer of Poor Logic, the Aristotle of our time. You may feel as if he has brutally torn apart every person who has crossed him in public, through his tried and tested technique of speaking extremely quickly until they give up. You may feel that he is brilliant and thoughtful and sincere.
But before you treat these feelings as real, remember that annoying little fact about facts: They don’t really care how you feel.
Photograph by Gage Skidmore.