Last night I gave a speech at the University of Connecticut at the invitation of the College Democrats, who wanted me to do a “counter-speech” at the same time as an event put on by the College Republicans featuring Ben Shapiro. It was titled “Ben Shapiro Is Not As Insightful As He Thinks He Is” (see event poster) but I tried to go beyond simply discussing Shapiro himself (since there is no reason to be interested in him) and challenge the students to consider larger issues about what free speech actually means, and how leftists should respond to people who say horrific things. Video of the full speech, along with the Q&A that followed, is available here, along with a slew of amusing derogatory YouTube comments (e.g. “what a wierd little purple man” and “Is this Professor Quirrell before Voldemort’s face got attached to the back of his head?”). The following is the speech as I wrote it rather than as I delivered it and thus departs slightly from what was actually said. By merely reading the speech you will miss out on both my spontaneously improvised additional comments and my wild flailing hand gestures.
All of the citations to Ben Shapiro’s works can be found in my article “The Cool Kid’s Philosopher,” on which this talk is partially based.
I thought the event went delightfully, the University of Connecticut inexplicably assigned me multiple undercover police officers as bodyguards, and the whole building was swarming with cops. Apparently the University was looking to avoid what happened last time a controversial right-wing speaker came to campus, when both the speaker and an audience member ended up arrested after the audience member ran away with the speaker’s printed speech and he chased after and attacked her. I am pleased to report that my event did not end similarly. The students were incredible. They were a large and diverse group, disproportionately consisting of the Campus Left Activists about whom so many derisive comments are spewed. But they showed exactly why those stereotypes are so false: I gave a speech to a bunch of college leftists arguing against shutting down right-wing speakers, and in favor of robust free speech norms on campus, and not only did nobody heckle me, but nobody even disagreed with me during the Q&A. This confirms my theory about this, which is that it’s largely not that young leftists dislike free speech, it’s that they don’t like being patronizingly lectured about how they Don’t Understand Free Speech by conservatives who haven’t bothered to try to understand what it actually is that young leftists object to. Of course, there are exceptions, and any group of teenagers and early 20-somethings is going to have its share of extreme views, but what I saw last night confirmed my hopefulness about progressive millennials: they are not “coddled snowflakes,” they just care about humane values and object to brutal, selfish, bigoted people who refuse to empathize with those who suffer. The University of Connecticut students were an incredible bunch and I hope this was not the last time I get to talk with them.
Here, then, is the speech:
First, thank you, and congratulations: you’ve made the right choice about which event to attend. Ours is going to be much more intellectually exciting, much more warm and vibrant and fun, and best of all, you’re not going to have to listen to Ben Shapiro. [pause for expected enthusiastic cheering]
I am going to do a couple of things tonight. First I’m going to talk about who this man is, why he “matters,” what exactly makes people so angry about him, and why I think that anger is completely justified. Then I’m going to discuss the tactics that he and other conservatives have used in order to create controversies on college campuses, and the various different kinds of possible responses that are available. I’ll address this question of free speech, the debate over what speakers like Shapiro are entitled to in terms of respect or “rights to speak” and what, if any, kind of tolerance should be shown toward both opinions we simply disagree with and those opinions that we find actively harmful and threatening. Finally, I’ll make a few tentative comments on how people like this can be countered, how we can successfully defeat these kinds of poisonous and bigoted individuals, and build a world that is free of racism, transphobia, war, exploitation, etc. And then once I’ve presented some of my thoughts on this, we’re going to have a question and discussion period where my hope is that we can talk together about both facts and our feelings, and work through some of the incredibly complicated and not at all easily answered questions about who should get to speak and how we can respond to that speech effectively, what our values are and how to advance them.
So first: this is a somewhat unusual event. I have called it “Ben Shapiro Is Not As Insightful As He Thinks He Is.” I had originally had the subtitle in parentheses “(And Is Actually Kind of A Racist)” but I was told that was a little controversial and I should save it for the lecture itself, so you will shortly be treated to an explanation of why he is a racist. But not too many events are named after or based on other events that are going on in the room next door, so the first question is: why all the hubbub? Why do people get mad when Ben Shapiro comes to their campus and why does it result in a huge controversy? He is, after all, ultimately, just some pundit who has a podcast. I have to admit, I don’t really like talking about him, because I don’t really care about him very much and I resent every moment I have to spend thinking about him.
At the same time, I think he does need dealing with, and that it’s important to understand what he says, does, and represents. When the New York Times profile him recently they basically christened him the heavyweight intellectual among young conservatives, they said he tears apart weak arguments and he goes around basically using his brilliant intellect to refute leftists who all break down sobbing and can’t handle it. This is certainly the picture that he likes to portray of himself, where he suggests that people are angry at him because he’s so smart and he’s showing how irrational their beliefs are. But I’d like to propose that the reason people get so angry is that they understand what he is actually doing, which is that he is presenting himself as a person who only cares about facts and and logic, and who is telling the truths that the liberal snowflakes are scared of and want to suppress, but he’s actually a person who is both bigoted and irrational and there are very good reasons why people don’t see his presence on campus as welcome, and it’s not just as case of people being easily “triggered” but a case of people feeling as if their colleges should not be part of the process of helping a fringe figure seem like a legitimate thinker and contributor to the national discourse, or a “philosopher” as the New York Times called him.
The best way to understand why this man is objectionable is to have a look through his record of writing, especially his archive of weekly columns. I have written an essay for Current Affairs that goes into great detail on this, with example after example. And the central point I make there is that while Shapiro’s argument is that “leftists call people racists because they can’t handle the facts,” Shapiro is actually a racist who has come very close to advocating genocide, and he doesn’t actually care about the facts.
Let me briefly go through the evidence, though I do encourage you to read the full essay. So you can see the bigotry on full display if you look up basically anything he has ever said about Arabs. He has said that, quote, “Israelis like to build. Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage.” He’s said “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. These are classic ways of dehumanizing entire subpopulation: you suggest that they’re inherently evil, that their opinions spring from their ethnic background, you lump everyone together as poisoned by their group origin rather than evaluating them as individuals. He’s especially vicious toward Palestinian Arabs, who he has called a “population rotten to the core… Palestinian Arabs must be fought on their own terms: as a people dedicated to an evil cause.” Note, again: a people. 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.
Now what’s frightening is that he has gone further than just suggesting that Arabs have souls made of darkness. He has also used those beliefs in order to produce philosophical justifications for indiscriminate killing. He has said that “God’s road map requires the Jews to kill those who seek to kill them,” and because Arabs “value murder,” you can pretty much do what you like to them. He has insisted that Israeli Arabs do not deserve equal rights, saying that “Secular Zionism[, which] requires that Arab citizens of Israel be guaranteed equal rights,” “has always provided the seeds of [Israel’s] destruction.” And I just want to quote from a truly horrific piece of writing that he produced in 2003, which advocated the ethnic cleansing of the entire Palestinian population:
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… 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.
Now he later suggested that he believes this particular solution may have become impractical, not wrong just difficult. But he has never apologized for it, and he continues to express the same views about Arabs. And this is worth dwelling on because it really is extraordinary. Arabs like to bomb crap and live in sewage. I’d like to know how he justifies that kind of remark. I’d like to know how anyone could find it acceptable, and how anyone who wants to be taken seriously could openly voice that kind of sentiment. Facts don’t care about your feelings, well, these are his feelings, which are that Arabs are subhuman filth. That’s what we’re dealing with, that’s who your College Republicans have seen fit to invite and endorse, and that tells you a lot about contemporary American conservatism.
You also see a very bloodthirsty streak running through Shapiro’s writings elsewhere. You just need to look at his comments on the Iraq War, a war that killed half a million Iraqi civilians. 800,000 Iraqi children lost parents in that war, there is a generation of orphans as a result of what our country did. And if you look at Shapiro’s remarks on it, the deaths just mean absolutely nothing to him, they don’t factor in. He has said that the US can do what it likes to preserve its empire, because, quote, “empire is not a choice, it’s a duty,” and that the war was justified not because of weapons of mass destruction or bringing democracy, but because U.S. global power is a worthy end in and of itself. And he even suggested that other Muslim countries could be invaded on the same principle, even if they don’t pose a threat to the United States, because they might pose a future threat. Essentially brown lives do not matter, the United States and Israel are free to topple sovereign governments and expel populations if it serves their interests. And you can find all the sources on that in my article.
What is worth considering here is how we, and Ben Shapiro himself, would feel if every statement he makes about Arabs contained the word “Jews” instead. If someone said Jews are an inherently murderous people, they should be forced out of their homes and deported, I don’t think he would be suggesting that that person had a legitimate contribution to make to dialogue on college campuses. It would be very obvious why people didn’t want that person to speak, and nobody would say college students are crazy snowflakes if they wanted an event by a Holocaust denier canceled. In fact, it’s almost worse than Holocaust denial, because it’s not just covering up a historic atrocity, but actively advocating a new one in the present day, so it’s even more potentially harmful.
And it’s a measure of how normalized and accepted bigotry is against Arabs and Muslims in this country that it’s possible to make statements like this that would make you a pariah if they were made about other groups. You would never be invited on television, you wouldn’t have book deals. But this is such a normal part of our discourse that the New York Times didn’t even mention it in its profile of him, which is unimaginable if someone advocated Jewish ethnic cleansing. Indeed, Ben Shapiro has been very quick to call out anti-Semitism. He has said Barack Obama is an anti-Semite, he’s said that the word “neo-conservative” is an anti-Semitic slur, he even called Rahm Emanuel a kapo, i.e. a jew who works for the Nazis.
At the same time, Shapiro has made every possible effort to excuse and downplay anti-black racism. When it came to George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin, he concluded that “there’s no evidence of Zimmerman’s racism.” Now George Zimmerman literally sells confederate flags, called Michelle Obama a baboon, and got thrown out of a bar for saying the n-word. But one of the consistent themes in Shapiro’s writings and speeches is insisting that black complaints about racism are overstated, and blaming black people themselves for everything that happens to them. Again, I have quotes in my article. And to do that he chooses statistics he like and ignores statistics he dislikes, so he’ll find a statistic about how many crimes are committed by black perpetrators but he’ll ignore the statistic showing that black men get longer sentences for the same crime as white men. Or he’ll say that the racial wealth gap, which is that white families have, on average, 10 times more wealth than black families, has nothing to do with historical racism and is just a matter of black choices, even though Jim Crow laws were in operation during the time of people who are still alive today and it’s obvious that since black and white Americans did not start in this country with equivalent wealth, there have been differing levels of opportunity to accumulate wealth over time.
That brings me to the last thing I want to say about Shapiro’s actual body of work, which is that is riddled with inconsistency and intellectual dishonesty. When he talks about transgender people, for instance, he will ignore statistical findings showing that transgender suicide rates are reduced when people are accepted by their families rather than rejected by them, and he will insist that suicide rates just prove that being transgender is a mental illness. He will ignore the actual argument that is made by trans people about gender, namely that the social aspects of gender rather than the biological ones should be what we use to define categories, and insist that trans people are just delusional about the reality of their sex.
He’s not interested, then, in having an honest discussion. And we know that because he basically says it. He has a book called How To Debate Leftists and Destroy Them, and you can see his youtube clips where he “destroys” or “crushes” someone or other, usually some hapless person in the Q&A. “All that matters is victory,” is the first line of that book. He quotes Mike Tyson: “Everybody has a plan ‘til they get punched in the mouth.” “If done properly, any debate on a single topic can be over within the first 30 seconds” He’s not trying to get to the truth, then, what he is trying to do is humiliate people and get them to lose arguments quickly. He basically sees himself as a boxer, and he wants to catch you out by asking you a question that you are not sure of the answer to, like “Well if you think the minimum wage ought to be $15 an hour, why not a million dollars an hour? Huh? Huh?” And because that is antithetical to what open discussion on a college campus should be, it’s quite obvious why people object to having him. It’s because they don’t like having a racist come, pretend that he’s all about civil dialogue and the facts, and then distort the facts and refuse to listen to or try to understand the perspectives of the people he wants to “destroy.” A lot of the anger about Ben Shapiro’s presence comes from the fact that people understand intuitively that his project is not about being generous or fair or intellectually curious, and that he kind of gaslights people by insisting that “facts care about your feelings” and “you’re an irrational snowflake” when he actually doesn’t care about facts or rationality and just wants to make them feel crazy and stupid.
He is not the only one who does this of course, and I’d like to segue into talking about the broader question of controversial speakers on college campuses and free speech. Charles Murray and Milo Yiannopoulos are the other obvious examples of speakers who have met with protests, where students have disrupted their speeches and tried to get them canceled. And those two gentleman in many ways have a similar tactic. Both of them have said and done things that make people quite legitimately feel as if they would not make useful contributions to discussion on campus. Charles Murray has produced a demonstrably racist body of pseudoscholarship, and I’ve written an essay explaining why it’s racist called “Why Is Charles Murray Odious?” that you should read if you’re skeptical. Murray insists on the inferiority of black culture and intellect, and he has said that he in favor of returning to the “Jeffersonian conception of equality,” Jefferson, by the way, who quite openly said he thought black people were incapable of higher reason, in addition owning and raping slaves, that’s his conception of equality we like. (Charles Murray also, fun fact, burned a cross on a hill when he was a teenager, and insists that he did not mean anything racist by it.) Milo Yiannopoulos would come to schools and do things in his presentations like give out the ICE hotline and encourage people to turn in their undocumented neighbors so they could be deported, or put a photo of a transgender student at the school up on the screen and mock her appearance. But then when people object to that, and suggest it’s not something they want or think should qualify as discourse, they say that leftists are just anti-free speech and stifle opposing opinions. In fact, the anger at these men comes from the fact that people don’t feel that these people should be treated as having mere “opposing opinions” that constitute legitimate contributions to a campus intellectual environment. The so called anti-speech student activists often just don’t like the acceptance and normalization of people who advance prejudiced ideas that have serious consequences for human lives.
But there’s a difficult question here: What do you do when someone like this is invited to your campus? Because what’s going to happen tonight is this: Ben Shapiro’s speech is not going to be about how Arabs are a dark people who don’t deserve human rights. It’s going to be, primarily, about how leftists are crazy, because they don’t want him to speak, and how they’re crybabies who ran off and had their own event, when all he wants to do is defend the good old free market capitalist democracy that has made life so wonderful for all of us, and good old wholesome nuclear families where mom is mom and dad is dad. There’s a trap that we can fall into here, because what he wants to do is make us look irrational and unreasonable, by saying “Well, what are you afraid of by having me here?” You must be trying to suppress me because you can’t handle the truth.
And so there’s a sense in which we play into his hands if we try to actually keep someone like this from coming, or keep them from speaking, because then he says that everything we’re doing just proves him right. These guys, Murray, Yiannopoulos, Shapiro, they thrive on attention. They don’t get that attention for their ideas, because they don’t have any ideas that are worth listening to. They get attention from the reaction to them, and so that reaction is their lifeblood. If nobody cares about them or listens to them, they fade into insignificance. If we spend our energy trying to prevent them from opening their mouths, they get a big pleased smirk on their faces because they know that it’s going in the newspaper and it will be on repeat on Fox News. Yiannopoulos, for example, his book was called Dangerous and every chapter title is a variation on the same theme: “Why Feminists Hate Me” “Why Muslims Hate Me,” etc. Without the reaction, there’s no book.
It’s tough, of course, with someone who is saying things that we may have pretty good reason to believe don’t belong on a college campus, and there’s a paradox where you simultaneously don’t want to be part of their publicity campaign but also feel like it’s important not to let these people be treated as if they’re fine. But we have to be ruthlessly strategic here, and that may involve refusing to give any attention to people who are seeking it by helping them create spectacles. The Ben Shapiros, the Jordan Petersons of the world are selling their followers on a story, which is that the repressive left has taken over, and conservatives are persecuted and oppressed on college campuses. So attempts to shut them down can actually help them build their followings, by seemingly confirming their basic worldview. The less we do to reinforce these guys’ own impressions of themselves as controversial and rebellious, the less they flourish.
There is also a serious question about what “free speech” itself should mean on campus. Most people believe that college should be a place for serious engagement with new ideas that you may not have heard before, that learning from people who disagree with you or have different backgrounds to you is a good thing and it’s a big part of why we’re here. But everyone has some implicit notion of what they consider “legitimate” disagreement, that which ought to be up for discussion, and what they consider “illegitimate” disagreement, that which shouldn’t be part of the conversation. I assume Ben Shapiro would consider anti-Semitism not a legitimate part of the conversation, and if a professor was espousing it he would have a problem with it. Leftists like Bill Ayers, Angela Davis, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Norman Finkelstein, they’ve all been subjected to campaigns from the right to keep them from coming to college campuses, because conservatives also have ideas of what they think are intolerable views, and sometimes that’s criticism of the police or Israel. It’s very important to recognize that it isn’t just liberals who have tried to constrict the range of acceptable opinions, and in in fact any erosion of the norm that all people can speak is going to punish progressive dissidents and people of color the hardest.
Yet it’s obvious why many progressive people do have a narrower conception of who ought to be allowed to speak, and it’s not just that people don’t want to hear “the other side”: it’s that they believe certain issues shouldn’t have sides to begin with. Some things feel like they should be beyond debate. If we host a debate on campus called “Are people of all races human?”, we may have invited contributors from all sides, but just entering into the dialogue has the effect of presenting something as a live question that shouldn’t be a live question. And many people feel that way about someone who dehumanizes people by saying certain races are dark and murderous, Arabs love sewage, or that your transgender classmates are just sick in the head and need treatment. We don’t want those perspectives here, even to call them “perspectives” elevates them to a status they do not deserve.
But if our goal is to actually eliminate those perspectives and cause them to stop being mainstream, we need to consider how to get people to stop holding them rather than just stop espousing them. I end up taking a very broad view of the kind of speech that we should allow in our public forums, though it’s necessarily somewhat more limited on college campuses which are invitation only by their nature. And that generally permissive view is for a few reasons, none of which involve minimizing or dismissing the kinds of harms done by bigotry. First, even when speech is offensive and cruel and harmful, pragmatically speaking, it is simply more effective to try to explain to people why that speech is offensive and cruel and harmful rather than trying to make sure the speech isn’t heard. We benefit much more from trying to win people to our own side, by explaining what anti-racist and anti-sexist values are and why they’re so important. If you suppress these kind of sentiments, as opposed to convincing people around you of why they’re wrong, you don’t eliminate them, instead you drive them underground. One reason it seemed like Donald Trump wasn’t going to win the 2016 election was that the left succeed in making it shameful to admit publicly that you were a Trump voter, but that didn’t actually keep people from holding the views that caused them to vote for Donald Trump.
So there’s a pragmatic component here, where I think it’s strategically prudent to allow these people to speak and then counter their speech and do so as effectively as possible. And that may even sometimes involve a willingness to debate people. We may think that certain things shouldn’t be up for debate, but in the society we live in they unfortunately still are up for debate in practice because so many people, including the president of the United States, still disagree. And just as, if we were living in the early 19th century, it would be our job to evangelize for the cause of anti-slavery, and muster our most vigorous and powerful moral arguments against it, today it is our job to take on bad ideas about race, gender, war, and economics. We don’t necessarily “legitimize” ideas by debating them, as long as we make clear in the process that we do not find those ideas legitimate and we are only discussing them as a means toward the end of getting rid of them.
There are times when we are all of us going to need to defend things that we don’t think should have to be defended, but which unfortunately do need defending. For example, I’ve just been reading a lot about the Vietnam War, and the indiscriminate killing of civilians during that war, including instructions that were given to soldiers to “kill anything that moves” in a war that resulted in perhaps the deaths of a million ordinary Vietnamese people. Now personally, I don’t think there should be any real “debate” about whether the indiscriminate killing of civilians is acceptable. Even to have to discuss that seems morally perverse. But we still live in a country where the full extent of these atrocities has not been appreciated, and where is still necessary to debate the justice of what was done to that country, because there are plenty of people who would defend it. And as long as those defending a position are prominent and have power, it doesn’t matter whether we consider it legitimate, we are still going to be forced to debate it if we’re ever going to achieve public support for our own position. So I find war crimes such as occurred in Vietnam and Iraq self-evidently unjustifiable, but because there are people to whom that is not self-evident, I feel responsible for debating the topic with them.
There’s another question if you tend toward the suppression approach, which once you decide that some speakers aren’t welcome, how do you keep yourself from narrowing and narrowing the field until you’re literally only allowing people who unanimously agree with one another. We can all agree when it’s obvious, when they are just open in their bigotry, and we don’t want Milo Yiannopoulos coming to our campus and calling women the c-word. But what about George W. Bush? Again, the Iraq War was a far worse human atrocity than anything Milo Yiannopoulos has ever produced. Should the architects of that war be allowed? Should all those politicians who voted for it be allowed?
The answers to these questions about when and whether you ought to restrict access are not necessarily obvious. But once we decide that our principle is excluding people who reach a certain level of moral heinousness, we need a clear sense of what that level is, who falls on the one side of the line and who falls on the other. And part of why I err on the side of openness is that I don’t know how I would decide who is terrible enough to exclude, because there are just so many terrible people. There is always a risk, when we take on the role of the censor, of creating an environment that is no longer vibrant and full of diverse thought.
What’s more, I don’t want us to spending our time talking about the question of who can and can’t speak, I want us to be spending our time on the substance of that speech. We need to be talking about what conservatives say rather than whether they ought to be able to say it, and we need to be spending our very finite energy on the most worthwhile projects. In a time when everyone is drowning in student debt, families are getting deported, and there are two million people in prison, we have to be talking about that rather than having a meta-debate about event planning.
Okay, but once you decide to counter bad ideas rather than obstruct them, how do you do it? We’ve chosen one path here tonight, which is to hold your own better event and use it to talk about what you want. I’m sure some people would say that the better thing to do is actually to attend his talks and listen to him and then try to argue with him during the Q&A or something rather than splitting off into your own group. And there is an echo chamber effect we can worry about, where everyone who agrees with him goes to see him, and everyone who is correct comes to me and nobody changes their mind. “How do you know what he says if you’re not going to listen?” Well, I don’t think there’s much value in attending an event like Shapiro’s. I know what he’s going to say, because I’ve watched a bunch of his speeches and they’re all the same. In fact, you’re not going to be missing anything by being here, because I can give you a mini version of his entire spiel, which is that leftists are bullies and tyrants who think emotionally rather than rationally and call everything oppression instead of working hard and getting a job and having a wholesome heterosexual Judeo-Christian nuclear family. Okay, there, you’ve had his speech, and we all went. So we’re not plugging our ears, because we’re willing to listen to him, we just listened to him, and I’ve read pretty much every column he’s ever written and listened to interminable hours of his godawful radio show. We just don’t feel like it would be constructive to sit in a room and have this stuff repeated to us for an hour and then have him try to pummel us in the Q&A by making up statistics. I do think it would be valuable to have a formal debate, and of course I’ll debate him anytime, but because of his aggressive personal style and lack of interest in genuine discussion, it’s not clear anything good comes from being in a room with someone like that, once you’ve gotten the general flavor of their work. So a counter-speech seems like a justified approach to me, as long as we aren’t using it to try to keep their words from being heard, but rather to lay out our alternative.
The main idea I’d like to leave you with on this is to try to think about speech questions in terms of their consequences. What are the consequences of letting some speak versus not? What are the consequences of this kind of protest versus that? What are the consequences of having a debate versus having a counter-event? Which action stands the best chance of moving our goals forward constructively, and what are those goals? It’s because I believe in creating a world that doesn’t have the kind of racism, transphobia, and ethnic cleansing that Ben Shapiro endorses, I try to assess everything in terms of its likely effect on contributing to the creation of that kind of world. How do we eliminate the kind of sentiments these people espouse? And the best answer I’ve come up with, so far, is “By exposing everything they say for what it is, by sapping the force of that catchphrase ‘Facts don’t care about your feelings’ by proving that we are the ones who value the facts, and and as a bonus we also have feelings.”
That is, by the way, one of the things we are trying to do at Current Affairs, the magazine I run, where we try to produce political writing from a left perspective that doesn’t just preach to the converted but that will cause people who are apolitical or conservative to reflect on their own beliefs. And in fact, one reason why I am increasingly confident that “more speech” is the right approach is because of some of the reactions we’ve had to that. As I say, I recently wrote this article about Shapiro, going through all of his dumb arguments and explaining why they are dumb, responding to his challenge when he says ‘Leftists just won’t refute me’ by taking the time to actually go through and painstakingly refute him. And when I did that, I got emails and I saw tweets from guys who said “I used to like him but now that I’ve read your article I’m not so sure.” Every one of those people that we can reach and persuade is a person who might join our side, who might come to see that what the left stands for is decent and humane, that we’re not mad at the right because we hate speech and fear dissent, but because we hate needless war and economic deprivation and mass incarceration.
I don’t give an inch to those, like Ben Shapiro, who are apologists for atrocities, who whitewash the history of American racism, who say transgender people are just mentally ill. Their values have to be rejected and rejected forcefully and that it’s the job of everyone who cares about other people to fight against the spread of these kinds of ideologies. Part of that fight is figuring out how to persuade people that it’s important. If you don’t persuade people, if you aren’t constantly trying to push your message rather just stopping theirs, then the political movement for a just world can’t grow a larger, it won’t get new members.
That concerns me, because there are serious stakes to politics. When someone like Shapiro downplays the importance of racism or mass incarceration, they are directly contributing to the continuation of the system that keeps black people at a tenth of the wealth level of white people and throws people of color in prison by the hundreds of thousands. When he mocks transgender people, and persuades people to regard them as crazy, he is contributing to the culture that causes transgender people to be beaten up and killed, that causes them to cry at night and feel like there’s something wrong with them and commit suicide at just a horrifying rate. We have to get angry about this, because we have to care about the people who are on the receiving end of the kinds of prejudices that he fosters. And then we have to channel that anger into effective political action that actually begins to solve the problems.
So let me finish by saying: This isn’t about Ben Shapiro. I know it may seem like it from the posters, but I really don’t care about Ben Shapiro or his podcast. The larger task here is to prevent him from defining the agenda at all, to be proactive rather than reactive. The more we focus on him as an individual, rather than drawing a contrast between our values and the right’s values, the less we are keeping the focus where it should be: on those who suffer. That’s the Palestinians who live under a brutal military occupation. That’s the immigrant families who are getting torn apart under the Trump Administration. That’s refugees fleeing gang violence in Central America. That’s women who still live in a culture where harassment and abuse are routine parts of everyday life, that’s the Muslims who worry that if they leave the country they won’t be let back in. It’s hotel workers and dishwashers who work 12-hour days and still can barely make rent, and it’s people with severe mental health issues who don’t have housing or basic services. It’s people of color who are scared to call the police because they worry they’ll be the next “officer-involved shooting.”
You don’t hear about these people from the right, because the right just does not spend time thinking about them. They are people that Ben Shapiro will never talk about, unless he’s making excuses for why everything that happens to them is fine, or saying, as he did at Berkeley, that if you fail in this “free country” of ours, it’s probably your fault. But it’s our job to make up in compassion and humanity for what he lacks, to refuse to accept the lies that are told in order to justify people’s misery. Part of how we do that is through speaking out, through talking to those who don’t realize why leftists care about what we care about. If we put our intellects together, if we are thoughtful and courageous in figuring out how to respond to noxious political figures, we can produce a persuasive counter to Ben Shapiro and perhaps render him, for the first time in his life, speechless.