By Anthony Settipani
Ben Shapiro, conservative commentator and radio host, explained last week how he believes rational argument in political debate has been overtaken by attacks on the character or morality of the opposite side.
“We live in an era, unfortunately, in which partisan politics have completely overcome and destroyed any semblance of basic, decent conversation,” he said. “Everything now comes down to an argument about character.”
“Once that begins,” he said in his talk, “there can be no evidence-based policy debate. The response to ‘you’re a racist’ is not ‘you know what? That’s a good point, let’s have a discussion about that.’ If somebody says ‘you’re a racist,’ the proper response is ‘well, you’re a jackass.’”
On stage, Shapiro’s words are rapid and forceful. One audience member criticized him for interrupting so many times over the course of asking him a question. In person, the phrases tumble out as quickly and smartly as a toy soldier assembly line, and the answer to any given question covers a lot of extra territory, often wrapping around neatly to where the idea first began.
The Chronicle met with Shapiro before his talk for a short interview.
Tell me about the talk.
Sure. The left’s entire moral justification for their position is moral superiority, essentially. They believe that they are morally superior to people on the right. They are better people than people on the right because right-wingers are by necessity racist, sexist, bigot homophobes. And that enables leftists to not actually do anything to help folks, but just moan about how nasty their opponents are. And this is a very effective tactic because many Americans are in search of a boost in self-esteem, and the easiest way to gain self-esteem is by putting somebody else down.
So that’s essentially what the left on campus does. They do it all over the United States, these bully tactics in which they suggest that you are a bad human being. Not that your policies are bad, but that you are a bad human being for even having merited a belief in these policies.
So you’ve seen this on many different campuses?
Oh yeah, it’t true on campuses across the United States. And it’s true on a variety of topics. It’s true on everything from economics to social policy. If you are not a Keynesian, then it’s because you hate poor people. It’s not because you believe that Keynesianism is ineffective, and in essence philosophically selfish. It’s not because of that, it’s because you hate poor people. If you believe in school vouchers, it’s not because you believe the public school system has failed and you want to offer people more educational opportunities, it’s because you are a vicious racist who hates black folks. If you are an advocate for traditional marriage it’s not because you believe a child needs a mother and a father and that society has an interest in the production and raising of children. It’s because you hate gays. Everything comes down to ‘you hate x.’ And therefore you have to be silenced. Because this is a way of silencing people. You don’t have discussions with people who are racists and brutes and bigots and haters. You silence them.
Can you think of any examples that would illustrate that position?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali getting banned from Brandeis recently, that’s a perfect example. She holds a position–indecipherable, by the way, from Bill Maher’s position on Islam–but she is politically conservative to a certain extent, and that means that she has to not be allowed on campus.
The left only has three lines of attack as a general matter. Corrupt, mean and stupid. And those are the lines of attack that they pursue against conservatives on a regular basis. And on campus they tend to focus mostly on mean. Because campuses are places of feelings, warmth and diversity. And so we have to respect everybody’s right to self-esteem. Even though nobody really has a right to self-esteem. That comes from you.
The focus of your talk, as I understand it, is mostly geared toward college students?
I’m going to talk a little bit about how it is on college campuses, but I’m also going to talk about how the right can fight back against these tactics, because these are tactics that are designed to end debate. The latest example is this ‘check your privilege’ campaign, the implication being that if you hold views different from them it’s because you’re a bad, privileged person who doesn’t recognize their own privilege. How are you supposed to fight back against that? Because if you say ‘wait a second, I’m not privileged, I worked my way up,’ well no, you’re demonstrating your white privilege again, because you don’t understand that you’re actually privileged. It’s a character assault.
Can you describe the moment when you first started to realize this tactic, and start to act against it?
It’s something that I’ve always instinctively understood, but the first time that I really started to pick up on this was probably during the Obama election cycle. Because then it turned into ‘If you don’t vote for Obama, it’s because you’re a racist and a bigot.’ As opposed to I just don’t like his policies because his policies are exactly the same as Hillary Clinton’s. And I don’t like Hillary Clinton’s policies either. And I don’t hate her because she’s a woman. Everything turned into ‘if you don’t vote for Obama it’s because you hate black folks’ or ‘if you don’t vote for Hillary Clinton it’s because you hate women.’ And it’s getting more and more egregious over the course of my lifetime.
I grew up in an era, and so did you, I mean everybody who’s of a certain age grew up in an era in which we basically don’t understand racism. It doesn’t make any sense to us. The concept that someone is inferior because of their skin color is asinine and makes no sense, and is ridiculous and doesn’t even compute. And yet we’re still being called racists if we disagree with particular policies. At that point, I looked around and said ‘wait a minute. I’ve never mistreated a black person in my entire life. I would try and hunt down people who mistreat black people. I don’t understand why I’m being called a racist because I disagree with you on school vouchers or voter ID.’ And that’s when it started to dawn on me that, well, this is dishonest. It’s a tactic.
Chronicle Photo/Anthony Settipani
interview has been shortened and condensed for publication