I attended Ben Shapiro’s lecture last night in the hopes that I would gain a new perspective on free speech. Instead, Shapiro named five buzzwords—Diversity, White Privilege, Trigger Warnings, Microaggressions, and Safe Spaces—and attempted to question the existence/value of each of them. None of these abstract terms are responsible for quashing free speech on college campuses, and Shapiro only gave tangentially related anecdotes to support his claim.
Beyond that, Shapiro was demonstrably wrong in a number of his examples. He stated that President Obama was wrong for saying that institutional racism is “written into our collective DNA.” In truth, the Constitution, an integral part of the U.S.’s “DNA,” contains two clauses that explicitly condone institutional racism: a twenty-year bar on Congress’s ability to pass a law to end the slave trade (Art. 1, Sect. 2), and the infamous three-fifths compromise (Art. 1, Sect .9), which counted each slave as three-fifths of a person without affording slaves voting or citizenship rights. Neither clause remains in effect, but the institutional racism they engender does.
Institutional racism haunts us in the modern era as well. New Deal social programs were written explicitly to exclude African American people. These programs included Social Security and the GI Bill, which literally handed out money, home loans, and cheap/free college education to millions of white people during the 1940s and 50s. This exclusion is as relevant to today’s crime inequalities as any “decision privilege” (his term), but Shapiro had no interest in talking about poverty as a motivation for crime. Shapiro spoke a great deal about “opportunity,” but not the opportunities that people inherit through their/their parents’ wealth and power. Shapiro then told a story about how he goaded and misgendered a trans woman, who grabbed the scruff of Shapiro’s neck and threatened him, as an example of how the idea of “microaggressions” is dangerous. Shapiro was implying that physical violence is a normal reaction to unintentional missteps. However, he intentionally goaded the trans woman, thereby disqualifying his own story from more common definitions of “microaggressions.” His anecdote was by far the weakest part of his whole speech, and it quickly morphed into a character attack on transgender people and people with mental illnesses.
Shapiro may feel that transgender people are categorically mentally ill, but the DSM-V disagrees and includes “gender dysphoria” only to ensure access to health care. Shapiro’s comments about “biological”-based binary genders are a myth as well; many intersex people have chromosomal variations that are not captured by “XX/XY” chromosomes. Regardless, gender identity should be respected, and Shapiro should reconsider his bias against mentally ill people.
The irony here was that Shapiro began and ended his speech with an appeal to be “decent” to one another, showing that he does not believe using correct pronouns lies within the realm of decency. In the same talk, he called liberals “stupid” and “fascist,” indicating that he feels baseless character attacks do constitute decent behavior. Ultimately, Shapiro both failed to deliver on College Republicans’ title for the event and succeeded in spewing vitriol and disrespect to boost his ego and conservative support.