Schwartz: Though constructive, Shapiro talk ultimately disregarded marginalized experiences

Alex Schwartz, Columnist

Ben Shapiro spoke very quickly Wednesday night. He displayed an impressive command of the English language, barely slipping during his 30-minutes-or-so critique of liberal politics. I admired his (mostly) respectful discourse and rational framing of facts and statistics to support his claims. Shapiro’s vision of today’s America was lovely: a place where, as long as you have passion and work hard, you can succeed. Here, all forms of systemic bigotry are long gone, everyone has a “right to equal access” and the only thing preventing success is one’s own laziness and occasional government overreach. It would be nice if we all lived there.

This is the problem I have with Shapiro’s philosophy: It is based in theory, with no regard for experience. By saying, “If you are living in America in 2017, you are not a victim,” he assumes individuals fail because of skill or work ethic, not structural problems that did not magically end with the suffrage or civil rights movements. Shapiro scoffs at identity politics and intersectionality, only because the experiences of other, marginalized Americans contradict the data he cherry picks. While statistics can be argued over endlessly — you can show me one study, and I can almost surely find another that says the opposite — experiences require listening and trust. But Shapiro assumes they are made up, isolated or exaggerated.

For instance, Shapiro cited the Brookings Institution, a think tank that found the three things one must do to escape poverty are finish high school, find a full-time job and get married before having children. However, he failed to recognize that real societal factors prevent people from achieving these goals, like poor public education, employer discrimination and unaffordable contraceptives. Shapiro is not unintelligent. He’s clearly done his homework, and is well-versed in theory. But his talk also indicated a clear lack of empathy.

Privilege means you don’t experience structural inequality, and checking your privilege means empathizing with those who do. Shapiro says trigger warnings and safe spaces push liberals into unrealistic bubbles, but his refusal to acknowledge certain struggles reflects a bubble of his own. In his unrealistic America, Shapiro blames marginalized communities themselves. He naively asserts that their problems are results of inherent “pathologies” instead of structural inequality, suggesting laziness and criminal tendencies can be encoded in DNA. And it is especially baffling to me that someone who has received some of the worst anti-Semitic hate speech in journalism could fail to see that similar rhetoric exists against other minorities.

Yet, though I think Shapiro is narrow-minded and misguided, his attempt to speak on our mostly liberal campus suggests he is just as eager to improve America as those of us who disagree. He should assume the same of us. Shapiro’s view of “the left” paints a picture of people who want to constantly be victimized, whether it’s to excuse themselves from hard work or to forever live in some magical bubble. Perhaps they hope to improve the country, just like he does. Admittedly, such assumptions are made by both sides — that opponents are sinisterly plotting to make America work only for themselves. But if we want to have any meaningful dialogue and compromise, we must assume we’re all working toward the same goal of improving our nation.

Last quarter, I argued that we should not justify hate speech on campus by labeling it “diversity of opinion.” I stand by that, and if we truly want to have a diversity of opinion we should be engaging in meaningful, respectful conversations that do not attack marginalized people. Though I’m aware Shapiro’s greater body of work displays such behavior — specifically pertaining to the transgender community — there is a difference between him and despicable alt-right members like Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer, who base their entire ideologies on suppressing non-white people.

I recognize that my own privilege allows me to perceive Shapiro’s words as political discourse and not direct attacks, and that the populations he mentioned in his talk may feel differently. But I think Wednesday’s dialogue was much more constructive than that of other, more controversial speakers. While it may be aggravating and uncomfortable to have such dialogue, remembering the shared goals of improving our country, maintaining a respectful atmosphere and distinguishing between views that are merely different and those that are real attacks will lead us toward compromise and acceptance. And I think that, for the most part, Shapiro achieved that here. Even if he talked too fast.

Alex Schwartz is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.