If you’ve spent any time in the political spheres of the internet, and/or read through the replies of any liberal or leftist on twitter, you’ve probably seen videos getting shared with titles like “Ben Shapiro DESTROYS Transgenderism And Pro-Abortion Arguments“. Every time he comes to talk at a liberal university, another one gets uploaded, and like clockwork, it gets over a million views. If these videos were all you saw of political discussion, you would think that the left was a pack of morons and that Ben Shapiro was every bit the feared debater his fans believe him to be. No wonder the liberal intellectuals won’t risk debating him and the academics are too scared to let him on their campus!
He’s not, by the way. He’s a mediocre political thinker who survives by debating college students who don’t recognize the blatant fallacies and rhetorical tricks he calls “facts and logic”. But he’s still worth studying, because he’s not the only person using these exact tricks to win arguments, and it’s important to know how to recognize them when they’re being thrown at your face.
I can’t go through every debate Ben Shapiro’s ever been a part of and explain how he’s bullshitting you each time. It’s too much ground to cover. I’m going to focus on one video, the one I linked earlier. It’s from the youtube channel for the Daily Wire. He’s the editor-in-chief there, so this is how he wants you to first experience his arguments. Otherwise, he wouldn’t post it. It’s got over four million views, making it one of his most-seen productions. And it conveniently covers most of the tricks he uses.
Before we go any further, if you haven’t seen the video, take a moment to watch it, so you know I’m not misrepresenting what he’s saying. Seriously. It’s only ten minutes long, and if you’re reading this blog post, you don’t have anything better to do. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
Okay, let’s get to the good part.
Part One: Does Trans is Real?
The first question he gets is “how can you say that some people don’t have privilege, when you basically just said that trans people aren’t valid, they’re not a thing, they’re just girls pretending to be boys or boys pretending to be girls?”, but a minute later, we find out that the topic they’re discussing is whether or not trans boys should be accepted into the Boy Scouts. I think that’s also the moment where he “DESTROYS Transgenderism”, because there’s an exchange where he says that the Boy Scouts have rules for membership and you have to be a biological boy to be a part of them, and this happens:
Random college student: “Where is that written, though?”
Ben Shapiro: “In the name Boy Scout.”
I should start by pointing out that that video was posted on February 9 of last year, and the Boy Scouts of America had already been accepting trans boys for over a week at that point, so technically what he said wasn’t true, but let’s pretend otherwise. Let’s move on to the actual arguments he makes. There are several, and we’ll start with the first: “You’re 22. Why can’t you choose to identify as a 60-year-old?”
What he’s doing here is drawing a equivalence between what his opponent believes (your gender is what you feel it is), and something his opponent doesn’t believe (your age is what you feel it is). It’s like a proof by contradiction: “you argue A. If A is true, then so is B. You argue against B, so either you’re wrong about A, or B, or both”.
What he’s not doing is providing any reason why age and gender are similar. In his version of the example argument I just gave you, the critical second sentence is nowhere to be found. Without that, everything he’s saying is just an analogy, with no evidentiary value one way or the other.
Put another way: we can all agree that in this day and age, you can change your hair color pretty much any way you want. Why can’t you change your gender? It’s the exact same argument, supporting the opposite of his point.
At this point, Ben Shapiro knows what he just said is fatally flawed, and he doesn’t want you to realize it. So he phrases his argument as a question: “you’re 22, so why aren’t you 60?”
This is what we call a “loaded question”. It implicitly assumes that age and gender are related so that you can’t answer it without arguing against yourself. Any idiot could respond to “you can’t change your gender because you can’t change your age”, but now the whole auditorium is trying to figure out why this random college student isn’t 60.
Also, this is by the by, but age actually isn’t that immutable either. Ben Shapiro is 34 because it’s been 34 years since he was born if we go by the Gregorian calendar, but if we used a lunar calendar like the islamic Hijiri instead, something that wouldn’t be out of place for most of human history, he’d be 36. It’s almost as though age and how we measure it isn’t an inherent biological trait, but something we all just decided on at some point and could theoretically change if we found a better system. You know, just something to think about.
Now, let’s move on to his second argument. The woman with the microphone points out that you can legally change your gender, and he spits back this gem:
“Just because you can do something legally does not mean that they are correct biologically. Lots of things in the past that were incorrect biologically were correct legally. For a long period of time in the United States, sterilization of the mentally ill took place. That didn’t make it okay, Skinner v. Oklahoma, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the decision.”
Strictly speaking, his argument is right here: legality is a terrible way to judge if something is morally or scientifically true. Evolution was false and pi almost equaled 3 in this country, if you just go by the law. Shapiro’s point is essentially sound. But he’s still using a dishonest rhetorical trick, and it’s worth unpacking what it is and why it’s there.
The Supreme Court case Ben just cited is completely irrelevant to the greater argument. At question in Skinner v. Oklahoma were the ethical ramifications of sterilizing the mentally ill, and the implication of the Fourteenth Amendment on the subject. There was no “biological truth” being decided here. So why is Ben using it to argue that “legal” and “biologically correct” are different things?
There’s two reasons I can think of. First, as a society, we see biological truth/scientific truth as more concrete than ethical truth. The Earth is round and people who think it’s flat are wrong, but we accept that different people will have different opinions on what is morally right or wrong all the time. So by conflating ethical and biological truth here, he gets to make the vaguer and easier moral argument to prove the harder point that what he’s saying is scientifically correct.
Second, something like mandatory sterilization has a visceral impact in the audience that you can’t get from evolution or pi. There isn’t any demonstrated harm in using different pronouns for a trans person or allowing gender to be malleable (besides to the English language, which, let’s face it, has survived far worse than the singular “they”), but there was in Skinner. It doesn’t matter if the argument’s a complete tangent, because right now the auditorium is thinking “transgender people=chopping your balls off”.
Also, Oliver Wendell Holmes didn’t write the decision in Skinner. It was actually William O. Douglas. Holmes had been dead for eight years at that point. He’s mixing it up with Buck v. Bell, when Holmes actually UPHELD the sterilization of the mentally ill, famously writing “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” For the guy who coined “facts don’t care about your feelings”, Ben is proving to be pretty bad at the facts.
His third argument is kinda long, so I won’t write it all out, but the gist is that societal respect for trans people won’t make any difference for them, because a study from UCLA’s Anderson School the year before says that the suicide rate for trans people is 40%, and that number doesn’t change whether or not people recognize you as a transgender person or not.
As usual, we have to start with a caveat: UCLA’s Anderson School is for business and management, and I’m pretty sure it’s never published a study on transgenderism. This is something he ought to know, you know, since that’s where he went for undergrad, but we’ll leave that be. I think he’s referring to this study by UCLA’s Williams Institute, a think tank in their law school “dedicated to conducting rigorous, independent research on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy“. This seems like an odd source for Ben Shapiro to cite, so let’s dive into the numbers.
Earlier, I was just being pedantic about when he missed a detail, but this one really bothers me. First of all, the numbers he’s referring to are for whether other people can tell the respondent is trans when they’re walking down the street, not recognition of identity. The table is on page 9. The description of what it means is right above it. At first, that confused me, because I interpreted what Shapiro was saying to mean “it makes no difference whether or not trans people are recognized”, as in, accepted, rather than recognized as in noticed. After all, that’s what he’s been arguing about. His phrasing was vague, though, so it could go either way. It’s possible he described his argument badly in a way that happens to make this tangential datapoint sound more relevant than it is. It’s also possible he just scanned through the paper’s data tables for the factor with the smallest difference and didn’t even bother to read the titles. You’d have to ask him.
More importantly though, almost everything he said about that study was wrong. That table DID find a statistically significant difference: as much as 9%. And if you scan through the rest of the paper, you find numbers like these:
- More than half of trans respondents who said they’d been harassed or bullied at any point in their education attempted suicide, vs. 40% on average.
- Trans people who were discriminated against in housing had attempted suicide about 60% of the time.
- Trans people who were discriminated against in a work environment attempted suicide more than half the time.
- Likewise for trans people who have been discriminated against in how they received medical care.
So Ben hasn’t gotten his facts wrong so much as he’s blatantly lied about a scientific study in order to support his beliefs. Even if all he’d read from this report was the Executive Summary, he’d know that the paper said the exact opposite of what he claimed it said. So there’s another trick to watch out for: he might just be lying through his teeth.
After that, he brings in some nonsense about suicide rates by race, but it’s hard for me to care at that point, because the data already proves him wrong: Trans people who are discriminated against in various ways attempt suicide at a quantifiably higher rate. If there is a difference between that and what we see in the black community, that doesn’t mean the data is wrong, it means we need to explore what might be different between the two that could cause black people to respond to discrimination differently from trans people.
And that’s not to say there isn’t a legitimate conversation to be had about the merits of that study. It has any number of methodological flaws, many of which are mentioned in the “Limitations” section of the paper. For instance, its heavy emphasis on discrimination questions could have weighted the sample to include more people who have had negative experiences, which could have affected the overall suicide rates it reports. It only asked the binary question “have you ever attempted suicide”, which we know can result in false positives where people answer “yes” if they’ve engaged in other self-harming behavior like cutting, but haven’t reached the point of suicide. And it doesn’t provide any information on how many trans people have successfully committed suicide, because, you know, it’s hard to get a corpse to fill out a survey.
There is lots of space for legitimate, logical, and nuanced debate on the subject of trans rights and inclusion in our society.
You just won’t find it in the same room as Ben Shapiro.
Part 2: Vaginas and the Soul
There’s another five minutes in that video, which they spend talking about abortion. I’m going to skip the dumb factual argument over how many abortions Planned Parenthood performs so we can get to the part where he DESTROYS pro-abortion arguments: “I have one question and one question only on abortion: does the vagina, the vaginal canal, magically confer personhood?”
You don’t even have to watch the rest to know what happens next. The crowd shouts out some point in time where a fetus turns into a person (I hear “the first breath!” but on other nights you might hear “when the fetus is viable outside the womb” or “the third trimester” or any number of other dates), and Ben proceeds to shoot them down with the same argument: “so if I take a baby one minute before that point, and I stab it, it’s not murder?”
This argument is the rare “two-fallacies-for-the-price-of-one” deal: we’ve got a loaded question, like his first argument about age. But we’ve also got something interesting, one that even many logicians overlook.
It’s called the “continuum fallacy”, or sometimes the “heap fallacy”. It’s the mistaken argument that if you have two different states a thing can be in, and you can’t point to a discrete line dividing the two, one must dominate. In other words:
If I put a single grain of sand on a table, do I have a pile? No. How about if I put two? Still no. Three, four, five, ten, fifteen grains of sand don’t constitute a pile. In fact, if I have n grains of sand, that aren’t a pile, and I add one more, it’s ridiculous to say that I now have a pile, just from adding a single grain of sand. Therefore, no matter how much sand I add to the table, it will never be a pile. Therefore, piles of sand don’t exist!
The problem with this argument is that, even though any specific dividing line may be flawed, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t one somewhere. It could be a continuum: I’m not six feet tall, but I’m also not five feet tall, I’m somewhere in between, and that in-between may or may not be quantifiable. It could be that there is overlap: if you boiled pots of water all over the world at different heights and atmospheric pressures, some would turn from liquid to gas while others still had a long way to go. It could be that we aren’t using the right measurement: I can’t give you a line for how massive a rock in space has to be before it becomes a planet, because its mass is only tangentially related to the definition.
Ironically enough for someone who just spent 6 minutes railing against the idea of gender as a social construct, Ben Shapiro is abusing a social construct right now: there’s no biological marker for what counts as alive and what doesn’t, or what counts as a person and what doesn’t. Philosophers have been chasing their tails over those questions for the entirety of recorded history. There’s no dividing line we can draw that isn’t in some way flawed. That doesn’t mean that the line isn’t there.
It does mean that if you ask a bunch of undergrads to give you one on the spot, they’re going to sputter and bluster and look like idiots so you can have a nice YouTube video.
The next, and thankfully final, argument he makes is about abortion in cases of rape and incest. A couple of the students try to ask how he can claim abortion is wrong even in these cases, and he turns it around on them: “so that’s an excuse, so that we can take the marginal case and then say it applies to all cases, that’s faulty thinking.”
Logically, I can’t really fault him for this one, because once you make the assumption that all fetuses are human beings starting at conception, whether or not that conception was incestuous or non-consensual doesn’t really matter. I mean, the fetus didn’t commit rape. But I will take him to task for calling the focus on those cases sloppy thinking. He opposes abortion in cases of rape and incest. He’s on the record, and even defends it in this video five seconds later. If his argument opposes abortion in those cases, an argument against just those cases is also an argument against his whole point. If we were to somehow magically prove that abortion is acceptable in cases of rape or incest, we could continue to have arguments about whether or not it’s okay the rest of the time. But Ben Shapiro’s claim, that it’s never okay, would conclusively be wrong. He’s just being petty, and I don’t like it.
Conclusion: Ben Shapiro is Bad and He Should Feel Bad
At this point, we can clearly see that Ben Shapiro does not argue in good faith when he’s debating college students at his Q&As. But what’s the big deal? It’s not like he has access to Google from that podium, he can’t fact-check everything he says. People make flawed arguments sometimes, and most thinkers on the left wouldn’t do that much better if subjected to this kind of after-the-fact nitpicking.
I wish I could give him the benefit of the doubt here, I really do. But I can’t, and it’s because of one innocuous moment in his performance: his Holmes/Douglas mix-up. Sure, he mixed up who wrote the opinions on two related Supreme Court cases he probably hasn’t looked at in a decade. Everyone does that. But look at him as he says it, listen to his tone. He is 100% certain he has the right name even as he confidently tells a room full of college students and at least a million viewers online that the wrong Justice wrote the decision. He does not for a moment entertain the possibility that he could have misremembered.
Any thinker worth her salt, in any field, will have at the back of her mind the question “what if what I’m saying is wrong?” It’s that self-interrogation, that doubt, that separates the intellectual from the ideologue. You have to be prepared to be wrong, and be wrong often, or when the time comes you won’t recognize when you are and won’t change your mind, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. It’s why we write an amendment process into our constitutions and print new history and science textbooks every year. It’s the question we must always ask ourselves before a debate, especially when the outcome of that debate could cost lives if we get it wrong.
Judging by this video and so many others like it, I see no evidence that Ben Shapiro has ever asked himself that question in his entire life. That’s why the liberal intelligencia don’t answer his challenges. They aren’t afraid of him, they’re ignoring him.
Do I think we should be blocking him from speaking on our campuses? No. Even if we dismiss the First Amendment argument, he represents a different political tradition from what most people are exposed to in our universities. In fact, according to most right-wingers today, he’s one of its philosophical shining stars. If we can give marxists tenure, we can give Ben Shapiro a Saturday afternoon.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t recognize him for what he is. Ben Shapiro is no rhetorical wunderkind. He’s the MVP of an all-white basketball league. He’s what’s left of the storied tradition of conservative intellectualism when the David Brookses, George Wills, Max Boots, and Jennifer Rubins of the world abandon ship. That’s enough to earn him his speakers’ fee, but let’s not pretend it’s anything more than a participation trophy.