What Shapiro’s Humiliation Should Teach Us
Early Friday morning, BBC aired a clip that would become viral just a few hours later: It was an interview of conservative commentator Ben Shapiro by British journalist Andrew Neil, regarding Shapiro’s new book: The Right Side of History. In the just over 16-minute interview Neil — head down and reading his materials — lobbed question after question at Shapiro, addressing not only his general philosophy, but also his past statements about Palestinians and President Barack Obama. While you should watch the full interview, Shapiro becomes noticeably hostile by about minute six and ultimately cuts the interview short, storming off angrily and calling it a “waste of time.”
Hours later, Shapiro would admit his own defeat via Twitter:
You should give credit to Shapiro, who was humble enough to concede his own “loss,” but even Shapiro’s admission of defeat highlights a bigger problem and his own personal blindspot: If he hadn’t gone into the debate with the same approach that he has 99% of the time, he would have never felt the need to throw his toys out of the crib and leave the interview. He also wouldn’t have sent his subsequent tweet playfully conceding that Neil bested him, nor the damage-control he sent out beforehand (the interview was apparently done on Thursday).
During the interview, Shapiro was presented with two arguments before he went off the rails: First, he was asked to explain the lack of policy ideas currently emanating from the Right; as Neil stated, the Republican Party is “Trump’s Party” now and seems to be following his lead, whether it is toward a conservative ideal or not. Shapiro responded courteously, while suggesting that the premise of the question was “intellectual sneering” of the highest order (polls show that it is not). Then, came the follow-up: Neil cited to the recent anti-abortion law passed in Georgia, highlighting that — as written — it would punish certain women for having miscarriages and others for having an abortion performed out-of-state; Neil asks Shapiro if he thinks the law is a return to the “dark ages.” Shapiro takes exception to that characterization, personally attacked Neil, and then ultimately huffed and puffed out of the interview, like many of the “snowflakes” he chastizes.
What Shapiro failed to understand is related partly to the nature of British journalism — where they conduct an interview in a Question-Time lite sort of way — but more to his own failings. As Neil tried to explain, he was merely presenting an opposing viewpoint to Shapiro’s and giving him the chance to respond. This is part of British TV journalism, where you are asked to defend your ideas against a credible and serious Devil’s Advocate. Shapiro — as evidenced by his pre-interview tweet — failed to understand this and took Neil to be a hostile interviewer.
Anyone who knows Neil or who is remotely familiar with British journalism would tell you that he is probably the last person on the BBC to be hostile to conservative ideas. He is a well-known Tory who largely advocated for Brexit and is currently the chairman of The Spectator, a British conservative magazine; Shapiro himself has written for its American counterpart, The American Spectator. The Left in Britain has even called for Neil to step down from BBC, as they argue that an “ultra-Thatcherite” such as Neil could not be expected to remain “politically neutral” when covering the news. Obviously, Shapiro didn’t do his research and “broke his own rule” about debating someone else. But he could have avoided this if he didn’t look at the interview as a “debate” to begin with.
Neil touched on an important point when he highlighted the titles of Shapiro’s popular YouTube videos: Nearly every one of them promised to show him “destroying” a Leftist argument or triggering a liberal snowflake (Shapiro asked why Neil was selecting videos with titles that he himself did not choose, but later research showed that the videos came from Shapiro’s own website). Neil’s point was incredibly salient: If Shapiro is complaining that the political discourse in America is deteriorating — a complaint that is a central component of his recent book — then to what degree is he responsible for that deterioration? Shapiro was unable to give a credible answer.
Shapiro’s persona is centered around the idea that Left-wing ideas exist for the sole purpose of being knocked down via some bastardized version of the Socratic method. He wrote an entire book in which he promised to instruct readers how to “debate Leftists and destroy them.” Shapiro’s first statement in the book is, “All that matters is victory.” He posits in the book that any argument can be won in the first thirty seconds and outlines ways for the debating conservative to knock their opponent off their guard and humiliate them. It’s not exactly a pamphlet on how to engage in civil discourse.
It’s this weird obsession with debate that allowed Shapiro to be outsmarted by a competent interviewer like Neil. Once Ben felt boxed in by Neil’s questioning his reflexive action was to counterpunch Neil. But the punch didn’t land because Neil didn’t respond and just kept soldiering on. That has happened to Shapiro before: He somewhat infamously challenged Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocascio-Cortez to debate him, only to be ignored. This was taken by his fans to be a tacit admission of her intellectual inferiority, but to everyone else it was puzzling: Why should a sitting Congresswoman “debate” someone who is essentially a talking head with a website?
Unsurprisingly, the Left engaged in a healthy round of Schadenfraude after seeing Shapiro finally bested by someone who was not a 20-something year old college student. The charge against Shapiro is that although he presents himself as someone who is open to debate, he apparently declines to “debate” anyone who could credibly be described as an intellectual equal. Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs agreed to debate Shapiro after writing a thorough rebuttal of his glowing profile in the New York Times, only to be declined by either the organizing group or Shapiro himself. The central argument about Shapiro is that he regularly chooses low-hanging fruit to attack, but falls apart when an intelligent adult counters his ideas.
There is an idea on the Right — and much of it fostered by Shapiro — that if you “debate” someone and win, you have won the argument for all eternity and their arguments are vanquished, be it single-payer healthcare, socialism, or a 15-dollar minimum wage. Shapiro revels and succeeds under the popularity of this argument, but in reality, virtually the only people who are convinced by Shapiro’s repeated “owning” of liberals are people who were just looking for liberals to be owned in the first place.
Tom Nichols made an important point about Shapiro that might be inescapable:
One of the reasons why Shapiro — a pretty open critic of Donald Trump who did not vote for him in 2016 — has not been embraced by the Left as much as other Never Trumpers like Nichols is precisely because of his past affiliations with Breitbart and Milo Yiannopoulos, and his past statements which most on the Left (credibly) see as racist; no matter how many “facts” he presents, a Leftist will never see Shapiro as a commentator acting in good faith. Thus, you have to question what Shapiro’s ultimate audience is when he presents videos of himself “owning” Leftists. Is it normal, every day Americans — who polls show disagree with most of Shapiro’s viewpoints — that have only a casual attachment to politics, or is it fence-sitting Republicans who don’t like Trump?
The former Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Tim Keller, said, “In the end, we love people into belief. We do not argue them into belief.” While Keller is speaking specifically about the Gospel, it’s a pretty universal truth: Shapiro’s videos of him “owning” college students do not win him any new converts, and may even put off neutrals who find his personal style to be grating. The real purpose of any debate is to convince your audience that the point you are making is fair and defendable. Shapiro treats it as merely an opportunity to dunk on your opponent. “All that matters is victory.”
The most illuminating part of the interview is when Neil asks Shapiro about abortion: Not only does Shapiro evidently not have a good answer to Neil’s question, he almost immediately descends into an ad hominem attack, as he calls Neil a Leftist who cannot be objective. Shapiro’s ad hominem presents two issues: First, calling someone a Leftist is an insult only in the mind of someone who is not already a Leftist. Second, Shapiro reflexively went into the same “debate mode” that is familiar to his fans and that he thought would be successful: He branded Neil as someone who called the pro-life position “barbaric,” but Neil did no such thing if you listen to him carefully. His attempt to knock Neil off his heels fell flat, and ultimately led to Shapiro’s embarassment.
David Hume — who was also branded as a firebrand more interested in shocking his audience than providing real insight — said, “[A] man is guilty of unpardonable arrogance, who concludes, because an argument has escaped his own investigation, that therefore it does not really exist.” Shapiro’s mantra, “Facts don’t care about your feelings,” runs counter to Hume’s citation to experience as a sometimes valid form of argument, but also to Hume’s fundamental understanding of humility: Men do not have every answer to every question ever posed throughout human history, so the best way to convince an audience is to present your rational ideas with a degree of humility.
My hope is that Shapiro is smart and honest enough to use this moment as a chance for self-reflection: Maybe not everything is a debate and maybe the way he debates people is unhelpful. If he fully understands the latter point, he would see that sometimes there is an audience that you can win over. My general feeling about Shapiro is that he is half as smart as his fans think he is, but twice as decent as his biggest critics imagine him to be; by all accounts he has a wonderful family and does want engage in good-faith debate. Still, it’s hard to miss the obvious point that Neil was making in the interview: Shapiro’s current penchant for “debate” and “destroying” his opponents does not help American political discourse.