Ben Shapiro is editor-in-chief of The Daily Wire and host of The Ben Shapiro Show, the 33rd most popular podcast in the U.S. and the 8th most popular podcast in news and politics. When he started writing for Creators Syndicate at age 17, Mr. Shapiro became the youngest nationally syndicated columnist in the country. Since then, he has served as editor-at-large of Breitbart News, columnist for Newsweek, and host of The Ben Shapiro Election Special on Fox News. Notably, the University of California, Berkeley and the city of Berkeley spent $600,000 on security for Mr. Shapiro to speak on campus during his September 14 visit last year.
The Politic: What’s the brief background on how you became interested in politics?
Ben Shapiro: When I went to UCLA, I was 16 years old, and I had originally wanted to major in music and in genetics science. Within a couple of weeks of being on campus, I picked up a copy of the UCLA paper – it was probably legitimately one of the first weeks of school – and there was an editorial comparing Ariel Sharon, then-Prime Minister of Israel, with Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi.
I walked into the Daily Bruin offices and asked if I could write a counter. They said yes, and that quickly turned into a point/counterpoint column I did with somebody on the Left, and then eventually just a solo column I would do once every couple of weeks. After a year and a half of that, I went to my dad and asked him if he thought my stuff was good enough to be in normal papers. He said “let me do some research” and went online and found something called Creators Syndicate, which was a syndicator that did Molly Ivins, David Limbaugh, and a bunch of people on the Right, Left, and Center. I just sent in my stuff, kind of on spec, and Creators Syndicate called me back three weeks later, asking if I wanted to write a weekly syndicated column. That was essentially how I got into writing politically.
Writing from a young age means you’re constantly in the news and you’re constantly in the issues, and it means that you get to engage publicly with a lot of ideas for years at a time, which makes you better at it. The downside is that everything’s on record: everything stupid you thought when you were 18 is on record as opposed to having an opportunity to develop those ideas outside of the public spotlight.
Given that you were originally interested in music and genetics, why do you think that particular piece got you interested in journalism?
Honestly, I was just kind of pissed off. Just like everyone else who gets involved in politics, you see something you don’t like, and then you want to react to the thing that you don’t like. Pretty quickly, I realized that I didn’t want to be doing engineering, just because the amount of effort I had to put in to do well in engineering was not concomitant with the kind of effort I wanted to put into college. So, I ended up shifting my major to political science because frankly it was easier and had a certain level of natural interest.
I think a lot of people find you pretty unwaveringly contrarian, or at least resolute in the principles you hold. Oftentimes, it seems like you’ll even put what you believe to be true above your own physical safety. What do you think led you to that path, as opposed to being more flexible?
I do think there is such a thing as an absolute right and an absolute wrong in a lot of situations, and folks on the Left don’t tend to think that very often. I will say that in certain areas I’m more flexible. With regards to government involvement, I’ve gotten a little more libertarian on, for example, drugs or pornography. But when it comes to ideas of right and wrong in human behavior, I’m not particularly flexible on that. I think that personal responsibility was something I was raised with, and the idea that personal behavior is both paramount and under your control is the key to any functioning republic or any functioning society.
How’d you come to believe in an absolute right and an absolute wrong?
I have a religious background obviously. I’m an Orthodox Jew– I grew up religious. And when you’re religious, you tend to believe there’s such a thing as right and wrong and that not everything is shades of gray. Now, that doesn’t mean there isn’t moral complexity to situations, but it does mean that the sort of moral relativism that claims that all choices are equally morally credible is something that I don’t agree with.
Some people think you’re a ‘provocateur.’ What do you think differentiates you from a provocateur?
I think a provocateur says something simply to illicit a response. What I do is try to say things that I think are true…and then they happen to sometimes illicit a response. My goal is not to illicit a response by cheap trickery, which is easy. My goal is to say things that I think are true, in I hope a polite way, and then if people respond badly to that, frankly that’s their problem.
What’s hilarious about a lot of the ‘Shapiro Destroys’ videos is that it’s generally not me being overtly rude to somebody. It’s generally not me calling somebody a name like, “ah, you’re an idiot.” It’s more, “let me try to explain where I think the flaw in your logic is” and people being befuddled by that. There’s a difference between that and shouting slogans at people and then daring them to respond, or just saying outrageous things for the sake of outrageous things.
For example, people will treat ‘a man is a man and a woman is a woman’ as an outrageous statement, but I don’t see that as outrageous in any serious way. Because that’s not an outrageous statement… I just think objectively it’s not an outrageous statement. That’s not the same thing as shouting slurs at people.
Where do you place people like Milo Yiannopoulos and Dinesh D’Souza? Are they provocateurs?
I think Milo is pretty clearly a provocateur. He goes to campus and then just shouts “feminism is cancer!” I don’t understand how that’s forwarding the debate or convincing anyone. My argument is that first-wave feminism was a good thing and that second- and third-wave feminism have perverted the goals of the feminist movement into something that much more resembles a social leveling than it does an actual forward step for women while recognizing that men and women are inherently different and do–in fact–have different interests with regard to work, with regard to family, with regard to job choice and all the rest.
Is there any merit to provocateurs, or should people stop inviting them to college campuses? At what point, if ever, do you think a university should structurally prohibit a speaker from coming?
I don’t think the university should stop people from speaking on campus who are invited by a legitimate student group that’s been applying through the proper means. I think that’s a mistake. As far as whether it’s meritorious to invite certain people to campus? No. I don’t think it’s meritorious to invite Richard Spencer. I don’t think it’s meritorious to invite Milo to campus. I’m talking for Right-wing students. I don’t see that the benefit outweighs the drawbacks. I think Dinesh is a little bit of a different case because he does actually make some arguments, but he does also add in some of the provocateur stuff. I think there’s a little more weight to some of the stuff Dinesh has to say about history, even if he says it with a little more of a provocateur flare. Is it my cup of tea? Not necessarily.
From your standpoint as a speaker, how do you feel about getting on stage with other people you deem to be provocateurs?
I tend to avoid it. I don’t think there’s anything useful about it as a general rule because it’s like arguing with a comedian. When you argue with a comedian, you’re going to fail no matter what you do because you can do the ‘provocateur nose on provocateur nose off’ in the same way you do ‘clown nose on clown nose off.’ If somebody is a provocateur and they say “feminism is cancer,” and you say “well I have a little of a more sophisticated analysis of that,” but then they say “well feminism is cancer!” and the crowd cheers… that’s not a debate. And the same thing is true on the Left. When you have somebody like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example. Would I want to “debate” her? Yeah. I offered to debate her because I think that the Left has held her up as an example of somebody who has thoughts to give, but if she were to get up there and just shout “Medicare for all!” and I would say, “well let’s talk about the drawbacks of that – namely cost, redistribution of resources, the lack of supply in the medical community, the fact that you’re trying to apply a system that is already bankrupt to a huge number of people additionally, the fact that Medicare outcomes are not necessarily higher than non-Medicare outcomes in the United States,” and she just replied with “because you hate poor people…” Is that a productive debate? I’m not sure. I don’t think that Ocasio-Cortez considers herself a provocateur in the same way. There are folks on the Left who really are more provocateurs than Ocasio-Cortez is… I just think she’s fond of speaking in bumper stickers.
Do you view it as an absolute obligation – “if I’m invited on a college campus with a provocateur, I absolutely will not agree to speak alongside them” – or is it more of a preference?
It’s almost an absolute rule. I have to sort of decide whether I think a debate is going to have a point. There are only two points to having a debate: one is if I think we can have a good discussion on stage. I like that, I enjoy doing that, it’s why I’ve invited a bunch of people who are from the Left onto the Sunday special. And there’s the debate stage, which is much more fist-to-cuff– more about the battle. There the goal is to demonstrate the differences between the positions and also to debunk some of the bumper stickers on the other side.
Debating provocateurs is more useful than discussing with them, but you also have to decide whether that provocateur is even going to abide by rules. If there are no rules for a provocateur, I don’t think it’s useful at all. If there are actual rules of engagement, it can be useful because then maybe you can drill down. Because provocateur is sort of a moving definition – it’s kind of a Supreme Court take on pornography’s “I know it when I see it” – it’s a little bit difficult to identify specific people one way or another because sometimes it even depends on the context.
It seems like you’ve become a pretty central figure in the free speech movement on campuses. Do you think that’s true, or do you think that’s just how you’ve been branded?
I’ve talked about a lot of other issues on college campuses. I’ve done full speeches on Aristotelian virtue; I’ve done full speeches on gun control; I did a full speech in front of YAF the other day on Nordic socialism. I’ve done speeches on a bunch of topics. I was doing a lot of this in the aftermath of 2016, because in 2016, I got threatened on campuses, and it required hundreds of police officers to bring me to Berkeley. But I try to keep it topical. I’m not going to claim that every time I go on campus it’s a firestorm threatening my free speech rights because I don’t think that’s right.
We’re now seeing a growing movement of public intellectuals, people like Dave Rubin, Jordan Peterson, and Eric Weinstein, who are converging towards the Center on issues like free speech. Why do you think so many people are gravitating towards free speech as the central issue here?
It may be the one area where people can still agree… I hope. It’s sort of an entryway to having discussion: if people can’t agree that we ought to be having discussion, then that is actually a new rift in American politics. It’s really fascinating: it used to be a rift between Left and Right, and now it’s sort of a rift between people who want to shut down conversation and people who want to have conversation. That doesn’t mean that there’s a stark line that separates the two, because as I’ve said, I’m not interested in having conversations with people like Richard Spencer or Milo. Also, I have a general rule with regard to people like Milo that once you’ve sent me a picture of a black baby on the day of my son’s birth because you want to show that I’m a cuck, then we’re sort of out.
But with that said, the general principle that I don’t want people’s speech silenced, that I would prefer that they be allowed to say what they want even if I’m not going to take the time to debate them, is, I think, a fairly consistent principle that allows people to actually have a conversation. Unfortunately, it’s come under some pretty significant attack in the recent past, not only through hard means by saying colleges shouldn’t host people, but also through the sort of intersectional argument that we can’t have discussion about principle or issues unless you are of the right race, sex, or gender. That kind of stuff is not only absurd, but it prevents honest discussion from happening. If we can’t discuss ideas, then the entire principle of reason goes out the window and then we’re just tribes battling each other for control of power.
Could you expand a little bit on your thoughts about intersectionality? If someone made a comment about Judaism to you that you found extremely misguided, what would you say in response to them?
That you don’t know what you’re talking about. But that’s not the same thing as saying that, as an ethnic Jew, I am therefore more qualified to speak on this issue than you. It’s because I know Judaism better because I practice it. If you were to say, “you don’t know what you’re talking about with regard to socialism, because I’ve studied socialism all my life and I can quote you chapter and verse from Das Kapital,” then we can have an argument about whether you’re right or wrong about Das Kapital. But if I were to make a comment about the criminal justice system, and you were to say, “well, you don’t know what you’re talking about because you’re not black,” I don’t even know what to say to that. That’s not an argument. That’s an emotional appeal. If you want to say, “you don’t know what you’re talking about because here are the statistics showing you don’t know what you’re talking about,” then we can quote statistics at one another and now we’re speaking on the level of rational human beings. If it’s “you don’t know what you’re talking about because you haven’t shared my lived experience,” then no one has– literally no one on planet Earth has shared your lived experience.
Do you think there’s anything that is non-factual, or rather experiential, about ethnic Judaism? For instance, is there any component to the faith that people can’t understand given they weren’t born to the same community as you?
No, no, no! I don’t think that being born a Jew is something that people can’t understand, or that the experiences that spring therefrom are things that people can’t sympathize with. No one can experience exactly what you’ve experienced in your life. But if that forbids conversation, I think it’s going to be very difficult for us to have a conversation in general. If you want to say that Jews have been historically targeted, I think people can understand that Jews have been historically targeted– it’s why we bother teaching about the Holocaust. If you want to say that Blacks have been historic victims of racism, of course that’s true. And I think we can all sympathize with that, and that’s not being patronizing– that’s just a reality. If you’re a human being, the whole point of being a good human being is being able to try and understand what somebody else has gone through without you having to actually have experienced it.
That reminds me of your talk at Berkeley, where you said “if you are a victim of something, you need to show me what you are a victim of and I will stand beside you.” It’s clear that a lot of people believe in less tangible, more systemic forces of racism. How do you respond to the idea that there are certain things that you just might not be able to grasp?
I guess I’m Aristotelian in this perspective and not platonic–I don’t believe in platonic discrimination. I believe in Aristotelian discrimination: there are actual people in the world that discriminate, there are actual policies that are discriminatory, and when you talk about these platonic ideals of discrimination, I don’t even know how to tackle that. We’re not even in the same sphere. You’re talking about broad ideas that I cannot affect no matter what I do. My number one question with politics – because politics is about addressing problems – is how am I supposed to address the problem? If you provide for me a problem that nobody can address… because you’ve provided no actual option for addressing the problem and you haven’t even defined the problem specifically enough… what am I supposed to do about that?
If you say there’s a problem of childhood obesity out there in the ether, then I can say, “okay, how many kids are actually suffering from it, why are they getting fat, and what are the answers to why they’re getting fat?” The problem is that when you talk about things like systemic racism and you say, “okay, well where is that coming from and who can I talk to about that, and where are the statistics?” the minute you say that then people jump in and they say, “you can’t understand systemic racism, and we can’t even answer those questions, because you haven’t experienced systemic racism.” There’s legitimately no way to bring this hot air balloon back down to Earth.
For many people, emotions are a very real thing. Let’s say maybe people are treated equally, but if a certain group of people feels that they are oppressed, how do you address that?
It depends. Are their feelings justified or are they not? I know this is a taboo question in American politics these days, but not every grievance is justified. That holds true across the spectrum. When people say, “my job is being stolen by a Chinese worker or a Mexican,” I’m not sure that your grievance is justified. And the same thing holds true when you say you feel victimized by a society. Okay, well… how? How? Then we can address it. Do you feel victimized because you believe that there’s a system of discrimination in place by a specific institution? There’s a business owner that won’t hire you because of the color of your skin? That’s something that we can address. We can talk about whether we all ought to boycott that guys store, whether we all ought to go to a different store, whether that’s a person we wish to be doing business with. But if it’s “I feel discriminated against,” you say “well, I need evidence of that,” and then they say, “you just don’t understand,” you’re right… I don’t. That’s why I’m asking a question. The whole point of me asking is to dig down to get to a point where we can actually have a conversation about this stuff. I really, really, really despise the argument that I have feelings about an issue and therefore my feelings give me power: your feelings don’t give you power, your feelings require you to explain why you have those feelings. I’m so confused… I mean, I understand why this has become a political hot-button, because it’s always been a political hot-button for people’s feelings to dictate their policy prescriptions, but if my child is crying about something, the first question I ask is why are you crying? Express yourself in words. And I care a lot more about my children then I do other people in society.
Okay, so there are people like Dave Rubin and Jordan Peterson talking about free speech, people on the Center-Left who are now identifying more with the Center-Right than the Far-Left, and Republicans like the Koch brothers now denouncing Donald Trump. Do you think we’re on the verge of consensus, or do you think there’ll be a long and tumultuous future?
I think it’s going to get uglier before it gets better. It seems that all sides are now subject to political renormalization. Small groups of people exact high transaction costs upon larger groups of people that refuse to go along with them. The problem of radical capture is happening across the board– it’s happening on the Right, it’s happening on the Left. That doesn’t just mean radicalism in terms of policy; it means radicalism in terms of emotionality. The backlash from that is happening, I think, from people who want to have discussions. The fact is– I think I’m the only registered Republican who’s a member of the so-called ‘intellectual dark web.’ What’s hilarious is that this is now considered by the Left a Right-wing front group. No one in the group – not a single person in the group I’m aware of – voted for Donald Trump, and yet it’s considered a Right-wing front group. I’m the only registered Republican in the group, I’m probably outnumbered by Democrats 10:1, and yet it’s considered a Right-wing front group. It’s so bizarre.
What do you think it would take for us to bring some civility back into politics?
I think the first thing that we’d have to recognize is that feelings are not sacrosanct. And we have to base our conversations on data. And we have to state our fundamental premises up front so that we can understand what we’re talking about. It’s one of the reasons why, even though I’m a religious person, I never cite the Bible when I’m talking about values because that’s not a shared framework. So, we have to use whatever shared frameworks we have. The two shared frameworks we’re supposed to have are rationality and data, but those are the two things that have become, I think, in many areas, taboo: data is taboo if it offends people and rationality is taboo if it crosses over a feelings line.
Rationality and data seem like methods of reasoning to some sort of fundamental value, rather than values themselves.
They weren’t values until the very recent past, they were baseline assumptions for what you had to do. You’re right, they are methods: the methods have become politically questionable. Political correctness is devoted to the idea that methodology can cross moral lines– that rationality may in fact cross moral lines, that the use of data may in fact cross moral lines.
When we’re having intellectual conversations, do we have to agree on the use of data and reason, or do we have to agree on things like whether equality is our ultimate value?
Both, but I think more data and reason because then we can actually have a conversation about whether equality should be the ultimate value or whether liberty should be the ultimate value. Now we’re stating our premises, and now I can make an argument for why liberty ought to be the ultimate value as opposed to equality. Equality involves compulsion, compulsion involves violation of the freedom of the individual, freedom of the individual is the highest goal that a man should aspire to, as opposed to equality. And you can have someone on the other side argue that equality is the highest goal because we’re all brethren, and if equality doesn’t prevail, then victimization will inevitably occur. Then we can actually have arguments about this stuff and pick apart each other’s arguments. So, the very base of the iceberg is what are the methodologies that we’re going to use to argue, and then the second is which values are we going to use to argue from? And that’s why you’re seeing people in the IDW get along. Sam and I completely disagree on fundamental values, but we agree on the baseline use of reason and data.
Charles Murray is someone I studied with over the summer, for instance.
Charles has gotten completely maligned, he’s gotten completely destroyed… for writing about scientific fact with regard to IQ–and without stating that it’s completely genetic. I’ve had this conversation with my friend, Jane Coaston, over at Vox. She gets very upset about some of the IQ discussions because she says that the minute you start discussing IQ, you jump into a certain historical and political context in which IQ has been used as a eugenic method or as a way of keeping certain people down. And I’ve said back to her: “right and I reject that context, and if you’d asked me about that context, I’m happy to reject it.” But if you’re going to do a multiple regression analysis of criminality, for example, then why would you not include IQ among factors in the multiple regression? And the answer is that “we don’t want to because we’re afraid of the results.” Well if you’re afraid of the results, then I would suggest that’s not a good political argument. That’s an emotional argument.
Given the fact that there are such extreme implications to writing about IQ – even if it’s irrational, unjustified, emotional, etc. – is that not something you should still consider when writing about the topic?
You certainly have to be a lot more careful. Look, I think you should be careful. Are people careful? Am I always careful? No. But I think that’s an area where people should be more careful obviously given the historical implications. But the tendency is not to call for care and specificity; the tendency has been to completely malign anyone who even has a basic conversation on the topic a la Ezra Klein and Sam.
What were your thoughts on that conversation?
It was absurd… it was absurd. Ezra essentially said that Sam was standing for white supremacy because Sam happens to be white and was discussing IQ.
Interesting– I kind of like what Ezra Klein said!
What was your read on what Ezra Klein read?
I really liked Ezra’s line of thought where he was asking about Sam’s fundamental values, where they come from, where his biases are, and the possibility of Sam seeing some of Charles Murray in himself. I liked the idea of that kind of open conversation in an academic discussion.
Here’s why I don’t like that stuff. What that does is impute intent to somebody, and that’s not a good form of argument. If you’re going to argue with what Sam is saying, argue with what Sam is saying. But when you impute intent to Sam – that “the real reason you’re arguing this is because…” – how about this? How about you just take Sam’s argument and debunk it. You don’t like his argument? Say it’s a bad argument. When you go to the real reason Sam is saying this is because he bears a certain sort of intellectual sympathy for another white man in an academic position… honestly, my sort of general reaction to that is “fuck you.” You don’t get to psychoanalyze me like I’m sitting on a couch with you. The minute we start doing that, there’s no more conversation.
Interesting! But given that it’s two humans, both of whom reason differently, it seems like there’s always going to be bias. Aren’t you putting reason on a pedestal?
Reason is good for some things and it’s not good for others. It’s very difficult to reason your way to first principles, which I think is the mistake Sam makes, and I’ve had that discussion with Sam. But one thing that should be off limits in open discussion is the “motive” of the person discussing, unless they’re making clear their motive. Richard Spencer makes clear his motive for discussing IQ: he wants to talk about why whites are better than other people. But he’s not shying away from that. He will embrace that. That’s not me imputing a motive to him– that’s him stating his motive.
You don’t think there’s ever a context where someone should be challenged on their motives when they’re not explicit about them?
I think you should be able to debunk the argument, and then you can get to the motive. I think that, ideally… it’s hard to say this stuff when you’re in public life and you haven’t engaged in all of your own rules… but ideally yes, it’s a mistake to start imputing motives to people unless they’re contradicting themselves. If you’re contradicting yourself, then maybe you can go to motive. For example, Rose McGowan, today with the Asia Argento thing, she tweets out that we should all give Asia Argento the benefit of the doubt, and five minutes ago she was tweeting ‘Believe All Women.’ At that point, I have to ask okay, so what was your real principle here? Because it obviously wasn’t ‘Believe All Women’ or ‘Believe All Victims,’ so what was the real motive here?
But if you’re not contradicting yourself, and you’re making a consistent argument, the jump to motive, and to maligned motive, is a very easy one to make in argument and I generally don’t like it. When Sam and I discussed religion, I didn’t go to “the reason you hate religion is because your parents were divorced and early on in life you were angry at God, so you decided there was no God.” That would be illegitimate, nasty, and just not true. And that’s why I really hate it when I go on campus and I make arguments about police brutality and the actual statistics, and everyone goes, “oh, you’re just saying that because you’re a racist.” What proof do you have? You have no proof that I’m a racist. You’re just saying that shit because you don’t actually want to make an argument countering my argument. That’s not even an argument: it’s an emotional appeal and a character assault. And it’s one of the things that leads to people like Trump. Because when you malign an entire population of the United States as racist, sexist, bigot, homophobic, led by that racist, sexist, bigot, homophobe Mitt Romney, it turns out that a lot of those people are going to turn around and say, “fuck all of y’all.” If you’re going to call us all of those names, we’re going to nominate whoever the id suggests we nominate.
Let’s say that somebody produces work which might be ill-intentioned, but you don’t want to psychoanalyze them. It seems like you’ve objectively beaten back their argument, yet people still flock to that person– Milo might be a good example. At that point, do you just keep trying to prove him wrong? Or should you paint him as a provocateur?
He’s clearly a provocateur, and he says he’s a provocateur. Provocateur is an intent. It’s an objective analysis of the stuff that he’s saying, clearly. I think that calling David Duke a racist… David Duke wouldn’t call himself a racist, but I think it’s pretty well-evident that he’s a racist. But I can explain why: because he actually says that white people are superior to Black people. If you can’t answer the question why the label is being dishonestly applied, or at least not sufficiently evidenced…
So… (1) Do they say they’re “racist?” If they say they’re “racist,” we label them “racist.” (2) If they don’t say they’re “racist,” we see whether they hold beliefs that are racist. If they do, we label them “racist.” If their views are murky, or if their beliefs can be interpreted as racist – maybe this is where Charles Murray comes in – then at that point you should not make any contention about their motives or whether they’re racist?
Right. It can be construed as “racist” is, I think, too weak to allow the charge. The possibility of construing someone some way is not actually evidence that the person ought to be construed that way.
Should we still hold them accountable for even leaving that kind of gray area?
Yeah, I mean at the very least you should ask clarification questions, right? This is where clarification questions come in. What did you mean by that?
With Charles Murray, who do you place the blame on here: is it the Left’s fault for not asking Charles Murray to clarify his position?
I do think that’s the case with Charles Murray. If you actually read The Bell Curve, he states pretty explicitly that he does not make any judgement as to whether these differentials with regard to race are environmentally driven or genetically driven. He just points out that the IQ differentials are rather robust.
Is the accusation that he’s twisting the science, and therefore the fact itself is racist? Or that he shouldn’t write about it because writing about it means that you’re a racist? If the accusation is that he’s getting his science wrong, and that’s badly motivated, then number one you have to prove that he’s getting his science wrong. And then second, you have to go to him and you have to say okay, well, if you got the science wrong, why did you get the science wrong? Because people get the science wrong all of the time. It’s just when you get the science wrong in a dicey. I mean legitimately The Bell Curve is like a 530-page book– there’s one chapter about race. And then he wrote an entire book about white people, Coming Apart, specifically to avoid those implications. So if he’s a racist, he appears to me very bad at it– he’s a very bad racist.