By: Doron Levine  | 

Say What You Wanna Say

Here are two questions: Was Ben Shapiro nice? Was Ben Shapiro correct? Upon reflection, it is clear that these two questions are unrelated. One can be correct and nice, correct and not nice, not correct and nice, or not correct and not nice.

This mutual independence applies to propositions that, in some contexts, are plainly insulting. A doctor asks his patient to step onto the scale and proceeds to grossly misread the patient’s weight. He gently informs the poor fellow that he is obese, and recommends the Atkins diet. Here the doctor is not correct, but not not nice. He needs no moral rebuke, only better glasses.

But in the past week I have found myself confronted by a perplexing fact. Many have shared their thoughts on Ben Shapiro’s evaluation of transgenderism that he expressed in his recent speech on campus; I’ve heard it said that Ben Shapiro was correct, that Ben Shapiro was incorrect, that Ben Shapiro was not nice, and that Ben Shapiro was not not nice. But here’s the rub. With few exceptions, the people expressing these opinions fall into one of two categories: they either believe that Ben Shapiro was not correct and not nice, or that Ben Shapiro was correct and nice.

A Mysterious Coincidence. Where are the people who believe that transgenderism is an illness but that Ben Shapiro expressed this fact in a careless and unkind manner? And where are those who think that transgenderism is not an illness but that Ben Shapiro expressed his factually incorrect opinion in a perfectly appropriate tone? I have encountered only a handful of the former and zero of the latter. Ruminate about that for a moment, chew on and relish that flavory fact. Is it not deeply peculiar?

Here we have a typical case of artificial connections between beliefs. We see this often on the political stage – beliefs are accepted as packages and often not considered on their independent merits. The belief that the US government should have less control over whether its citizens purchase firearms is, for some inexplicable reason, tied to the belief that human life begins at a relatively early stage in the development of a fetus. The belief that the economy thrives when people are taxed more is tied to the belief that the government should endorse marriage between people of the same sex is tied to the belief that humans are responsible for the earth’s rising temperatures. Bizarre.

In our case, though, the artificial connection between these two beliefs has tended to cloud discussion about one of them. By calling transgenderism an illness, Shapiro proffered a distinct position on the nature of gender that many on our campus agree with and many on our campus disagree with. But most of the criticism of Shapiro that has reached my ears has not revolved around the core substance of his statement. Even the faculty, in their condemnatory letter, shied away from saying that Ben Shapiro was wrong – the closest they got was writing that Shapiro’s position “does not reflect current understanding of these issues.” They instead chose to focus on his “derision,” “disrespect,” “public humiliation,” and “discrimination” towards transgender people.

But our Mysterious Coincidence suggests that the argument over Ben Shapiro’s politeness is a partisan, politicized argument. Correlation may not imply causation, but it is generally considered strong evidence for causation. (In fact, correlation is probably the only sort of empirical evidence that we can bring in support of causation. For this very reason some philosophers actually contend that causation simply is universal, exceptionless correlation.). Perhaps our opinion of whether Shapiro was nice influences our opinion of whether he was correct, but I suspect that the reverse is true – the argument over whether Ben Shapiro was nice is a mere proxy battle for the argument over whether he was correct.

It seems to me that a person’s degree of comfort with the tone of Shapiro’s statement that “transgender people are unfortunately suffering from a significant mental illness” largely boils down to whether that person believes that transgenderism is an illness. If it is an illness, then Ben Shapiro is valiantly campaigning to open the eyes of blind devotees of the APA who delude themselves into harming a suffering minority; an acerbic tone is necessary, or at least forgivable, when used to further this sort of mission. But if transgenderism is not an illness, then Ben Shapiro is spreading pernicious lies. (Incidentally, the term “illness” is as much evaluative as it is descriptive; an illness is merely a physical condition that we deem to be “bad” for the person experiencing it. Scientists are experts on the descriptive element, but no more qualified than you or me to determine if a given physical condition is “bad” for the person experiencing it.)

For some reason, though, we prefer to shy away from discussing the fundamental point at issue—whether the acceptance of transgenderism is good or bad—and instead shift the topic of discussion to niceness. Would the faculty have written a similar letter if a speaker on campus had mocked opponents of transgenderism as preposterously backward roadblocks to progress? Would they have reacted similarly to a sarcastic roast of alt-right Europhiles who self-identify as white? I doubt it and I doubt it.

The disagreement over “facts don’t care about your feelings” is a facade, a clever disguise. Facts are propositions – they don’t have mental states, let alone desires or cares. And in the more colloquial sense of “care,” the truth-value of a fact does not depend on our feelings (notable exceptions to this rule are facts about how we feel – those, of course, depend on how we feel. Interestingly, a person’s gender, according to one position in the transgenderism debate, is actually this sort of fact, the sort that cares about your feelings. To state “facts don’t care about your feelings” in response to someone who claims to be female because they feel like a female is to straightforwardly beg the question.). And presumably everyone agrees that some true facts should not be said because they are insulting (e.g. “Quasimodo, you are utterly hideous.”).

But it’s difficult for critics to explain why they believe Shapiro was wrong; the transgenderism debate boils down to basic assumptions about human nature that are notoriously prickly. Denouncing Shapiro’s tone is simpler – it appears less political and appeals to the universally accepted value of not being mean. This deflection shifts attention from a profound question about the nature of gender to the fabulously trivial question of whether a certain political pundit is mean.

Here we might do well to heed the sage advice of Sara Bareilles, “Say what you wanna say.” Honesty requires bravery. We all agree that, generally speaking, it is good to be nice, but we all tolerate or even applaud a wee dram of scorn and sarcasm when aimed at beliefs we consider contemptible. The tactic of deflection, of pretending that ideological disagreements reduce to tone rather than substance, obscures the underlying debate and fuddles the dialogue.