Many students — understandably — feel Ben Shapiro’s March 21 lecture on campus, organized and endorsed by Georgetown University College Republicans and Lecture Fund, risks normalizing and legitimizing the transphobic, Islamophobic and anti-Arab views he has espoused in the past.
However, these students must not silence Shapiro, an American conservative political commentator widely regarded as a free speech “martyr” for the protests his speeches incite. Instead, they should question him, protest him and use the speech as an opportunity for open discussion prompted by his views.
Shapiro has spent his career trafficking in well-documented bigotry.
In a Sep. 27, 2010 tweet he claimed Arabs, a group he often targets in his vitriolic comments, “like to bomb crap and live in open sewage.”
In December 2016, he told a group of students at Yeshiva University in New York City, “Transgender people are unfortunately suffering from a significant mental illness that is deeply harmful.”
Shapiro’s 2010 tweet was plainly racist and his 2016 claim was clearly wrong: The American Psychiatric Association has asserted that “identifying as transgender does not constitute a mental disorder.” Moreover, he purposefully diminishes the feelings and experiences of marginalized individuals.
His words can carry dangerous consequences. As Claire Hazbun (SFS ’20) correctly noted in a Feb. 23 op-ed for The Hoya calling on GUCR and Lecture Fund, the groups endorsing the event, to disinvite Shapiro, “The harm of inviting Shapiro to campus is clear. Over time, we become apathetic to bigoted rhetoric. This hateful speech creates a foundation for violence against marginalized groups.”
However, attempting to cancel the event would set precedents that could seriously harm on-campus free speech in the future.
Students should accept the reality of his visit and focus on fostering productive conversation around less than ideal circumstances. We must take the high road and allow him to speak, despite his offensive ideology.
As former President Barack Obama argued in a September 2015 town hall in Des Moines, Iowa, college students should be open-minded and willing to engage with oppositional opinions.
“Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them, but you shouldn’t silence them by saying, ‘You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say,’” Obama said.
Georgetown students should heed Obama’s advice. Do not shy away from offensive views; instead, listen to Shapiro’s views — even if only to challenge them.
GU Pride and H*yas for Choice, campus groups diametrically opposed to many of Shapiro’s most controversial beliefs, have planned a post-event discussion focused on intersections of the pro-abortion rights and pro-trans movements, where students will have the opportunity to talk about their responses to Shapiro’s appearance.
These efforts are commendable: When speakers visit campus, groups should create spaces for an open discussion of the lecturer’s merit — and, more importantly, the speaker’s flaws. The presentation of diverse opinions strengthens intellectual capability, as is possible only in an environment where free speech is protected.
This environment allowed students to effectively challenge another provocative on-campus speaker in April 2017 — then-White House national security adviser Sebastian Gorka. In that case, students did not shut down the event nor did they not shout Gorka down during the panel. Rather, some students silently protested while others asked tough questions about Gorka’s ties to Vitézi Rend — a neo-Nazi group — and his Islamophobic rhetoric.
In response, Gorka fled the panel more than 15 minutes early, attracting national news coverage to the very issues brought up by Georgetown students.
Students who find Shapiro’s beliefs offensive should follow this model of civil disobedience.
Fourteen Georgetown student groups — including the Muslim Students Association, Native American Student Council and LGBTQ advocacy group GU Pride — have been offered seats next to microphones at the event, granting representatives quick access to ask questions during the Q&A portion, as confirmed by event organizer and former GUCR President Allie Williams (SFS ’19). Williams is also a member of this editorial board. Members of these groups should engage with the event by questioning Shapiro, protesting peacefully or simply presenting their own views in conversation and discussion.
By arguing their own views instead of ignoring Shapiro’s, members of the Georgetown community can enable a productive, challenging conversation while preserving freedom of speech on campus.
The Hoya’s editorial board is composed of six students and is chaired by the Opinion Editor. Editorials reflect only the beliefs of a majority of the board and are not representative of The Hoya or any individual member of the board.