OPINION: TCU professor’s response to Ben Shapiro

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Last week, Ben Shapiro visited TCU to deliver a speech on how “Facts Don’t Care About Your Feelings.” He began with an assertion that “your professors” are, in a word, idiots: that views from “the Left” acknowledging notions including white privilege, multiculturalism, institutional racism and inequity in America are misguided, misinformed, merely emotional in substance and simply wrong. I took Mr. Shapiro’s statement to heart because, while he’s never met me, I am a tenured English professor and the Director of the Latina/o Studies Program at TCU, so when Mr. Shapiro made this characterization, whether he knew it or not, he had a professor exactly like me in mind.

I attended the talk because, as I had recently told my students in my Intro to Literature class, I lament the dearth of productive discourse between conflicting political stances in our country today. I consider myself liberal and progressive so I wanted to hear what Mr. Shapiro promised would be a lecture concerned with facts, facts that I had imagined would prove inconvenient to my convictions. After all, I agree with the premise that facts don’t care about your feelings (or mine for that matter) and since I’m committed to learning, I wanted to see if I could learn something.

What I learned was that Mr. Shapiro was working under a flawed assumption: that his particular social conservative views were in and of themselves “facts.” Spoken rapidly and unequivocally, his strong convictions of what is totally true and absolutely wrong were not explicitly supported by facts at all. There were few facts in Mr. Shapiro’s speech; my benefit of the doubt might be too generous in allowing phrases like “recent studies have shown” to count.

What we had were views, not facts.

For example, Mr. Shapiro believes that transgender people suffer a condition, formerly classified as gender identity disorder but replaced, in 2013, with the term gender dysphoria. I can only assume that Mr. Shapiro believes that his stance is supported by facts since it is true that the American Psychological Association classifies gender dysphoria in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). But Mr. Shapiro spent no time elaborating on the relevant facts here. The term dysphoria means distress, and the condition of gender dysphoria is not solely a matter of the incongruity between gender assignment at birth and gender self-identity: the condition requires psychological distress. A person who is transgender, by the APA’s standards, does not inherently suffer from gender dysphoria. The most recent edition of the DSM (5th ed., 2013):

aims to avoid stigma and ensure clinical care for individuals who see and feel themselves to be a different gender than their assigned gender. [The DSM] replaces the diagnostic name “gender identity disorder” with “gender dysphoria,” as well as makes other important clarifications in the criteria. It is important to note that gender nonconformity is not in itself a mental disorder. The critical element of gender dysphoria is the presence of clinically significant distress associated with the condition…Part of removing stigma is about choosing the right words. Replacing “disorder” with “dysphoria” in the diagnostic label is not only more appropriate and consistent with familiar clinical sexology terminology, it also removes the connotation that the patient is “disordered.”

Those are the facts. The APA is clear on this issue. If Mr. Shapiro disagrees, it is his view, to which he is surely entitled, but his view is not a matter of fact.

Mr. Shapiro also asserted that while it is true that black people have endured a long history of cruel injustices in our country, this does not mean that these injustices continue to be perpetuated today. He said that the persistence of racism is neither institutionalized nor a product of “the Right.” To him, social conservatives do not wish to dialogue on race—what matters to them is the sharing of values, which can enable us to build communities based not on racial characteristics but on mores and interests. He went one step further to assert that it is “the Left” who insist on discussing race, classifying race, passing judgments based on race, and, in short, being racist. Liberals are the racists, not conservatives, he would say.

Mr. Shapiro set out to debunk the suggestion that institutionalized racism exists. The extent of his analysis was as curt as it gets, claiming that this is just patently false. Period. He presented no facts to support this view. But there are facts that liberals consider when formulating progressive platforms regarding race matters, and the liberal consensus that institutionalized racism and inequity are realities is based on information. For example, according to economists Louis Johnston and Samuel H. Williamson, from the years 1790 to 1865 (from the founding of our Republic to the abolition of slavery) our country’s real GDP grew from $4.35 billion to $113.72 billion. Taking population growth into account, per capital real GDP over this time basically tripled. But this economic growth almost entirely benefitted white people; most black people in America at this time were held in bondage, with no rights to assets or capital. And over the course of history, from Slave Codes to Black Codes to Pig Laws to Jim Crow and beyond, black Americans were consistently disenfranchised by institutional measures. And later initiatives like the legislation of President Roosevelt’s New Deal and President Truman’s Fair Deal established entitlement programs (e.g. Social Security, unemployment benefits, workers’ compensation, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the G.I. Bill) that almost exclusively benefitted white Americans in order to nurture and sustain a robust white middle class. It wasn’t until 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed and made racial discrimination in federally assisted programs unlawful that black Americans were legally entitled to the same economic opportunities that white Americans were afforded. In short, from the founding of Jamestown by the Virginia Company of London in 1607 to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a span of 357 years that ended just 52 years ago, black Americans were shut out of fair opportunity to amass capital.

These are facts.

It is also indeed a fact that racial economic inequality persists today. Data from the Pew Research Center affirms that while white per capita wages are approximately double that of the per capita wages of people of color, median white net worth is over 11 times that of people of color. What is largely in play in this massive discrepancy is an intergenerational mechanism that makes the facts in the paragraph above extremely relevant to the present: financial inheritance. We do not live under totalitarian socialism; we live under democratic capitalism. Citizens have rights to private property including inheriting wealth from their forebears. 357 years is a very long time. 52 years is not. Many people reading these words remember the year 1964. (By 1964 my father had already received his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army.) The lingering effects of institutional racism have radically racialized economic inequality in our country, leaving conditions of inequity—and indeed white privilege—that cannot be dismissed as “myths” or mere ancient history.

My personal liberal purview is not based on feelings. It is based on facts.

When students enroll in college, the expectation is that the experience to follow will be an education, and implicit to education is that it involves learning. Implicit to learning is that it involves introducing new information, critical methods, and directions of inquiry. If a college education is doing it right, this newness will change the student’s mind. To equate a rigorous education’s accompanying discomfort or distress (dysphoria) to the idea that the process is effectively “brainwashing” is a fallacy. A liberal view is not inherently propaganda because social conservative feelings get hurt. Oftentimes liberal views are actually derived from facts.

What Mr. Shapiro completely misses is that leftist views are no more based on feelings than are views from the right. And yet, oftentimes both sides get their feelings hurt. To the chagrin of some on “the Right,” our country is undergoing a significant demographic shift, one that forecasts a much more racially, ethnically, and sexually diverse population than we have ever seen. Expert demographers estimate that this country will be “minority majority” around the year 2044. Texas already is a “minority majority” state and has been for years. Latinos alone constitute the majority of students enrolled in school K-12 in Texas. As of 2014, most students in school K-12 throughout our country are “minorities.” Signs of this gradual demographic change have been registering in the imagination of many citizens with social conservative values, and it seems that this future is seen by many of them as an ominous specter. A threat. That reaction is loaded with feelings, not facts. The facts of racial and ethnic demographic change can be taken as a positive thing if the feelings were different. But the feelings are clinging to old sentiments, leading to a tone of ire like the one that bathed Mr. Shapiro’s lecture. He called TCU professors “idiotic” and called TCU’s chancellor and vice chancellor “weaklings” for supporting student leaders Diona Willis, Shanel Alexander and Emily Laff while “giving credit for this bullshit.”

The philosopher Immanuel Kant once asserted that “concepts without percepts are empty; percepts without concepts are blind.” Mr. Shapiro’s talk, claiming that “Facts Don’t Care About Your Feelings,” wasn’t blind. It was empty. Ironically, it missed seizing on a much needed opportunity to infuse our current political debate with more reason, with more facts. Instead, pathos reigned. For all its attempt to hoodwink our students into thinking that it was going to set the record straight with “facts,” Mr. Shapiro’s talk trembled with an anger that rose out of unmindful fear.

Dr. David Colón, Associate Professor of English and Director of the Latina/o Studies Program

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