Students Fuel Vitriolic Speech: The Degeneration of Conservative Thought

Ben Shapiro is particularly intimidating, towering over the crowd at a self-proclaimed 5 feet, 9 inches. But on Sept. 9, Shapiro arrived at University of California, Berkeley, armed with even more dangerous weapons than 160 pounds of raw sinew: his words, deemed so offensive and threatening by the campus populace that the college had to foot a $600,000 bill employing a minor army to keep him safe from protesters turned rioters.

Of course, I would be remiss not to preface this whole op-ed by denouncing the rioters — a group distinct from the protesters, the difference being whether the group’s aim is to silence opinions via violence or voice opinions via speech. To silence an individual from speaking is, and has been, the favorite tactic of demagogues and authoritarian dictators across the world and across time, from Benito Mussolini to Fidel Castro to Kim Jong-un. It is a tactic predicated on intolerance and anti-intellectualism, and those who sponsor such ignorant rejections of ideas are the real “deplorables.”

But Ben Shapiro is despicable.

He is, at this point, doing far more harm to conservatives than good, spouting inflammatory statements rather than articulate positions. This is a shame because that wasn’t always the case. Shapiro’s ego has become so bloated that his transformation over the past two years resembles that of Walter White’s character arc.

My respect for Shapiro peaked just shy of two years ago. In the wake of the University of Missouri protests that erupted in November 2015, Shapiro showed up on campus with, again, a small army (noticing a pattern?) to deliver a speech on the Black Lives Matter movement, among other topics. Though I often disagreed with Shapiro, his speech was calm, straightforward and avoided inflammatory rhetoric — or at the very least, inflammatory rhetoric for its own sake. Shapiro was everything a speaker should be: a dispenser of conservatism, truly contributing to the marketplace of ideas.

It wasn’t his profound insights that produced my respect for the man but rather the fact that he had the courage to stand up in front of a divided campus and a divided nation to deliver a controversial speech at the potential cost of his own safety.

It takes little courage to espouse liberal ideas on a college campus. It takes nothing but courage to espouse conservative ones.

Unfortunately, Shapiro’s speech at Berkeley was not of the same calm, factual delivery. After only five minutes of speaking, he had already called identity politics “bullsh*t,” and told both the protesters of his event and the mayor of Berkeley that they could “all go to hell,” that they were “pathetic, lying, stupid jacka**es.”

Shapiro has devolved from a coherent, lucid speaker and an active pundit speaking on serious issues to a Milo Yiannopoulos-esque provocateur in less than two years.

I stand by Shapiro’s right to say everything he said, but I fail to see the intellectual value in telling a horde of volatile college students to “go to hell.”

If Republicans truly believe that “facts don’t care about your feelings,” a tagline of Shapiro’s, they ought to do some soul searching. Facts speak for themselves; encasing them with vitriolic rhetoric signifies only a lack of confidence in their veracity or cogency.

Speeches like these, whether delivered by Ann Coulter, Trump worshipper extraordinaire, or even by Yiannopoulos on our own campus two years ago, are not productive and do not ignite stimulating conversation about the nuances of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but inflame passions and produce only heated speeches by sophists.

They make Republicans seem just almost as puerile and intellectually vacant as the rioters. They have a right to speak, but that doesn’t make their speech right.

Anyone who is intellectually honest finds it easy to denounce riots on college campuses like Berkeley or Middlebury College (Vt.), but so many conservative speakers have decided to play into passions rather than produce clear arguments. As long as Shapiro, Yiannopoulos and Coulter remain among the most prominent conservative speakers, people will continue to view the Republican party as lacking the thoughtfulness and seriousness we expect from such a dominant political force in this country.

These speakers are certainly not just as bad as their rioting counterparts, but they are of the same kind: anti-intellectual and disinterested in honest conversation about important issues. This is one of the few circumstances where the solution to a major problem is actually simple. People will never cease to capitalize on lucrative opportunities; as long as there are rioters and as long as so many protesters continue to espouse ignorance instead of ideas, speakers will continue to play into this fact.

The moment educated dialogue rather than empty rhetoric becomes the norm across campuses in the United States is the moment speakers will be forced to produce cogent positions rather than inflammatory insults.

As incendiary as speakers like Shapiro, Coulter and Yiannopoulos are, the true powder kegs are the students who make it so easy for them.

Grant Osborn is a College junior from Springfield, Ohio. 

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