A Response to Ben Shapiro’s Talk at BU Last Month
A Response to Ben Shapiro’s Talk at BU Last Month
CAS political science professor’s lecture takes on issues of slavery, free speech
It was a smaller crowd, in a smaller venue, than conservative commentator Ben Shapiro’s heated event at BU last month, but the focus of Spencer Piston’s talk Monday evening covered the same topic: was America built upon slavery or was it built upon freedom?
After Piston, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of political science, finished his hour-long lecture, the students and faculty who attended—black, white, Latino, Asian, conservative, and liberal—debated respectfully with one another for the next hour, with Piston as unofficial moderator. And after it ended, people stayed even longer to continue the conversation.
The event was in a Metcalf Science Center classroom (with the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements on the wall as an odd backdrop) before about 50 people, mostly students. It was a striking contrast to Shapiro’s November 13 talk, which was held amid tight security at the Track & Tennis Center, with protesters outside and 1,500 people inside. Another difference between the events: Shapiro was invited to campus by a student group, the BU chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF); Piston was asked to speak in response to Shapiro’s talk by the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies because of his expertise on race in American politics.
In introducing Piston, Michael Zank, a CAS professor of religion and of Jewish studies and director of the Elie Wiesel Center, said that the title of Shapiro’s talk—America Was Not Built on Slavery, It Was Built on Freedom—was about provocation, not fact. Zank said the premise of that title was nonsense.
“It just makes no sense,” Zank said, and “it victimizes anyone who cares about what’s real.”
At the start of his talk, Piston emphasized that he would not attack Shapiro and acknowledged that he had not attended the conservative commentator’s speech. But playing off the title of Shapiro’s talk, Piston took umbrage with the premise of Shapiro’s argument, calling his own lecture Who Built America? A Response to Ben Shapiro. (In addition to the Elie Wiesel Center, the BU African American Studies Program and holocaust, genocide, and human rights studies faculty sponsored the Monday night event.)
“Slavery isn’t something that happened,” Piston said in his talk. “It’s something that people did.” He also criticized University leadership for distancing itself from Shapiro’s talk by claiming that it was a student-organized event, but then paying thousands of dollars in security costs to ensure that it could happen. “Shapiro’s ideas were expressed on this campus to more than 1,000 people because of resources,” he said. “And resources have power.”
That last comment seemed to resonate with his audience, with some expressing frustration that Piston had not challenged Shapiro’s talking points about racism more aggressively, and others welcoming his more nuanced perspective and criticisms of the University for how it handled Shapiro’s talk. The students fired off questions rapidly and anonymously, and Piston did his best to keep the dialogue moving.
“Is there a way for students to incorporate themselves into the power structure at BU or to use their power to more properly have the administration represent our views?” asked one student, who admitted he had heckled Shapiro at his November talk.
A female student said she was disturbed that BU had not only paid to cover security for the Shapiro event, but that police with guns were present there. “That can be a very triggering situation for students of color,” she said.
A former member of the BU YAF chapter defended Shapiro, saying anyone who thinks he supports white supremacist views is misguided. “Ben Shapiro is not racist,” he said, as others in the audience shook their heads in disagreement.
Last month’s appearance by Shapiro, the editor-in-chief of the far-right Daily Wire news website, a former editor at Breitbart, and host of The Ben Shapiro Show podcast, sparked a heated conversation across BU in advance of his talk and after it. And in the hours just prior to his appearance, more than 200 students marched in silent protest up Commonwealth Avenue, carrying signs that said, “Hate speech ≠ free speech” and “Racism kills.”
Shapiro’s own words did little to calm emotions that evening. In talking mainly about Civil War history, he dismissed the idea that “every single problem in America today is based on slavery,” by asking, “Are teens in Chicago today killing each other at rapid rates because of slavery?”
And on that theme, he insisted: “Freedom is what makes America unique, not slavery.” Barack Obama’s presidency, he said, proves that America is “one of the least racist multiracial countries today.”
But the majority of students at Piston’s talk said it seemed as if the University felt obligated to allow Shapiro to come—and it should not have.
“One of the big issues that the group that invited Ben Shapiro here said is that they want students to engage in ideas that differ with their own, which I think is very valid,” one student said. “But why does that mean we have to bring someone like him to campus, who we know spews hate speech, and it takes money away from other groups so that we can pay for their security…. How do we engage with the ideas that are prevalent, that are important to engage, without actually inviting these figures to campus. How do we work with the administration to do that?”
Piston did not have a solution to her question. “I think that’s a great point,” he said. “And I do think that’s the first step.”
Perhaps someone from BU Today can research the question of who paid for security at the Ben Shapiro event. I’ve seen that mentioned many times in comments as a critique of the BU Administration, but I was under the impression that the Young Americans for Freedom Organization paid the costs on behalf of the student group. I think it’s a fair question, especially when BU seems to deny the costs of added security to much smaller events.
In response to the last question, the talk was funding by The Young America’s Foundation, not the university. It is also not a matter of have to, but a significant number of students (hundreds) were interested in seeing Shapiro speak. There is no reason why those who think differently, or even if they do not, but are still interested, should be able to attend a lecture with someone like Shapiro. He does not spew hate speech, this is simply rhetoric, and I would advise taking the time to actually listen to what he says during his talks and podcasts. I am a Democrat and disagree with virtually all of his political views, but I still find him to have a very valid and valuable opinion, and firmly believe we must stop distancing ourselves from difference of opinion and start engaging more with one another if we are ever going to see progress in this country. If you do not like him, simply don’t go. But it is wrong for your dislike of the man to get in the way of others from enjoying the opportunity.
My primary issue with Ben Shapiro is that the things he says (in general, in public) are very very stupid. Of the points I’ve heard repeated from his talk, which of them do people find meritorious and compelling?
“You are not slaves so why would you care about slavery?”
It’s fascinating that Ben Shapiro, a Jew like me, would ask this question. Passover is a celebration of having been slaves and been rescued, and a meditation on exactly this question. How can we rest while there are people who are unfree? Ben seems to have simply abdicated the question with the response (we have zero responsibility period).
“Okay maybe there are slaves in other countries but slavery ended a long time ago in America, just stop talking about it!”
Ben is simply factually wrong. In the internet age, his ignorance can only be seen as intentional. McDonalds uniforms are not made in China. They’re made in America. They’re made in America by prisoners paid $0.35/hour. In California, “volunteer” firefighters were given the dangerous task of putting out wildfires. These volunteers were prisoners paid less than a dollar a day for their work. This isn’t recent history, this is today.
“But this isn’t slavery, look at the 13th amendment! It makes slavery unconstitutional!”
Let’s read it together:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
So slavery is constitutional as long as due process has been applied. Well in America, a country with more than two million prisoners, half are serving long sentences without ever having committed an act of violence, and 94% are incarcerated without ever having had a jury deliberate on their case. The school to prison pipeline ensues that the private prisons which are built at a much faster rate than schools stay full. This is slavery.
It’s not literal hereditary chattel slavery. But it’s very blatant. Ben Shapiro exists to ease the mind of people with just enough conscience to be concerned, but not enough courage to simply believe what is plainly true. He exists to give people an out. His questions aren’t for any opposition, they’re too far off base. They preach to his choir a mantra of close your eyes, bury your head in the sand, and pepper anyone else with questions so wrong they take a long time to fully correct.
Aaron. You have to wake up man. You have to wake up. Reread what you wrote and think a little. Prisoners getting paid 35 cents an hour. They are prisoners. They did something wrong. No one is forcing them to hold a job while in prison. How is that slavery?
Robert, are you daft? Honestly.
Kathleen, I genuinely dont understand the question. He pointed out, quite rightly, that prisoners are prisoners. Why are we concerned about a ‘fair pay’ argument for prisoners? They owe a debt to society and pay that off by working for society. That is NOT slavery. We can talk about incarceration rates and the secondary issues (to THIS point. They’re actually primary issues, i know) like that but as a concept and in practice overall that is NOT slavery.
He also mentioned ‘volunteer’ firefighters as an example. I think i’ll just let that one simmer.
Aaron, when you put quote marks around words you are attributing to someone it is incumbent upon you to quote his actual words, or you are simply propagating falsehoods.
At least two of the statements you put quotation marks around are so far from anything Shapiro has said as to be antithetical to positions he publicly holds. The third one looks like possibly a badly mangled version of something he MIGHT have said, but it is not articulated in his fashion.
Are you making these up out of whole cloth or have you a source to cite?
The reason they are in prison is because they were found guilty of committing crimes, This is their punishment. They are provided housing, food, clothing, medical care. Which is more than homeless vets get for defending our country! I have to work so I can have housing, food, clothes, medical care. Why shouldn’t they?
Liberals like free speech until they disagree with it. I highly doubt that all 1,500 protesters outside have even listened to or read anything by Ben Shapiro, yet they’re outraged. Whatever Ben Shapiro says can be considered just as inflammatory as any SJW women’s studies major at BU. Grow the F up, people.
There was a lawsuit regarding the funding of security for speakers requiring expense security, the verdict was that University must pay. Liberals don’t get to silence conservatives by making their expression super costly and then state if only….
This really comes down to the use of history as a bottomless pit to mine for grievances, or as a tool to inform future behavior. There is power in trying to undermine the ground on which we stand, right up until it collapses, sending all of us, including the perpetually whinging victim groups, into the abyss.
“The presence of police with guns is triggering to students of color.”
There are no “students of color.” That is a mindless generalization, through which you try to gain statistical advantage even though many or most of the groups so including (and I am a member of one of those groups) have no common cause with you.
But to address the point, if you wish conservations to be held without armed police present, a) stop becoming violent when confronted with opinions you dislike, b) stop trying to disrupt speakers with whom you disagree, and c) listen to what is said, instead of assuming there is no common ground.
Right on. Well said.
There is no more triggered a liberal than a BU liberal. Free speech, libs. It’s what’s for dinner.
By the way, the security-cost complaints are just a backdoor attempt at censorship. Why are liberals so censorious?
Ironic since Ben Shaprio wants to censor media.
Pretty sure what Ben Shapiro means by when he says that America wasn’t founded on slavery is the core fundamental values of America, which still form the basis of America are not on slavery or class hierarchies, but rather on Freedoms and Responsibilities.
Think a lot of people who read or “listen” to his work form evaluations before actually considering his argument in entirety.
Shapiro is definitely has some biases, given his identity, but we all do, overall what his talks contain are founded on logic and a well formulated philosophy.
People really need to listen more.
The only reason he continues to do talks and makes a talk show is because the left-wing-liberals have hijacked everything and have made it virtually impossible to have meaningful discourse anymore in the public domain.
Aaron, you argument is entirely straw man. I listened to this speech and the words you put in quotations were never uttered by Ben Shapiro.
You’re misrepresenting his argument and attacking that instead. And your counterargument – that our prison system is some form of modern-day slavery – is based entirely on opinion.
Free speech is a fundamental right in the US. Anyone who tries to suppress it is wrong. Debate is healthy for a democracy. Listen to both sides and form an opinion. If you don’t listen to an opposing view, then your opinion loses credibility. Simple huh? Extremists on both sides seem to forget this. Many professors, particularly, which seems curious considering the title they hold.
I consider myself a moderate. I have issues with conservatives & liberals.
What really is scary to me though is seeing institutions of higher education allowing the louder more radical elements to undercut the very core of higher education. These children are allowed to bully their fellow students & faculty who disagree with them. All the while screaming victimhood. Instead of embracing different opinions and discovering what is truth & what is not, they are pushing their own views as the only truth. This is the antithesis of higher education.
Those in charge need to assert the values of discussion and quit letting the kids run the school
you are so right.
If this is what they are teaching in college how does anyone with this angry, closed mindset ever expect to get along in life, let alone a good job? What a waste.
And here I thought the purpose of higher education was to enable the civil exchange and debate of ideas, and to learn from both the ideas we agree with and those we disagree with. But Piston’s view seems to be that we should eliminate all views that don’t fit some preordained acceptability threshold. This should make those who believe in teaching liberal arts and academic freedom very very nervous.
The conservative scrutiny on Ms. Ocasio-Cortez took a strange turn this week when a popular conservative commentator and speaker, Ben Shapiro, challenged Ms. Ocasio-Cortez to a debate and offered to pay her campaign $10,000 in return.