Every time experts who spend their lives becoming familiar with the complexity of “big ideas” discover a bit of nuance which drastically alters our preconceived notions, the most eloquent opponents of progress and innovation do their best to explain why we should not, in fact, upgrade our beliefs to match the evidence. One of those warriors against change is Ben Shapiro, whose arguments I have tackled in the past.
For those that don’t know him, Ben Shapiro is a professional debater, championing his interpretation of Libertarianism by criticizing “liberal” positions as he sees them. He’s very good at what he does, but the thing about debate is that it is the art of persuasion, it is not the art of truth. You don’t get accolades as a debater by admitting ignorance or presenting ideas in all their complexity. You win debates by making your argument seem simple and straightforward — as obvious as saying water is wet.
Ben’s tactics include asking “gotcha” questions to nervous, less skilled debaters, and making admittedly hilarious rejoinders to their unschooled responses. Weaving in loaded, emotional language, he props up straw-men in place of his opponents actual positions, essentially satirizing his opponents positions to make them appear ludicrous rather than treating them with the same intellectual honesty he expects from those he disagrees with.
This should come as a surprise to no one, but Shapiro has a wide fan base, and it is certainly understandable. In service to one’s confirmation bias, a warrior is always preferable to a scholar, even when one is championing wisdom and truth.
In tackling the difficult and extremely well studied world of transgender issues, Ben stays true to form. It is this latest video that I have seen making its way around social media that I felt the need to respond to. Compared to the honest confusion mixed with compassion that Dave Chapelle expresses in his latest stand-up special, Ben Shapiro pretends to understand the circumstances while authoritatively dismissing them. While many might come down on a comedian for openly expressing difficulties with understanding the lived experiences of others, to my mind it is another thing entirely to misrepresent the circumstances to score political points in a debate.
One is honest, and emotional. The other is dishonest, and emotionally manipulative.
In this piece I will do as I have done before — break down the claims by Ben Shapiro and falsify them in context, point by point. It’s work to do this, which is why I don’t do this often.
Below is the video in question.
Now that you’ve got that primer on what I’m responding to, let’s take it point by point. I’m not going to include responses from the lady he’s using as his punching bag, and I will truncate some of his points… but I will make a specific effort to not misrepresent what he is saying or take it out of context. What follows will simply be him quoted directly, with me fact-checking his statements. Not fancy, but effective if you care about the truth.
Let The Quotes Begin
“No, gender is not disconnected from sex.”
Quite the bold statement. On the one hand, we have the claims of Ben Shapiro… who does not seem to be a doctor or a biologist, or have any sort of expertise on the issue.
And then we have the work of Dr. John Money — the sexologist that coined the term “gender roles”. It’s his work that stemmed from his studies of hermaphroditism that form the foundation for our distinction between sex and gender. Money’s work is not without controversy, however it does have broad explanatory power.
More to the point, Ben Shapiro doesn’t get to decide what a term that fall outside of his area of expertise should be. Until he’s spent a life-time studying sex, gender, and the differences between biological and social differences between sexes, he’s not qualified to dictate what a word means.
“No, it is not in the mind. You are not a man if you think you are a man…the idea that sex or gender is malleable is not true.”
Ben Shapiro is quite fond of his assertions. Here, once again, Ben Shapiro conflates gender and sex.
There are three main sexes (yes, three, not two).
However… this is not entirely accurate either. Thanks to contemporary understandings of genetics, we can actually break down sex genetically (which most folks defer to when trying to make the argument that there are only two sexes).
So, we could of course rely on Ben Shapiro’s medical expertise, or we can accept the findings of the Royal Society of Medicine which state that there are in fact 6 karyotypes for sex.
Special Thanks for this break-down as it saves me some typing.
The six biological karyotype sexes that do not result in death to the fetus are:
- X — Roughly 1 in 2,000 to 1 in 5,000 people (Turner’s )
- XX — Most common form of female
- XXY — Roughly 1 in 500 to 1 in 1,000 people (Klinefelter)
- XY — Most common form of male
- XYY — Roughly 1 out of 1,000 people
- XXXY — Roughly 1 in 18,000 to 1 in 50,000 births
Now, of the 7 Billion people in the world, this means that even if they only make up 1% of the population, we are talking about MILLIONS of people that are neither “male” nor “female” genetically. We can lump them into the category of “Intersex”, but we cannot dismiss their existence. Circumstances do not cease to exist simply because they complicate the neat boxes we try to stuff them into.
And so, in the space of sex, where there are people that are neither “male” nor “female”, what of our “gender roles”? If our genetics does not define every human being as either a man or a woman… what criteria do we use for gender?
It is not reproduction, because simply having an XX chromosome does not protect you from infertility. So being a “woman” is about MORE than reproductive roles, as some woman are simply born infertile, and old woman do not suddenly become men when they hit menopause.
It is not our genitals, because circumstances such as Klinefelter’s syndrome and hermaphroditism muddy those waters far too much. These are what are commonly described as “phenotypic expressions” — the result of our genes. And as we mentioned, there’s a few more than just 2 options that result in a combination of genitals that defy binary categorization.
That leaves us with our brains — but study after study demonstrates that while men and women tend to have “brain patterns” that cluster into groups, those groups are not in fact, binary. Gay men and straight CIS-women and trans-women cluster together, and the same is true for gay women, straight CIS-men, and trans-men. So here too, reasons to use a binary “male/female” categorization elude us.
So what makes ANYONE believe they are one gender or another?
Experts in the field have found that children develop a gender identity around 3 years old. This is also true for transgender children, and children that are transitioned as young as 3 years old generally are happy, well-adjusted, and do not transition again later on in life. This is a marked contrast to children whose parents are not supportive of their gender identity. It also highlights the fact that our sense of whether we are a “boy” or a “girl” comes from within, either as a product of our own consciousness, or an expression of our genetics. We are still unclear as to why this might be the case, but the amount of evidence that supports this as a true reading of reality is… formidable.
“And I am not denying your humanity if you are a transgender person. I am saying that you are not the sex to which you claim to be.”
Here again, Ben Shapiro trusses up a nice straw-man.
Transgender people aren’t claiming to be a different sex. Sex and gender are different things. Ben might believe that this is not the case, but as he says just a few seconds later, “But if you are going to dictate to me that I’m supposed to pretend.. I’M SUPPOSED TO PRETEND that” the science of sex and gender should be dictated by the notions of uneducated traditionalists uncomfortable with upgrading their understanding of the world to conform with the facts… “My answer is no. I’m not going to modify basic biology because it threatens your subjective sense of” the way things ought to be.
He sugar coats his assertions regarding his straw-man by acknowledging their basic humanity… but the issue here isn’t the respect that he gives to transgender people. The issue is that he is speaking authoritatively on a topic on which he has demonstrated no understanding, and is actively arguing that his ignorance is scientific fact and “basic biology”.
“If you’re going to dictate to me that men are women and women are men, then my answer is no.”
Again, another straw-man, identical to the others. By over-simplifying this point and reinforcing the over-simplified notions that are only useful in explaining biology to elementary school students, Ben is denying the scientific reality that gender and sex are different, and that both are more complicated than what we all learn in 3rd grade science class.
This is also part of the problem. The educational process is simplified for children. So, most folks don’t update their understanding in regards to subjects that they don’t need in their day to day jobs. Most folks might know that Mendel is the father of genetics, but they’ve never learned much more beyond that. And genetics is a very complex field. You only scratch the surface after DECADES of research and study, and we still don’t know as much about genes as we do about say, aviation.
Shapiro’s arguments play on these gross simplifications that we are all introduced to in elementary school science class. They are familiar statements meant to introduce children to science, but they are far from the robust explanations that students will take into professional academic circles.
There are “2 sexes” for the same reason that we were taught that Columbus “discovered” America. That’s the level of argumentation that Shapiro is providing here… but with the addition of rhetorical jazz hands. And unfortunately, that’s why it seems so convincing.
“I’m saying that Boy Scouts have a standard. You must be a biological boy to be a Boy Scout. [It’s written down] In the name, Boy Scouts.”
This is the sort of comedic flourish that Ben uses to support his points. It’s funny, but does little to support his ideas beyond the Libertarian ones that a private club can establish whatever rules they want for their private club.
I don’t actually disagree with this. Private clubs exist for races, political groups, special interest groups, and gender identities. You can have Boy Scouts… and you can have Trans Children Scouts. There’s room for many private clubs.
However, the Boy Scouts having a right to exist as a private club is a separate point from their denying basic biology, and this does not support the idea that gender is binary.
“For all of human history, boy meant boy and girl meant girl.”
So once again, we are forced to compare Ben’s assertions with the facts. This however, refers to history, and it is ironically more clearly an objectively erroneous statement than his science denial.
Mukhannathun- transgender people that were accepted in ancient Arabic society… to an extent.
Two-Spirit- this was a sort of blanket term for gay and hermaphroditic Native Americans. First tribes recognized these individuals and even conferred a special status to them.
I think that’s sufficient to debunk Ben’s assertion, but I’ll also go one step further. For all of human history, we have never been able to colonize other planets. Does this mean that we should not? Does this mean we cannot? Should history be our guide, or simply a reference to guide the changes that will inevitably come?
“If I call you a moose, are you suddenly a moose? If I redefine our terms… no it’s a … yes that’s right. Men and women are a completely different thing. This is true. Have you ever met a man or a woman? They are completely different.”
Here Ben plays on the fact that because there are traits that sexes tend to cluster around, that sex is the CAUSE for these differences. In some cases, such as phenotypic expression… he is correct only if you deny the existence of Intersex people. However, the variation within groups is so wide, that making assumptions about someone based on either gender or sex is a bad idea.
Most men like sports.
Men, stereo-typically, are bad at expressing their emotions.
Not for me. In fact, I’m “better” at this than many women I know.
Men are generally bigger and stronger than women.
And yet, I would never be so foolish as to pick a fight with a women’s MMA champion. Or run a marathon against a female Olympic athlete.
But perhaps even more ironically, Ben is guilty of precisely what he is accusing transgender proponents of — redefining the terms to fit his world-view.
Let’s put this to bed right now.
Transgender, gender, gender identity, gender roles, sex, phenotype, genetics, etc. — these are terms created and used by academics who specialize in these subjects. Because these fields explain our reality so effectively that they can practically perform miracles and predict the future, these fields have earned a great deal of credibility and respect. They aren’t perfect, but when they get something wrong, more science is always the medicine to fix what’s been broken.
Ben Shapiro is not a scientist. He has not earned the credibility or respect that scientists in these fields deserve. As such, he does not get to define these terms, and he has no authority or credibility to use these terms in the undisciplined way that he does.
These words mean things, and Ben has not once demonstrated that he has any understanding of those meanings. His ignorance of what these words mean is not evidence that his unsupported assertions about reality are to be respected or taken seriously. He’s an eloquent comedian spouting ignorance, and he’s doing so in service to politics, not the truth.
“Why aren’t you 60? [person in their 20’s struggles to respond]Why can’t you identify as 60? What is the problem with you identifying as 60? [“Age is not the same as gender.”] You’re right, age is significantly less important than gender. You can’t magically change your gender. You can’t magically change your sex. You can’t magically change your age.”
This is a false dichotomy. Clever, cute, but logically a malformed argument.
His rhetorical sleight of hand in this instance revolves around comparing our measure for the passage of time that we all universally experience to the very personal and unique experiences of gender identity, and the very personal and unique circumstances revolving around the genetics we are born with.
Or in other words…
Age — universal constant amongst all humans.
Gender identity — dependent upon an individual’s circumstances (likely genetics, with a number of possibilities that include straight, gay, etc.)
Sex — dependent upon an individual’s unique genetic make-up (with 6 major possibilities)
These things are not comparable, because there is nothing about them which makes them comparable. It’s like comparing weight and IQ. Can you change your weight? Then, according to Ben Shapiro, you can also change your IQ.
“Just because you can do things legally doesn’t mean they are correct biologically. You could do lots of things in the past that were incorrect biologically and correct legally. For a long period of time in the United States sterilization of the mentally ill took place; that didn’t make it ok. Skinner versus Oklahoma, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the decision.”
This is just a hot mess of a response, so let’s unpack it.
Here, the implication is obvious, just because transgender people are allowed to undergo gender reassignment surgery, doesn’t mean that this should be legally acceptable, and it doesn’t mean that the treatment is in their best interest.
He makes this implication by bringing up the forced sterilization of the mentally ill as a medical procedure.
It is certainly the case that medical science has made some missteps, especially in regards to the treatment of the mentally ill. Especially in 1935, when this “relevant” example took place.
Of course, there is also more to the story.
The actual law in question was not aimed at the mentally ill. It was aimed at criminals. The law stated that the state could impose a sentence of compulsory sterilization against people that have been convicted three or more times of “felonies involving moral terpitude”.
It was a bad law, written badly, that was intended to cut down on repeat offenders, allowing the state to target criminality. Or in other words, the same sort of law or policy that would support “stop and frisk” or “mandatory minimum sentencing”.
Which begs the question… what the hell does this have to do with people who have gender dysphoria deciding with the help of their physician and psychiatrists that gender reassignment surgery is the best and most effective treatment plan for their circumstances?
It doesn’t, of course. In fact, his implication has more relevance than the actual example he provided that was written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.
So let’s focus on the implication itself — that gender reassignment surgery is a bad treatment plan for people who have gender dysphoria.
The short answer is that it’s not. It’s a very effective option that improves their quality of life. The hardest thing about being transgender is not gender reassignment, but rather how society treats people that are transgender.
Don’t take it from me. A study that confirmed that post-op transgender people are more likely to commit suicide found that, “ For the purpose of evaluating whether sex reassignment is an effective treatment for gender dysphoria, it is reasonable to compare reported gender dysphoria pre and post treatment. Such studies have been conducted either prospectively or retrospectively, and suggest that sex reassignment of transsexual persons improves quality of life and gender dysphoria.”
The fact of the matter is, that if it wasn’t effective, there would be a large percentage of post-op regret, and there isn’t. While no treatment is perfect, only 4% of transgender people regret their surgeries. This should be what determines whether or not a treatment should be continued — its effectiveness, as opposed to our notions derived from our understanding of 3rd grade biology classes.
“The idea of the transgender movement as a civil rights movement is that all of their problems would just go away if I would pretend that they were the sex to which they claim membership. That’s nonsense.”
The only nonsense is the straw-man Ben Shapiro has propped up regarding the goals of transgender activists. If you want to know the goals of transgender activists… just look at their websites.
They are asking for things like:
- Housing antidiscrimination protections
- Equal treatment by government agencies
- Public Accomodation Antidiscrimination Protections (like being allowed to use their bathrooms, being able to order a cheeseburger, etc.)
- Protections against physical and verbal assault in schools
- Full access to appropriate Health Care services (as folks like Ben still label it a “choice” or a “delusion”.
- Recognition of their Appropriate Gender on their legal identification documents (imagine the difficulties of living 100% of the time as a woman and getting pulled over with your license stating that you are a man, and having to explain that to cops, employers, etc.)
- Open Military Service
This is no different than requiring handicapped parking, or other requests for recognition by a government that is in service to its minority citizens. These are real problems, and whether Ben agrees with basic biology or not, transgender activists will still be fighting for these things because they have a right to them, and Ben’s opinion based on his ignorance is immaterial to the fact that as a group, they deserve these things the same as any other group.
“The Transgender Suicide rate is 40%. It’s 40%. According to the Anderson School of UCLA, it makes no difference, it’s a study that came out last year, it makes no difference… virtually no difference, statistically speaking, as to whether people recognize you as a transgender person or not. Which suggests that there is a very high comorbidity between transgenderism, whatever that mental state may be, and suicidality. That has nothing to do with how society treats you.”
This is just dishonest. You can read the study for yourself here. However, here’s their conclusion.
Overall, the most striking finding of our analysis was the exceptionally high prevalence of lifetime suicide attempts reported by NTDS respondents across all demographics and experiences. Based on prior research and the findings of this report, we find that mental health factors and experiences of harassment, discrimination, violence and rejection may interact to produce a marked vulnerability to suicidal behavior in transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. More research on suicidal behavior among transgender and gender non-conforming people is needed.
So yes, there is comorbidity between transgenderism and suicidality, and the folks that put this paper together suggest it has MUCH to do with how they are treated by society. Especially when, according to this paper that Ben decided to reference,
“ Prevalence of suicide attempts is elevated among those who disclose to everyone that they are transgender or gender-non-conforming (50%) and among those that report others can tell always (42%) or most of the time (45%) that they are transgender or gender non-conforming even if they don’t tell them.”
So basically, the more upfront people are about being transgender, or the more obvious it is that they are transgender, the more likely they are to be suicidal. Which makes sense, since one of the factors for suicidality is how they are treated by society.
Honestly, I’m GLAD that he misrepresented this study so completely, because it demonstrates just how far he is willing to go to push his political perspective. He’s not interested in the truth… he’s interested in his agenda.
“The normal suicide rate across the United States is 4%. The suicide rate in the transgender community is 40%. The idea that 36% more transgender people are committing suicide because people are mean to them is ridiculous. It’s not true and it’s not backed by any science that anyone can cite. It is pure conjecture. In fact, it’s not even true that bullying causes suicide according to a lot of studies. For example, in the black community, where the idea is that supposedly America is a racist society, blacks are bullied alot, k in the black community blacks have a significantly lower suicide rates than in the white community. In fact in third world countries, the suicide rate is significantly lower than in 1st world countries. Suicide actually seems to be a privilege of the upper classes if you actually look at it from a financial perspective. So the idea that suicidality is a result of people like me saying that men are not women and women are not men… its not true.”
He… says a lot here. All of its really wrong and misrepresented, but let’s slog through by just listing the various claims.
- Normal suicide rate in the US is 4%
Sure. I’m not even going to bother looking this up.
- Suicide rate in the transgender community is 40%
Close enough, but let’s get past him stating the obvious so that he can sneak the lies past you unnoticed.
- The idea that 36% more transgender people are committing suicide because of how they are treated by society is false, not citeable, and not backed by science.
Oh boy, is this a whopper. Especially since he cited it himself. Again, for those who just skim long articles like this one, the paper Ben Shapiro cites can be found here, and it concludes that, “Based on prior research and the findings of this report, we find that mental health factors and experiences of harassment, discrimination, violence and rejection may interact to produce a marked vulnerability to suicidal behavior in transgender and gender non-conforming individuals.”
I could list more, and will upon request, but I feel like the work has already been done to demonstrably prove that in fact it is citeable, backed by science, and likely true.
- Bullying does not cause suicide according to a lot of studies.
Given the complexities of the human experience, or emotions, and the role that stress plays on our mental health, from an academic perspective you can never actually say that any one thing is the reason that a person commits suicide.
However, most experts agree that for those that do commit suicide, the reason is because they feel “trapped” in a situation that they cannot escape. So, suffering from a mental illness like depression, PTSD, or even from physical ailments such as Cancer or other pervasive/incurable conditions can lead to the “perfect storm” of suicidality.
And many experts agree that bullying is one of those things that can lead to a person feeling “trapped” in a situation where there only escape will be to end their lives. Again, that’s not me… that’s the freaking CDC.
Ben just likes to oversimplify things so that they seem to support his points, but in doing so he glosses over everything which makes him wrong. Effective for persuasion, but completely dishonest.
- It has been claimed that Blacks are more bullied because of institutional racism.
I suppose this has been claimed by Ben. I suppose you could categorize systemic racism as “bullying”… but this is a stretch.
Bullying mainly refers to how children treat each other. It’s an effort of one child to establish dominance over another child. It might mirror certain systemic power imbalances, but while it can be devastating to a child to be bullied, its also a far-cry from a black child being shot by a police officer because of their race.
- Blacks have lower suicide rates than white communities.
Yes, this is true. But they have higher mortality rates. This is very important, but I won’t give it away just yet.
- Because blacks have lower suicide rates than whites, this supports the idea that bullying does not lead to suicide.
Incorrect! Notice how Ben uses something that is true to support something that is not true. This is either intentional, or incompetence. I’m inclined to think it is intentional, but whether it is or not, let’s unmask the bullshit wrapped in truth.
While it is true that blacks have lower suicide rates than whites, it is not true that wealthy individuals are more likely to commit suicide. In fact, as this paper demonstrates, it is people that make less than 10% of the median income of where they live that are more likely to commit suicide.
What that means is that while suicide is more likely in these wealthier communities, it’s the folks that are struggling to “keep up with the Jones’s” that are the most at risk.
Arguably, black communities do not have this same issue, as most black communities are more focused on not getting murdered by cops than they are with the stresses of maintaining social status in moderately affluent communities. This is a bit tounge-in-cheek, but the point being is that if suicide is caused by individuals that feel trapped in unpleasant situations, it makes little sense to compare disadvantaged groups with the potential for upward mobility to individuals who have reached the zenith of their potential and are financially over-extended.
- In third world countries, suicide rates are significantly lower than 1st world countries, from a financial perspective.
Remember when I said mortality rates would be important?
This is why.
Now, to be clear, neither Ben, nor I, nor sociologists really understand why suicide rates are higher in developed nations than in 3rd world countries, but I’m going to give it a shot.
With it being true that what leads people to committing suicide is the feeling of being trapped in a situation, the fact is that in countries with high mortality rates, there is simply not enough routine and consistency to create feelings of being trapped. How can you be trapped when you are busy fighting for survival?
The relative wealth of developed nations means that even the poorest amongst us have a better quality of life than folks living in countries whose average age of death is in their 50’s. The day to day reality is not that you can avoid stress and depression, but rather there is no structure which allows for the sort of routines that can make an individual feel trapped in an inescapable cycle of pain. In other words, the novelty of the myriad horrors that they must grapple with in order to survive, makes it less likely to kill themselves because death is the consequence they spend the most time trying to avoid.
While this may or may not be true, the fact of the matter is that if trans people benefit from the routines of society, they are also subject to the same traps that make suicidality more prevalent. However, when we look at the effectiveness of treatment, and how treatment and transitions that are started as early as possible drastically increase their happiness and reduce their suicidality, that treatment is effective. Couple that with what we know about suicide in general, and it becomes clear that when suicidality increases amongst individuals that “cannot escape” how they are treated by society at large, that this is major factor in the much higher suicidality of transgender individuals.
“I think the idea that you are going to sacrifice the entire society’s proper definition of sex because you think that, in legal terms, there is someone with an eggshell skull, meaning that someone who has a preexisting condition that makes them more susceptible to criticism, that that is not a way to run a society. You can’t sacrifice truth because some people are going to suffer because of the truth.”
When you wrap a bad argument in the truth, it looks like the truth… right up until you look at the inside.
Again, it is Ben that is trying to sacrifice the proper definition of both sex and gender… in service to his political agenda.
Sex and Gender do not mean what Ben wants them to mean. Misrepresenting the truth loudly and persistently will not make it so. That is no way to run a society. As he said, you can’t sacrifice truth because some people are going to suffer.
And the truth is that these academic terms allow for gender fluidity, and as a group transgender individuals are entitled to equal protections under the law. Gender reassignment surgery works as a form of treatment, and refusing to refer to a transgender person by their gender identity makes you a science denying asshole intent on dictating academic language according to his own uninformed and thus arbitrary standards. I’m tempted to refer to Ben as Bridgette just to make that point, but two wrongs don’t make a right.
“Plus there’s no evidence whatsoever that the suicide rate would go down in the transgender community in any marked way if people just started pretending that men were women and women were men. We’re trying that experiment now, we’ll find out if it works. So far there’s no evidence.”
Gender reassignment surgery has been going on as a treatment since roughly the late 1960’s. Since that time it has been controversial, and yet study after study confirms that the treatments improve quality of life and reduce suicidality.
We DO need more studies, but given what we know of the suicide rates of individuals who transition at 3 years of age versus those that transition at 30 years of age, that alone is evidence enough to demonstrate that how they are perceived and treated by society at large is a huge factor regarding their likelihood of committing suicide.
***This paragraph added because this article was that damn good.***
There’s also more work that needs to be done in regards to looking at the numbers regarding “transition regret” — as there is a lot of room for these numbers to be misleading. For example, this article does a great job of unpacking why someone chose to detransition even though they still identified as trans. https://medium.com/the-atlantic/i-detransitioned-but-not-because-i-wasnt-trans-2ced4f29e5e5
At the end of the day, the fact remains that Ben Shapiro is more interested in pushing his agenda than discovering the truth. The litany of false-hoods, misrepresentations, and malformed arguments that he presents are often over-shadowed by his presentation, eloquence, and how rapidly he can fire back at those he disagrees with. While he excels at asking “gotcha” questions, that’s far from the only rhetorical tool at his disposal.
But, no matter how eloquently you argue that a shovel is a pitchfork… at the end of the day, its still NOT a god damned pitchfork, and Ben’s still an asshole for attempting to convince anyone otherwise.