The 2022 “Podcast Movement” (PM22) convention recently took place in Dallas. Basically, it’s a big industry gathering for podcasters. Mark Cuban was there, doing a session that The Dallas Morning News said “amounted to a 45-minute infomercial” for his podcasting platform, Fireside. The popular true crime podcaster Phoebe Judge was there too.
And, very briefly, so was the massively popular conservative podcaster Ben Shapiro. He didn’t speak on any panels, but The Daily Wire (the right-wing media company he helped popularize) had a booth at the event, and Shapiro showed up to mingle a bit and pose with a few people who asked for a picture with him.
On the face of it, there’s nothing surprising or even interesting about that. The Daily Wire produces some very successful podcasts. They have close to 900,000 paid subscribers, and Ben Shapiro’s own show was as of last month the fifth-most popular podcast in the United States. The Daily Wire buying a booth at a big podcasting convention—and its main celebrity showing up to shake a few hands—is about as shocking as the latest mediocre forgettable Marvel movie getting a big push at the next Comic-Con in San Diego.
Or so you’d think. Some attendees perceived Shapiro’s very presence as alarming, and complained about it until the event organizers issued a public apology for—and I swear I’m not making this up, these were their exact words—“the harm done by his presence.”
A Rhetorical Gift to Shapiro
Shapiro, of course, was gleeful. Podcast Movement’s apology let him portray his enemies as exactly the kind of eternally triggered snowflake libs to which he formed his oppositional public image.
The Daily Wire quickly put together a one-minute video in which a narrator read the Podcast Movement’s Twitter thread, cut together with footage of Shapiro smiling as people came up to him to ask if they could take a picture with him. One of the last tweets in the Podcast Movement’s thread said that “the pain” caused by the decision to allow The Daily Wire to have a booth “will always stick with us.”
That this is an asinine way to use words like “harm” and “pain” should go without saying. It’s beyond me how anyone genuinely traumatized by the mere physical presence of pundits with whom they disagree politically navigates day-to-day dealings with friends and family members—never mind giant convention halls full of strangers.
But the point really worth emphasizing is that this is exactly the way Shapiro would like his political enemies to act. I’m not enough of a conspiracy theorist to think The Daily Wire paid the Podcast Movement to tweet their surreal apology, but the right-wing Onion knockoff, The Babylon Bee, couldn’t have put together a more on-the-nose parody. It perfectly feeds into Shapiro’s self-branding as a purveyor of dangerous truths too radioactive for progressives to touch.
The reality is very different.
Who Ben Shapiro Really Is
I’ve been writing about Ben Shapiro for years. The cover image on my first book, drawn by philosophy cartoonist Ryan Lake, depicts the philosopher David Hume hushing Shapiro while the conservative blogger tries to say his catchphrase, “Facts don’t care about your feelings.”
Shapiro’s pat line is based on the idea that woolly-headed progressives derive their political conclusions from “feelings”—while he, brave and enlightened— derives his from “facts.”
But as Hume emphasized, there’s an uncrossable logical gap between facts about how the world is and values, which tell us how we think the world should be. When Shapiro claims, for example, that he derives his hard-core abortion views from “science” (because, he says, science informs us that a fetus is a genetically distinct human from the moment of conception), he’s spouting nonsense. Science can inform us that a first-trimester fetus is a genetically distinct organism—something no one anywhere denies—but it can’t tell us whether this is the right kind of organism to have a moral right to life, or whether that right should outweigh the mother’s right to control her own body, because these are questions about values.
More recently, I’ve argued that his thoughts on “cultural Marxism” and “critical race theory” are historically and philosophically illiterate, and that his warmongering on Iran is morally and pragmatically indefensible. When I went on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast six months ago, I mocked Shapiro’s view that gay men have a moral obligation to suppress their orientation and marry women.
During that conversation, Joe said that if I invited Shapiro on my own show to discuss our many differences, “I’ll bet he’d do it.” I gamely said that the door was open if Shapiro ever wanted to do it—but I wasn’t holding my breath. That offer had been extended long before and nothing came of it, just as nothing has come of similar offers from people like the progressive Current Affairs editor Nathan Robinson. In 2019, Shapiro stormed off the set of a combative interview with the conservative BBC commentator, Andrew Neil, though he later apologized for mistaking Neil for a “leftist.”
Shapiro almost never risks talking to anyone on the Left who isn’t a nervous 19-year-old engaging with him for a two-minute interaction during a Q&A session that Shapiro’s team can harvest and put out as a “Ben Shapiro DESTROYS [Fill in the blank]” clip. The only recent exception I can think of is a debate Shapiro did with The Young Turks’ Ana Kasparian. I suspect that Shapiro underestimated her. At any rate, the conversation went very badly for him when Kasparian brushed off his culture-war obsessions and insisted on talking about labor unions and economic inequality. Since then, he’s displayed very little appetite to repeat the experience.
How Not to Handle Shapiro
Treating bad political ideas like they’re a highly contagious virus is authoritarian and infantilizing.
It underestimates the ability of ordinary working-class people to reason about important issues and make up their own minds. It’s also just a very bad political strategy—especially when the opponent you’re trying to quarantine people from being influenced by is already the fifth-most popular podcaster in the country. Ben Shapiro’s Facebook posts regularly show up in lists of the 10 top-performing posts of any given 24-hour period. His books are bestsellers. A “hear no evil, see no evil” approach to him isn’t going to do any good. If you don’t want his ideas to influence people, you have to engage with those ideas and show why they’re misguided.
That’s especially true given that attempts to carry out the quarantine strategy—for example, by trying to get his appearances on college campuses canceled—are already a large part of his strategy for promoting himself. The cover copy on his sloppily researched and sloppily argued 2019 book, The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great, was all about how many cops UC Berkeley needed to bring in to protect Shapiro from protestors when he spoke on the campus in 2017. I fully expect the Podcast Movement’s apology for the “harm” caused by his drop-in at PM22 to show up on the back cover of whatever awful book he bangs out next.
Instead of feeding into his branding by apologizing for his presence, the convention organizers should have done the opposite. They should have invited him to a panel with a prominent left-wing podcast—perhaps The Majority Report’s Sam Seder, a figure many conservatives have been amusingly unwilling to engage.
This would have exposed the hollowness of Shapiro’s schtick. It would have deprived him of his future back cover copy. And no one silly enough to experience his presence as “harm” would have had to worry about running into him in the hall.