Last August, in the wake of democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's upset victory over Joe Crowley in a New York congressional primary, conservative commentator and right-wing hero Ben Shapiro offered now-Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez (popularly known as AOC) a $10,000 campaign donation if she agreed to debate him.
Ocasio-Cortez was quick to decline the offer, comparing it to catcalling as an example of "unsolicited requests from men with bad intentions." AOC faced a good deal of blowback from conservative circles for her perceived cowardice in turning Shapiro down, and no such debate ever ended up taking place.
Last week, however, when Ben Shapiro came to George Washington University in Washington, D.C. to kick off his campus tour, I took the opportunity to do what AOC wouldn't — I debated Ben Shapiro.
In what would turn out to be the most unforgettable (and probably the most nerve-wracking) experience of my life, I challenged Shapiro on his defense of capitalism and dismissal of socialism in a debate that ended up lasting over 12 minutes.
First of all, this debate underscored for me not only the absolutely critical importance of free speech in a functioning democracy but the equally critical importance of retaining free speech as a left-wing value.
Prior to coming to GW, I attended a wealthy, liberal private school where although students and faculty were acutely aware of and passionate about issues of social justice, my critique of capitalism and self-identification as a socialist always put me decidedly on the fringes of my high school's political scene.
Although we were supposedly "on the same side" of the American political spectrum, I often had to deal with a surprising amount of ideological intolerance from my liberal peers.
That intolerance, however, pales in comparison to what I found myself faced with in the wake of my run-in with Ben Shapiro. For starters, the audience in the room couldn't have been more hostile.
Almost every single person in attendance that night was a conservative and standing up in front of all of them to challenge Ben Shapiro I could feel their (not-so-silent) judgment not only of my ideological positions and intellectual capacity but of my moral standing as well.
The hostility didn't stop after the event ended, however.
As the exchange spawned a series of YouTube videos (most of which were titled something to the effect of "Ben Shapiro DESTROYS Ignorant Socialist!!!!!!!!!"), the comments from his rabid fans started flooding in.
These comments were hateful in every way imaginable, with attacks on my Indian ethnicity (made obvious by the color of my skin), the perceived effeminacy of my voice and mannerisms, and — this one is my favorite — my bright yellow shirt (for the record, I happen to think the shirt looks great on me).
I was brought up to know better than to let myself be affected by the verbal slings and arrows of cowards and trolls hiding behind their keyboards, so I wasn't bothered by what these people were saying.
The experience, however, of facing such immense and hateful pushback for standing up to peacefully and respectfully express my dissenting opinion during an open Q&A with a man who literally debates for a living brought me up close and personal with the slippery slope towards a society that doesn't value freedom of speech as a critical core value.
As leftists, we absolutely cannot afford to allow the most hateful factions of the Right to lay exclusive claim — as they have done — to freedom of speech as a value because doing so only allows them free license to engage in the bullying and intimidation tactics against opponents which I have now witnessed firsthand.
The disturbing willingness of many on the left to subordinate free speech to the desire to eliminate hateful rhetoric, however, brings us dangerously close to letting our enemies win.
In addition to the importance of free speech, debating Ben Shapiro laid bare to me the severe limitations of the effectiveness of debate as a tool for measuring the validity of a given viewpoint.
When judged on the basis of rhetorical skill and spoken eloquence, it's probably fair to say that Ben Shapiro won this exchange. His arguments were more eloquently delivered than mine, he had no dearth of mic-drop moments, and his stumbles in delivery occurred much more infrequently than mine did (with one exception — it's called the "labor theory of value," Ben).
And is anyone really shocked? After all, debating opponents and "owning the libs" is quite literally what Ben Shapiro does for a living. It should come as no surprise that he is, in fact, an excellent debater who can calmly and intelligently present an argument with witty comebacks at the ready, all the while maintaining his charisma and stage presence.
Like I said, Ben Shapiro is a great debater.
That says absolutely nothing, however, about the validity or superiority of his arguments whatsoever.
Debate is a useful tool in civil society, but at the end of the day, it is little more than a test of wit and eloquence. It says very little, if anything at all, about the actual merits of the ideas being debated.
This is why, in competitive debate (I debated competitively throughout all four years of high school), each team spent an equal number of rounds in any given tournament debating both sides of the issue at hand — the point was not to establish the superiority of one side, but rather to prove your ability to skillfully present and defend your argument, regardless of which side you happened to be assigned for that round.
This is the problem when professional lib-owners like Ben Shapiro challenge left-wingers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to debates — unlike debates between candidates for a political office, which play a critical role in informing the voting public about their choices on the ballot in any given election, they serve no purpose other than to provide entertainment value and a feeling of self-satisfaction to his fanbase.
If she accepted the offer, she would be painted after the fact by Shapiro and his followers as having been "owned," regardless of her actual performance. If she refused the offer (as she did), she would be painted by Shapiro and his followers (as she was) as too scared to debate because she knew her position was wrong.
Either way, the end result of a debate held on such terms is to make her viewpoint look asinine, and his look superior. Ignored in all of this, however, is the fact that neither outcome actually reflects in any way on Alexandria Ocasio Cortez's beliefs or ideas — it simply reflects on each side's rhetorical and oratorical skills.
Debate, at the end of the day, is an unequivocally good thing for a healthy democracy. The existence and flourishing of debate in public discourse is reflective of the extent to which a society values free speech — something that is absolutely critical if we don't want to slide into fascism and tyranny.
At the same time, however, we must be careful not to place too great an emphasis on the ability of debate to serve as a metric by which we can measure the validity of ideas. So, Ben, don't feel too bad if AOC is too busy to debate you. At any rate, if you really want someone to butt heads with, you can always give me a call.