Over the weekend, comedian and talk show host Bill Maher invited political commentator, writer and notable conservative Ben Shapiro to his show, Real Time With Bill Maher, for a segment called “Civil Discourse.” Some liberals were repulsed by the idea, disapproving Maher’s judgment for inviting these kinds of guests and giving them exposure and airtime, effectively, in their eyes, ‘normalizing’ their ideas — a similar criticism that others, like CNN’s Jake Tapper, have dealt with for inviting stubborn representatives of Trump onto the show.
But that’s not where Maher went wrong. At a time where anyone, on either side, can tweet out a criticism or opinion about somebody that can receive thousands of likes and retweets without anyone stopping to fact check, distinguish blanket statements from nuanced situations and refuse to hear any sort of explanation or opposing argument, a platform for calm, rational debate is crucial. Bill Maher had that platform. And he squandered it.
He started out by saluting Shapiro for having the guts to come out on the show, telling him, “You know the crowd is not with you.”
“I got that impression, yeah,” responded Shapiro.
This was made undeniably clear throughout the course of the debate. The audience erupted, like clapping seals, at the lowest of low hanging fruit Bill Maher was able to grab. Ben Shapiro is smart. He graduated high school at sixteen, UCLA at 20 and Harvard Law at 23. There are dozens and dozens of searches asking whether he’s ever lost a debate. He’s notorious for over-preparing and going on long, meticulous, logic-based lectures that seem almost impossible to undermine in the moment.
“Can’t we say that incivility is bad across the board? Why are you only opposed to incivility is only bad when it’s Donald Trump?”
“Because, Ben, you can’t walk into a room and see an elephant and a mouse and not know which one is bigger.”
“But it’s not an elephant and a mouse. It’s two elephants.”
“Really? Threatening to lock up journalists–”
“I needed 600 security officers to protect me at Berkley. Yes, it’s an elephant and an elephant.”
Maher then tried to point out that this was at a whole different level, given the legitimization of Trump through his presidency. But while having a sitting president so antithetical to fundamental principles like rule of law is nauseating, to say the least, Shapiro pointed out that he wouldn’t succeed, given how the constitution is a “damn durable document.” Maher changed the subject. Again and again, his guest made sense. His explanations were thorough. A reasonable person could accept them. Furthermore, Shapiro denounced Trump and the sycophantism of the Republican party on the show and he has regularly done so in the past, but the only hard-hitting questions Maher had for him were about Trump. It was a completely weak back and forth. Maher asked a question. Shapiro gave a response. Maher asked a follow-up through a tangential and Shapiro gave a longer, more thorough response Maher only had stammers and half-statements for.
It was certainly civil. Shapiro laughed at his jokes. He called him “dude.” Maher shook his hand at the end and said he wanted to have him on again. But it wasn’t the debate we needed. If you’re going to invite somebody you supposedly disagree with onto your tremendous platform, talk, for starters, about something you actually disagree about. Arm yourself with more than self-righteous gesticulating and an adoring crowd. Shapiro made sense, but he is, after all, a conservative at the end of the day. As a liberal, Maher had the responsibility to show us why he didn’t make sense. To challenge, hell, obliterate, those policies in a substantial way. If you don’t, all you’re doing is convincing the people who already agree with you.
Respecting differing opinions (as long as they’re, you know, reality-based) is essential in a democracy. But so are differing opinions.
Watch the full clip here.