Growing up Arab is growing up politically. As is the experience for many who live in diaspora – as minorities in a country so far from their homelands – the space of ‘Political’ and ‘Personal’ either heavily intersect or are one in the same. Your upbring is political. I still (un-)fondly recall childhood memories of Al Jazeera, where the issues that my classmates would only become slightly conscious of years later were often a substitute for children’s media. It is profoundly alienating in many ways – how many can say they watched the Jasmine Revolution instead of Horrid Henry?
The answer is very few. One hopes it would be very few. Political activism in the West is something that we are meant (or assumed) to acquiesce to in later adolescence. It is something that comes with maturity, you develop an understanding of politics the same way you develop an understanding of your sexuality, aesthetic and patterns of behaviors that mark that you are no longer a child. Politics may perhaps be a phase, you may join the masses of part-time Marxists for a brief while, flirt with radical politics, buy her a drink and then mellow back into the comforts of the two parties – or perhaps you will discover it is not your interest at all and become principledly apolitical. Regardless, two things are assumed to be true: 1. Politics comes with puberty; 2. You are afforded a choice.
Neither are the case when your existence within a nation is political. Both post and pre-War-on-Terror, British minorities have been Otherized. You may be part of the community, but you must simultaneously be apart from the community. One will always be an immigrant or the child of another immigrant; your presence will always be implicated whether you live in Kensington or Bradford, a quaint village in Somerset or the urban sprawl of Liverpool. Some attempt to completely distance themselves from such, while others readily and fully embrace it. Both, however, are engaging in the politicization of their identity. Running away, or running towards, are the same action directed to the same subject – just in different directions.
You may be part of the community, but you must simultaneously be apart from the community.
Couple that with the seemingly never-ending flood of developments from ‘back home,’ one straddles along a path where from childhood, you are subjected constantly to the ebbs and flows of ideologies, governments, armed groups, etc. There is no escapism to be found on the Internet, the sort-of mystical world that exists on a screen and hardly transcends the material and tangibly existent world – it merely reproduces it on epic proportions.
In that hyperpolitical space, many encounter figures and commentators who have the task of molding worldviews, particularly the immature and flaccid perspectives of the youth, without ever having to do the labor of personal interaction and discussion once required. Arguably, this was far more pronounced growing up as an Arab and as a man, the former for the reasons elaborated beforehand. At a time when male alienation has reached dangerously violent peaks, few are immune to getting lost in the schizo-mania of gender debates online. Especially when one is raised in a socially conservative community, there is nothing more enticing than finding your premature reactionary ideas reinforced – or completely deconstructed.
It is in that sea of pseudo-philosophy and compilation upon compilation that is such fertile soil for commentators seeking to uphold or ‘restore’ traditional masculinity. For those afforded the luxury of developing politically, instead of being forced into such by virtue of their being, that is often their first venture into the political abyss. But for those whose literal identity must in some way revolve around politics, like the Arab I grew up as, such is less a venture but more being directly sucked in. That is where I encounter, and where many encounter, their anti-heroes.
Ben Shapiro was one of these anti-heroes. Indignant and with a hubris of self-righteousness. A self-appointed crusader and self-anointed saint against the buzzword of the day, whether that be ‘politically-correct’ or ‘woke.’ His style of confrontation was equally enrapturing as it was frustrating – time and time over he seemed to refute whatever unfortunate college student/feminist/lib(eral/tard) that dared ask his-holiness a question. These interactions were recorded in videos with questionable(almost pornographic?) titles. The violent nature of said titles where Ben Shapiro DESTROYS or EVISCERATES his opposition stimulated that part of the developing brain that is absolute and totalistic, devoid of nuance and any care for intellectual theory.
To grow up Arab is to grow up politically
There is no point in pretending that he was not appealing. Notwithstanding the gaping seething holes in his arguments, or the vitriol he cultivated against the marginalized in society, or the quite embarrassing lengths he would go to on mute issues (like his very poor understanding of what a yeast infection actually entails), the man had a strange charisma in how those who challenged him could often not keep up to the pace with his arguments, or the gall by which he outlined his cases, or his self-declared prioritization of facts over feelings. In addition to such, he reinforced the biases that so many in society fear are being lost as corporations and public figures embrace at the least the aesthetics of progressivism, rooting their fears as simply ‘common sense’ rather than decades of conditioning. As a consequence, he curated and still curates an audience of young and old that find satisfaction in his role as a brigadier in the culture wars. No insignificant number of his younger audience would spring further right.
I was not one of them. Having such a politicized childhood may have brought me closer to the center of the spaces where he thrived, but it also meant that despite his appeal, my beliefs had matured already to a point where I had a firm base to reject the dogma he spouted. This is certainly not the case for all those with similar upbringings, as some found intense comfort in his protection of the socially conservative and ‘traditional’ norms that they had grown up immersed in. Perhaps I was an exception. Either way, he quickly emerged as the antithesis of every belief I held. He became some form of self-torture, watching him for the deliberate reason of frustration. Ironically, he became more appealing in that regard.
As my beliefs further matured, and as online political spaces became far less male and far less right-wing (thus opinion of him became more polarized), this sense of frustration became more and more potent. At the height of teenage arrogance, whenever he was brought up, there was little that sounded more fulfilling than imagining confronting him. Being able to silence him instead of fumbling like the umpteenth number of college student/feminist/liberals before me.
That sentiment never really faded. It has only become more furious. In the midst of the current Israeli onslaught in Gaza, Ben Shapiro has once again appointed himself in engaging in some of the most violent and dehumanizing rhetoric against the Palestinians of any public figure since the Intifadas. The manner in which he has demonized and barbarized, the bloodlust and misinformation he has presented to the world every single day is nothing short of despicable. His history of anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian racism has been ceaselessly documented, and it seems now to have reached its epitome.
And so, he instills a morbid sense of sickness. To grow up Arab is to grow up politically, to hear and see the stories of those he proclaims savages. To hear the stories of family friends that live with the trauma of what his rhetoric espouses; to have family in the lands he demands no ceasefire for; to know personally those who have been brutalized under the yolk of who he defends so vigorously, to watch those who look like you suffer and ail on television; those who have the same name as you be levelled under artillery fire.
…how many can say they watched the Jasmine Revolution instead of Horrid Henry?
There was nothing more I wished to do but to silence him. And that opportunity was presented to me at the Oxford Union. There, I among astounded friends, I met my anti-hero. At first, it was surreal to witness him in person. The man who had stoked so much personal emotion had also always been deeply impersonal. It was almost as if there was a concept of a Ben Shapiro that before that point did not exist in reality. His mannerisms, voice and persona were so distinctive that they could only truly exist on the screen, to be found on the Internet. Yet he was there. He actually sounded like that! Truly and utterly, the sort-of mystical world that exists on a screen did not transcend reality. He was there.
What followed was a sickening sequence of accusations and utter falsehoods packaged into what can only be described as a ruthless display, littered with claims devoid of any kind of good faith that he seemed to expect he should be greeted with during an address to the Union. Countless numbers of students were baselessly accused of being genocidal by a man who shamelessly declared that he would ‘absolutely not’ condemn the deaths of Palestinian children in the same manner as the deaths of Israeli children. It was so sickening an affair that once again it could not be real. But once again, it was. And though I promised myself I would not be surprised, I found myself awe-struck by the sheer nakedness of what I had just heard. A part of me was glad that it was so explicit.
It was there I got the opportunity to confront him. I was tantalizingly close to becoming the college student eviscerated, and so I took the chance to revel in the sheer insanity of it all. To satisfy the childhood dream of silencing Ben Shapiro was cathartic. Like the many other students who I have no doubt shared my enthusiasm to confront him, I signed my consent to become part of that cycle of viral culture that alienates you from your very existence. I have seen myself become an online persona, transformed into a subject of mockery, abuse, and vilification by a myriad of those who detest the arrogance by which I spoke. To see the figures who I detested react to me with insults and condescension. To be described in many many ways that were unkind to say the least.
Yet, the hatred does not feel real. Even though I have become the exact subject of what I had once enjoyed thinking, even dreamt, of doing. It has been far from universally negative, yet even the praise does not feel genuine. Not in the sense that I do not believe it, simply in the sense that I cannot believe this has actually happened. Yet I am satisfied. More satisfied than I have been in a while.
I met my anti-hero. And I finally got to tell him to “Shut up.”
Perhaps it was deserved retribution. Or perhaps I just got a sick sense of catharsis from it. Our anger is always pathologized, medicalized. But that does not matter. To grow up Arab is to grow up politically, and I now wonder how much growing one can do.