No Safe Spaces

This is a documentary from what would traditionally be described as the conservative perspective, but the issues are so broad and important to the culture that liberal politicians and commentators are in agreement on many points. When you have Van Jones and Barack Obama suggesting that the problem these right wingers are pointing out are real, I think we can move past the political lines and move to the cultural front that this movie wants to be focused on.

Like most documentaries about ideas, there are a lot of talking heads involved in the discussion. Talk show host Dennis Prager is a well known conservative with a nationally syndicated radio program. Adam Carolla is a comedian/podcaster with the most downloaded podcast in the world. Their friendship is based on the commonality that the world has lost it’s common sense and we are forgetting our values. They may disagree on a large number of issues but the threat to free speech binds them together and they have made multiple appearances to share their views. So it is no surprise that much of the footage is derived from some of these joint appearances. The other thing that you will find in documentaries of this sort is archival footage of current and recent events. The most galvanizing moments in the film have to do with video and film of speech presentations being disrupted and violence being used to silence views that others do not agree with. There is a long segment on Berkeley as a source of some violent outbursts but it is far from the only example that is illustrated.

The thing the film does effectively is catalog the numerous recent campus based illustrations of suppressed speech and give us some perspective on how this has become a standard form of closing down dissenting views. There are a couple of clever cartoon interludes that inject some humor and a decidedly condescending view of those who want to create “safe” space or control “hate speech”. Some of the talking heads that show up are well known public intellectual figures such as Cornel West and Jordan Peterson. Peterson gets a substantial amount of focus as an individual who has been subjected to much of the shouting by the other side. All of the academics who are presented in the film, regardless of their political leanings, agree that the purpose of the first amendment is to allow a market place of ideas to weed out the bad from the good, rather than presupposing the correctness of one position before a debate has even begun.

As a college instructor for 40 years, I can say from experience in my public speaking and argumentation classes that there has been a shift in the way students engage in conflict. There is a hive mentality on some issues but the bigger point is that dissenters are fearful of being socially chastised for making an argument. The issues of Illegal Immigration and Same Sex Marriage are two areas where speaking one point of view, even if addressed as a rational objectively based claims has almost disappeared. I don’t see a shortage of evidence or value conflict on those points, I do see fear. Colleges are so obsessed with progressive goals that they are ignoring the means of achieving them that are progressive and have become reactionaries themselves. The film uses relatively innocuous issues that turned into major kerfuffles at Evergreen State University to illustrate the point. The experience of the two faculty members who ultimately were driven out and had to sue to get treated fairly is told in a very personal way.

Having a fairly solid position to start with the director of the movie, Justin Folk, allows the story to lose momentum in several places. The main reason is the shifting of subject matter.   Instead of a driving focus on the value issue, we get taken to a number of side issues that while interesting, seem to be interjected without figuring out how they are connected to the main point or the previous piece of information. It’s not clear why Jordan Peterson is wandering around Adam Carolla’s garage and car collection. Shooting Dennis Prager as he drives down the freeway must be some kind of commentary on something, but I can’t tell what. As a consequence the story feels like a series of events are being strung together without a strong direction to them and that they are being randomly critiqued without the unifying theme that the movie desperately wants to have.

For true believers, this film with spark up your anger and frustrate the heck out of you. I remember how one of my coaches, John Gossett a PhD. who wrote his dissertation on prior restraint, used to emphasize that the first amendment says congress will make ” NO law …abridging the freedom of speech.” The danger presented by restriction on free speech that come from non-governmental social media is the issue that needs more development, instead we got a panel discussion between five comedians without any memorable moments. This were  lost opportunities to dig deeper. I admire the desire to tackle this issue and I agree that it is significant and potentially dangerous to the country to ignore it. I just wish the skill of the writer and director had stayed more with the issues they see as important rather than throwing everything into the pot and hoping it made a stew.

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