‘They have to think we’re evil. Otherwise they have to debate us,” notes Dennis Prager in No Safe Spaces, a much-needed documentary about why it’s healthy and necessary to hash out our differences in public, notably on campus.
Prager is correct, except “think” might be the wrong verb. I’d say “pretend” is more exact. It’s essential for progressive activists to engineer reasons to forestall debates they might lose. That they suspect they might is the reason for the vicious campaign of name-calling, shouting-down, and shutting-out that is deployed against the likes of Prager and others (Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson) shown in the movie.
I’m friendly with Owen Brennan, one of the producers of No Safe Spaces, and Prager and Shapiro are longtime contributors to and friends of National Review, so I can’t call myself unbiased about the film. But as comedian and podcaster Adam Carolla, whose campus tour with Prager inspired the documentary, notes, the question people such as he are raising is about (widely held) values and common sense. If the Left does not want “common sense” to become an exclusively conservative epithet, it ought to heed the lessons of this rangy tour of today’s free-speech wars.
You need hardly be a conservative to think it’s a good idea to listen to people of differing mindsets, or at least not to interfere with their speech, and the film shows Barack Obama, Van Jones, Bill Maher, and other dedicated opponents of the Right making exactly this case. “Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them, but you shouldn’t silence them by saying you can’t come,” says Obama in a clip seen in the film. “Shouldn’t we be able to agree on protecting free speech no matter who is speaking?” asks Jones. “Whoever told you you only had to hear what didn’t upset you?” says Maher.
Close observers of the issue won’t learn much that is new from No Safe Spaces, which includes clips of well-covered matters such as the 2017 Berkeley rioting that attended a planned appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos, the mob attack on professor Allison Stanger at Middlebury College that year, and the outcry on the Yale campus over Halloween costumes in 2015 that resulted in the resignation of Erika Christakis, an early-childhood specialist, from a Yale teaching post. As Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, notes, most people don’t really value free speech, except for themselves: “Free speech is a very weird thing in human history.” Adds Prager, sagely, “Liberty is a value, not a natural inclination.” Do people yearn to be free? “No, they yearn to be taken care of.” If you support free speech only for the ideas you agree with, you don’t support free speech. “The issue of free speech doesn’t apply to love speech,” says Prager. “Nobody ever threatened love speech. The whole point of free speech is to protect speech you hate.”
Yet in this dispiriting moment, half of college students think hate speech should be illegal. This film is a valuable course in why they are wrong, and it has the benefit of being presented in a zippy, entertaining format, with animated interludes and Carolla’s charming comic persona helping to put across these mission-critical points for the future of the Republic.
A particularly vital segment illustrates how “controversial,” a term that on campus is more or less synonymous with “conservative,” speakers have been told to pay for the security costs that pile up when rage mobs appear, or even threaten to appear, in order to disrupt speech. “Security is the new ‘Shut up,’” as Mark Steyn puts it in a television interview: “You could stage Hello Dolly Meets Godzilla on Ice” for what campus security forces charge conservative student groups to host speeches. Progress is being made here, and toward the end a Berkeley administrator is shown saying all the right things about the campus’s decision to host, and pay the $600,000 in security fees associated with the appearance of, Shapiro. Ben delivers his views with typical brio: He praises those “who don’t believe that the First Amendment should die under the jackboots and Birkenstocks of a bunch of anarchist Communist pieces of garbage.”
Some pundits maintain that conservatives make too much of what is happening on campus, as if many other bad ideas had not been dumped upon us from the Ivory Tower and as if college students lived in a permanent state of quarantine, never bringing their ideas out to the wider world. But campus politics have already infected the Silicon Valley giants who wield far more power to determine what information people get than William Randolph Hearst or any other newspaper publisher ever did. Bland, anodyne labels such as “community standards” are the new justification for what amounts to digital book-burning. Prager notes that some of his educational YouTube videos have been restricted by Google.
For anyone who has the slightest interest in preserving the rights of minorities, the question of speech must be central to the strategy, regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum. “Guess what: If you have any spark of individualism in you, . . . they will come to destroy that too,” says Dave Rubin, the (gay, liberal) podcast host who has become an unlikely leader of the movement to defend the culture of free speech. Or as Jerry Seinfeld puts it, “there’s a creepy PC thing out there that really bothers me.”