No Safe Spaces: A Review

By Guillermo Moreno

July 16, 2022

What Is Happening?


What Is Happening in Our Universities? is the title of an event that suffered the effects of ‘cancel culture’ at California State University Northridge in 2016. Featuring Dennis Prager of Prager University and Adam Carolla of The Adam Carolla Show, the talk was supposed to address the lack of intellectual openness on our college campuses in the United States. Not ironically, the event was canceled. This incident depicts this phenomenon that is taking effect at the cultural level and, for the sake of free speech, it needs attention. That’s why we now have No Safe Spaces, a documentary prophetic of its time, with an ensemble cast of public figures ranging from podcast or radio talk show hosts to university professors to mainstream comedians and university students, who dedicate their voices to free speech and are among the most well-known prophets of free speech today. 
 

Conservative Dennis Prager and liberal Adam Carolla tag-team in No Safe Spaces effectively to bring home the message of freedom of speech in light of the diversity of thought.  They each give a bit of their background and how they became friends despite their differences. According to Carolla, common sense and values are what he and Prager share in common. These are, I daresay, intimately related to the freedom that underlies American values. Prager discovered this kind of freedom by his experiences as a young adult in the Soviet Union, having been sent there by Israel to work; he experienced life under tyranny there. Carolla, on the other hand, grew up in a household on welfare, and his mother refused to lose her benefits from unemployment. Both men experienced lifestyles like prisons of which the state had dominion over, albeit in different forms, and both in their own ways took the paths available for them to prosper. In doing so, their paths intersected. Their friendship gives much light-humor to the film, showing that relationships between people of truly diverse backgrounds can exist when freedom of speech is truly lived, and that is not possible in any country like it is in the United States.
 

Yet, freedom of speech is progressively more in danger, pun intended. Essentially, freedom of speech allows for the diversity of thought and expression, but this is resented and attacked on college campuses. The cultural worldview on mainstream college campuses is a left-leaning one that advocates for socially liberal principles that break from conservative ones, and it simultaneously rejects an obvious denominator of freedom of speech: diversity. Persons who hold values that are contrary to the mainstream are then persecuted. But since freedom of speech is among those values that go against the mainstream, then not only conservatives but truly liberal persons, in the classical sense of the word ‘liberal,’ who essentially stand for diversity and free speech are persecuted by being canceled as well. Such is described by the event mentioned above in which Prager and Carolla were canceled. Prager describes this phenomenon, of this leftist paradigm that is antagonistic to free speech, as dogmatic, and that he and Carolla in this regard are enemies of the dogmatic. 
 

But why the antagonism? Because of a ‘for us or against us’ worldview, which is identity politics. In this sense, there is no room for diversity. Conservatism and classical liberalism are seen as threats to the dominating leftist crowd; they’re seen as bigoted. Yet, Carolla points out that Prager does the opposite of bigotry. Prager engages in dialogue with people with whom he disagrees. Hence, his friendship with Carolla. Also, Prager expresses a principle that is necessary for dialogue and free speech, which is clarity over agreement. In other words, he prefers that each of the persons in dialogue have clarity over what the other is saying. In free speech, persons in dialogue do not have to agree, but they should understand one another’s arguments.
 

This is still seen as a threat. Prager mentions that people are brainwashed to believe that conservatives are evil. Consequently, anyone who defends free speech is guilty by association and by default. The antagonism is clearly seen in footage on college campuses that No Safe Spaces provides, footage including the mob that surrounded a professor at Yale regarding the Halloween costume scandal in 2017, the protest by students against the Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro giving a talk at Cal State LA in 2017, and the violence that erupted at UC Berkeley in 2017 to protest having Breitbart’s Milo Yainnopolus as a guest speaker, and No Safe Spaces gives footage of Bill Maher with a quote  criticizing this pushback against free speech: “Whoever told you you only had to hear what didn’t upset you?” Also, to contrast UC Berkeley to what it is now like, the film provides an ominous quote, noting whether the birthplace of free speech has become its graveyard.


What do Words Mean?
 

In the next segment, free speech is described as something unique to the U.S. Carolla contrasts the exercise of freedom of speech in the U.S. versus in other countries, pointing out restrictions and penalties in other countries such as imprisonment in Russia and China for saying anything nice about gay people. Furthermore, what protects us in the U.S. from penalties for speaking our minds is the First Amendment in the Constitution. Yet, even that is jeopardized due to the aversion to disagreement or “being offended” in leftist circles. But that logic is clearly arbitrary. The dominant party will therefore be the one to establish what is offensive and what isn’t. Thinking about it, the dominant group has an aversion to suffering. This suffering comes from disagreement, and it calls for silencing the dissenting voices of the minority. But this is an infringement on free speech and, logically, freedom. Hence, Prager rightly points out that people yearn to be taken care of, not to be free. Freedom of speech can only be tolerated by these groups in minor doses that uphold their overall metanarrative; it is the very questioning and dialogues about this metanarrative that becomes a stumbling block for them, an object of scandal, that they feel threatened by and need to eliminate. This is propaganda and needs to be denounced as a moral scourge to the common good of our society.[1]

 
What probably obscures individuals and groups alike is the concept of hate speech. Again, the arbitrariness of what is offensive and what is not leaves us with a relativism of words and speech. That’s why free speech is precisely that: the liberty to speak one’s mind even in the midst of disagreement.[2] But free speech protects all speech, also for the sake of the minorities’ right to free speech. With this in mind, free speech can’t defend itself. It needs spokespersons. A laudable point in No Safe Spaces is that by permitting all ideas a place at the table and letting them be shared, the good ideas will win. But free speech is necessary for this to occur.

 

Another concept that is analyzed in No Safe Spaces is part of its namesake: safe spaces. The film provides the definition of ‘safe space’ from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “A place (as on a college campus) intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations.” Viewers are presented with footage of explanations of safe spaces by university personnel and students,[3] and a key takeaway from these is the notion that it is unnecessary to feel discomfort. However, students who advocate for safe spaces to avoid discomfort are referred to as snowflakes. This makes sense since fear of discomfort displays immaturity at a certain level.[4] CNN Contributor Van Jones, in an interview with Carolla, succinctly expressed the need for physical safety and so forth but calls out the supposed need to be emotionally safe and intellectually safe. It’s concerning to see this as actually being an issue on college campuses, and it’s alarming to see these as comparable to physical safety.

 

The next segment of No Safe Spaces critically addresses the notion of tolerance. Dave Rubin, the host of The Rubin Report, points out the false sense of tolerance and diversity because leftists agree on everything, while they leave no room for different points of view. That is not authentic diversity, and tolerance presupposes disagreement and acceptance of disagreements with others.[5] In a manner of speaking, this is what liberalism depends on. But what we have now, the movement that promotes unity and yet excludes diversity of thought, is leftism. To make this point, Alan Dershowitz, professor emeritus of Harvard University, explains that it is not the white nationalists who control our institutions and police our speech, but the leftists. Also, Stephen Meyer, senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, points out that only one view is permitted, not diverse views. 


What’s It All About?


No Safe Spaces then shows interviews of student victims who have endured persecution for dissenting from the mainstream leftist culture in their specific ways. Isabella Chow, for example, was forced to resign from her seat in the student government at UC Berkeley for abstaining from voting on a bill that conflicted with her Christian beliefs. At a meeting regarding her abstaining from voting on the bill, students gathered in protest with banners calling for her resignation, accusing her of bigotry, and chanting, “Senator Chow, resign now!” Sadly, in the aftermath she was excluded from all other on-campus organizations that she had previously been associated with. To make matters worse, conservatives who host on-campus events featuring conservative speakers are forced to pay security fees, which range within tens of thousands of dollars, which is absurd considering that it’s the kind of pushback from leftist protesters that determines how much security would be needed. This can impede conservatives from exercising their freedom of speech on campus, making it more challenging for them to do so.


To drive home the point of intolerance even further, No Safe Spaces gives the invaluable point that the attack on free speech does not affect conservatives only. Viewers are introduced to Lindsay Shepherd, former teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University, who screened a debate between professors Jordan Peterson and Nicholas Matte regarding gender pronouns. The debate was screened for a freshmen class. The film plays a recording that Shepherd secretly administered during her meeting with her supervisors regarding the supposed damage that she had done, having exposed the freshmen students to differing points of view for the sake of debate. In the end, the problem was that she presented both sides of the argument from a neutral perspective. Shepherd vocally considers herself leftist[6] in the film. She was subsequently reprimanded for, frankly, being liberal and neutral in a university setting.
 

Dr. Jordan Peterson then makes his appearance in the film. A proponent of free speech, Dr. Peterson differentiates two kinds of speech. On the one hand, illegal speech, including calls to incite violence, is not free speech since such incidents would potentially cause physical harm to those present. Illegal speech is rightly outlawed and immoral. On the other hand, being dictated what to say is something else entirely because that involves insistence at the level of law. This would logically make it illegal to not say what the law arbitrarily says to say. With the attempt to control speech, there is no free speech, and the dominant group will fight for that control of speech; for that dictatorship.
 

A harrowing example of this dictatorship is the incident at Evergreen College in 2017, involving evolutionary biology professor, Brett Weinstein. In this case, there was an attempt to force white people at Evergreen to participate in an annual protest that effectively prohibited them from coming onto campus that given day. Weinstein saw that this was inherently racist and that his rights would be infringed on since protesting is by nature optional for anyone to do. He, therefore, opted to not participate and showed up for his classes that day as normal. This sparked a coup d'etat on campus because students confronted him for coming onto campus, they refused to dialogue with him, and they proceeded to take over the administration building, demanding his termination of employment, as well as ranting against white supremacy and what not. Weinstein continued to stand his ground. What was furthermore disturbing was that one of his students was reprimanded by the protesters at a rally on campus the following day by compelling her to publicly read a statement that they prepared, humiliating her in the process.     
 

A vital point made in the film is that this dictatorship is not something that would stay on college campuses because students will graduate and take positions of power among other influential institutions, effectively infiltrating them. No Safe Spaces demonstrates that, in the realm of entertainment, comedy is in danger. Comedians including Tim Allen and Bryan Callen express their grievances, and footage of Jerry Seinfeld and Kevin Hart show their experiences in comedy and cancel culture due to political correctness; the former experienced criticism for making jokes including stereotypes of gay men, and the latter stepped down from hosting the Oscars due to backlash from the public over an old tweet.
 

Another kind of institution that is cooperative in this movement against free speech is big tech. Understandably, these would include community standards and guidelines. But when asked in court to define ‘hate speech,’ for example, Mark Zuckerbeg’s response demonstrated that Facebook flags and bans voices arbitrarily; there is no apparent, objective standard to what hate speech is, which would apply to anyone who would utter such forms of speech in any instance. Yet, over a hundred Prager U videos are restricted on Youtube, meaning that they are deemed as unwatchable by children, libraries, and schools, as are videos of violence or pornography. This is in spite of the fact that Prager U has had over a billion views in one year.
 

The film makes another critical point, regarding identity politics. In this setting of intolerance and attacks on free speech, people fall under alleged categories. One of them is that of ‘the haters.’ Once more, to hold conservative values and to voice oneself about them, as well as supporting such individuals in their right to do so, labels these non-leftists as ‘haters.’ But as we’ve noted, tolerance has taken a turn so that promoters of free speech are the tolerant ones and those who are against it are intolerant; the irony is that those who allegedly promote love and tolerance (under the labels of liberal, who are the leftists) are the haters, and their hatred is prominent in their attack on free speech itself and the persons who wish to exercise it. Author and journalist Sharyl Attkisson noted that attacking a subject by attacking a personality rather than debating the idea is often the sign of a smear campaign. 
 

Another category is that of ‘the victims.’ A victimhood mentality is part of this zeitgeist. The opponents of free speech resort to injustices in American history, and in Western civilization overall. But No Safe Spaces makes the point that now we are free. The film provides footage of Candace Owens, then host of The Candace Owens Show, at UCLA arguing with students against the idea of white privilege, stressing the disservice that such a notion actually causes by perpetuating the victimhood mentality among minorities.[7] Then, Carolla and Peterson share their arguments against the victimhood mentality, explaining its adverse effects despite the intention of its promoters of trying to protect people from suffering. 
 

No Safe Spaces proceeds to shed light on the idea of “the system,” meaning an oppressive system against specific groups of people. Identity politics kicks in by claiming that minorities are oppressed by the system. However, Prager and Rubin point out how the victimhood mentality takes place in the system, meaning that those who see themselves as oppressed are not at fault for their oppression, but ‘oppression’ is confused with ‘consequences’ and ‘suffering.’ Either way, the belief is that the oppressed people’s problems are someone else’s fault, someone who is out to get them. Peterson makes the same point and adds that such individuals are furthermore convinced that there is nothing that they can do about the system. This mindset is easier to believe and follow through with, but the alternative is what brings us true happiness, for Prager notes that some unhappy people are addicted to being unhappy.
 

Later on in the film, in his interaction with students at Clark Atlanta University, a black university, Prager makes the point that he prefers clarity over agreement. This is invaluable for free speech. It seems like disagreement itself is a point of contention between people, for if someone is so convinced that he or she is right, and not just right, but morally right, then the opposition is not just wrong, but subsequently evil. This, of course, depends on what is being argued, when opposite views might in fact be wrong and evil. Especially from a leftist perspective, the opposition is oppressing the oppressed. But this is not true in that case nor all-around necessarily the case. That having been said, disagreement need not be wrong in itself, and clarity is necessary for disagreement. Free speech paves the way for understanding, and that understanding might be fruitful for people to change their minds, and then come to an agreement. Otherwise, agreeing to disagree is the way to go with free speech.
 

Shelby Steele, a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, makes an eye-opening point. To build in one sentence on what Steele mentioned, it’s as if black people, particularly those who buy ‘the system’ narrative, are addicted to being victims of racism.[8] Briefly, the U.S. in fact endured systematic racism, but the above-mentioned “system of oppression” is simultaneously continuous racism namely against blacks. As we’ve seen, the system itself is a matter of belief, different from actual instances of racism. To build on what Steele said, some people perpetuate the notion of being victims of racism, but this has a psychological effect that causes people to become what they believe they are: they are victimizing themselves.
 

Carolla makes the vital point that these concepts that society is dealing with are the result of identity politics, which is the opposite of common sense. Prager and Peterson then share about the good that comes from acknowledging the individual and the evils that result when the group is placed over the individual. Paradoxically, American society upholds the values of freedom of the individual while undergoing this kind of social unrest that has been witnessed at different times and places where the value of all individuals was disregarded or attacked somehow. It may seem exaggerated to point out slavery and genocide as the results of identity politics, but the connection is clear by seeing that that is how slavery and genocide began.[9]

 
Where Do We Go From Here?


   How do we turn the tide, according to No Safe Spaces? Namely by expressing ourselves and being courageous. The film shows footage of the protest and the security measures for Ben Shapiro’s speech at UC Berkeley, in which hundreds of police officers stood watch with barriers to prevent protesters from stopping the event, costing around six-hundred thousand dollars in security costs. It was disturbing to see the crowd of protesters, presumably students and personnel at UC Berkeley, resorting to fear-mongering and name-calling, which is reminiscent of fascist propaganda. Regardless, Shapiro entered the stage to the auditorium which was filled with an enthusiastic audience, eagerly awaiting him. Shapiro’s talk pointed out the fascism on campus and stressed that it has no place at UC Berkeley. He further elaborated on the fact that the United States is the greatest country on earth. Free speech is inherent to America. Dan Mogulof, Assistant Vice Chancellor at UC Berkeley, admitted to disagreeing with Shapiro and praised Shapiro’s talk as well as his invitation to audience members who disagree with him to be the first in line for the Q & A for the sake of discussion.
 

The film furthermore sheds light on an immaturity that young people are, in a sense, burdened with. Testifying before Congress, Carolla expressed criticism of some parenting styles that are overly protective of children. Furthermore, Heather Heying, evolutionary biologist and wife of Bret Weinstein, stresses fragility as the consequence of the lack of risk that comes from helicopter parenting and safe spaces. These young people are, therefore, adults to whom a disservice had been done to them by trying to protect them from the responsibilities that come with freedom. Now they are lashing out with as much force as they are allotted.
 

Despite the pushback, ranging from personal attacks (overwhelmingly verbal, but in many instances physical) to legal disputes, free speech is winning and will continue to win, but the struggle is real. Ultimately, the film encourages advocates for free speech to stand up and speak out. There’s too much at stake; namely, freedom.   
 

I must point out that one of the underlying problems behind this phenomenon is the confusion between ideas someone has and their personal identity. The cancel culture phenomenon with its violent assault upon dissenting views emphasizes the fact that this majority ideological hegemony identifies themselves with their ideas, to the point that criticism of the ideas becomes equivocated with criticisms of themselves. And so, when one attacks the idea, he is attacking the author of that idea, and it is precisely this infantilism that is fueling this ideological hatred for free speech.[10


Conclusion


No Safe Spaces is truly a documentary for all times. Among the laudable aspects of the film are the fact it is non-partisan, it features a diverse cast, and it strives to open the floor to dialogue for all people. It is in the end about freedom and, in my view, about the right to strive for the truth. Man can be defined as a truth-seeker (Fides et Ratio, 28). He is made to seek out and discover the truth of reality.[11] To add to this, the truth is inseparable from love, which is a virtue and cannot be forced or bought. Love is not coercive, and free speech is consistent with our right to strive for the truth and with our being created by love and for love. Free speech is consistent with our dignity and human nature as being made in the image and likeness of God. To paraphrase, the solution is being bold by exercising our freedom of speech which is, in a sense, the resistance itself to the leftism that has made its way into American life.

Endnotes

[1] Thanks to my cohort, Jeremy Hausotter, for this point on questioning the leftist metanarrative, their actual intolerance of it, and this being propaganda that must be scourged.

[2] There is an apparent confusion between the concepts ‘offend’ and ‘uncomfort’ in left-leaning circles. Of course, disagreement causes discomfort, but this is radically different from speech that is derogatory towards another with the intention to offend. Even in the latter case, the person on the receiving end of the offense has the right to disassociate him or herself from the offender, but in the former case, disagreement is consonant with offense, and therefore antagonism and even hatred.

[3] Aside from the president of a university, it is unclear as to whether the other two persons in this segment that describes safe spaces are personnel or students, but I believe that they are students.

[4] While the advocates for safe spaces in the film do not claim that fear is their motivation, fear is the logical motivation for safe spaces. The alternative implies reason to be afraid: unsafe.

[5] For clarification, this latter concept means accepting the fact that we disagree on an issue and maintaining our relationships with one another, or at least not cutting each other off on purpose because of disagreements with each other.

[6] Shepherd most likely means to identify as ‘liberal,’ especially in the classical sense of the term since, as we have seen, leftism leaves no room for diversity of thought.

[7] While the film does not delve thoroughly into white’s experience regarding white privilege (Carolla refers to it at one point, regarding the adversity that he faced despite being white and therefore supposedly privileged), it is important to note the stigma that whites receive from this notion, which is unmerited and racist as well.

[8] This is my own elaboration on what Shelby said in the film. This is NOT what Shelby himself actually said.

[9] Dr. Jordan Peterson makes the point regarding genocide especially by pointing out the catastrophic results in the previous century. Slavery, on the other hand, was identity politics based on race which ended in the U.S. in the nineteenth century. The point here is that the horrors of slavery and racism that we have witnessed in Western civilization is due to identity politics, as opposed to upholding the value of the individual human person.

[10] Thanks to my cohort, Jeremy Hausotter, for this point on the confusion between the ideas that someone has and their personal identity.

[11] Thanks to my cohort, Jeremy Hausotter, for this point from Fides et Ratio, regarding man being a seeker of truth.

The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776  by John Trumbull 

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