The Critics Debate: So Safe Spaces

Christian Toto is an award-winning film critic and the editor of Hollywood in Toto. He is also, like me, a member of the Critics Choice Association. His review of the free speech documentary No Safe Spaces was positive. My review was negative. Christian asked me if I'd be interested in discussing the film in more depth. It sounded like a great idea. Love it or hate it, No Safe Spaces, which stars Adam Carolla and Dennis Prager, brings up a lot of issues worth debating.

Our exchange is below. By the way, you can follow Christian on Twitter: @HollywoodInToto.

Christian Toto: No Safe Spaces is the movie we need now ... more than ever. Sound hokey? Consider where we are at this moment. Free speech is literally under attack on college campuses, the one place where young adults should be exposed to as many points of view as possible. Speakers are being shouted at, confronted and sometimes physically attacked for expressing views a select few deem unacceptable. Comedians, not just politicians, must weigh their jokes carefully for fear of offense and possible job loss. Even President Barack Obama just called out what's now known as "cancel culture," saying we should consider a person's life in a more nuanced, and comprehensive, fashion before attacking them.

The docudrama isn't perfect, but it perfectly captures this moment in our culture. It sounds like you're not sold on the film, though.

Mike McGranaghan: It's true, I'm not completely sold on it. My review (for those who haven't read it) wasn't an outright pan, it was mixed-to-negative. I applaud No Safe Spaces for raising some issues worthy of discussion, and a couple sequences have real power. The one in which Dennis Prager interviews a group of African-American college students about whether racially-charged language should be allowed is a great example of what happens when people debate respectfully and actually listen to one another's thoughts.

Despite some good points, the film's flaws were enough to overshadow them for me. One of my biggest problems, which I didn't talk about in my review, is that I'm not convinced the movie isn't fudging the severity of the issue a little bit. Last year, Ben Shapiro came to speak at the university in my town. I went over to see what the fuss was all about. There was a definite security presence, but only a few people with signs peacefully standing outside the building. Certainly no physical violence or out-of-control behavior. I went home and watched the live stream of his speech, and again, no drama. Granted, that's anecdotal. I know there have been incidents at other colleges. Still, No Safe Spaces makes it seem like there's pandemonium wherever Shapiro or other conservative speakers appear.

And as for comedy, there are plenty of comedians out there doing edgy material with no adverse effect. Certainly comedy movies like Booksmart and Good Boys push boundaries and become successful. So is No Safe Spaces overstating the extent of the threat to free speech, just to get viewers riled up? Yeah, I think it might be. What do you think?

CT: Some of what we're seeing across the culture is more difficult to spot. Some students stay silent rather than risk the blowback for sharing their views. A recent online poll by College Pulse found that 73 percent of college Republicans held their views back in class for fear of retribution. Another poll, from Gallup, shows more than 60 percent of students hold back their thoughts for similar reasons. These aren't outliers.

That's in addition to speakers being drowned out and shouted down again and again. Another tactic of these anti-free speech voices is to demand huge security fees for mainstream conservative speakers like Ben Shapiro, something which often forces events to be canceled. The University of Pittsburgh wanted to charge a student group $5,500 in security fees assuming Shapiro's speech would be controversial.

Shapiro isn't a rabble rouser by any stretch. He also recently said he employs round the clock security to keep him safe. That speaks volumes.

As to the comedy front, Louis CK was hounded recently by fellow comedians (including Judd Apatow) for telling a joke aimed at the Parkland High school students. His valid point? Why does surviving a tragedy suddenly make someone an expert on a given issue? Agree? Disagree? It makes you think at the very least, which means he's doing his job. Meanwhile, comedies like Booksmart aren't remotely edgy. They tell jokes in line with accepted progressive groupthink regarding empowerment and feminism. I found it funny, but there's nothing subversive to be found in it given the current state of culture. Still, some social critics blasted the movie for focusing on two white, upper middle class figures. A movie that tried so very hard to be enlightened got attacked for not being enlightened enough. It must be brutal to write jokes today knowing you're traipsing across some cultural landmines with some gags.

Shouldn't comics be allowed to try, and fail? Why must they be judged like public officials? They're funny people. We need to be strong enough to survive bad taste or misfired gags. Isn't this a message that deserves a cinematic closeup?

MM: I grew up obsessed with comedians like George Carlin and Richard Pryor, so I'm totally okay with edgy, boundary-pushing humor. In fact, it's probably my favorite kind. The problem is that some of the comedians working today simply aren't at that level. If you're going to tackle non-PC humor, you have to remember that jokes require a structure. They contain an idea at their core and a strong perspective.

Look at the recent Shane Gillis situation. I watched that video, and there was no structure. He didn't really have an idea he was conveying or a POV on anything. It was just blatant mocking of Asian people in the name of "comedy." That's why people got upset about it. There's a huge gap between that and, say, the famous Saturday Night Live sketch where Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor play a word association game using racially-charged terms. In that case, you can easily see what the skit is trying to say, so it's funny even while pushing the envelope. I'm not offended when I watch that. Likewise, as a Christian, I was never offended when George Carlin did bits on religion. I may not have agreed with him, but I understood the ideas and the perspectives he was trying to get across.

This actually leads into another gripe I have with No Safe Spaces. It pretends to be concerned with free speech, but it's really only concerned with conservative speech. Sections of the film deal with comedians and how they sometimes feel they can't tackle certain subject matter without getting hammered by the Thought Police. And yet, it completely ignores the most public example we've seen of that in years -- the photo of comedian Kathy Griffin holding the bloody, severed head of Donald Trump.

Conservatives were hugely offended by that. They called for Griffin to be fired from her CNN New Year's Eve gig (which she was), demanded comedy clubs stop booking her (which some did), and generally felt she should be "canceled" from the entertainment business. I'm certainly not going to defend that photo, but if No Safe Spaces was honest in wanting to deal with the free speech issue as it pertains to comedy, it should have included at least this example. The difference here is that conservatives were the ones most offended, and the movie is pitched at conservative audiences, so Prager and Carolla chose to ignore it.

I'll be the first to admit that liberals get offended about a lot of stuff, some of it legitimate and some trivial. But so do conservatives, whether it's something silly like Starbucks not making their Christmas coffee cups the right color, or something far more serious, like a comedian seeming to advocate violence toward a sitting American president. In other words, getting offended and not wanting to hear things we disagree with isn't a political thing, it's a human thing. No Safe Spaces makes it seem like only liberals get offended or try to silence ideas they don't want to hear. To me, that's a dishonest take. The movie would have been stronger addressing how Left, Right, and Middle all deal with this in today's society.

Do you agree that it would have a much broader appeal and a much stronger resonance if it took that across-the-board approach?

CT: I don't like anyone being fired for telling the "wrong" jokes, but the Shane Gillis saga was different. His "jokes" weren't remotely akin to humor, it was just a man flailing and failing at being outrageous and offensive. No structure, no wit, no laughs. Still, few would argue against Louis CK being among the most talented joke tellers around, and he's been under attack of late for either telling the wrong jokes or not apologizing enough on stage (the latter via a bizarre New York Times review of his recent performance).

Depicting the severed head of a president, any president, is far different than your standard joke. It's why Griffin was condemned across the board for her photograph. Presidents get special protection, and that clearly crossed a vital line. Conservatives haven't risen up in fury about other attacks on the President. They may disagree with them, hate them and/or call them cruel, but the vast majority didn't want those telling the jokes to suffer any consequences.

I would be horrified if Ted Nugent took a picture of himself holding President Obama's bloody head aloft. Vile. Gross. Wildly inappropriate.

As to your point that only conservative speech is being protected in No Safe Spaces, there's a simple explanation. The vast majority of cases where speech is under attack involves conservatives, not liberals, trying to speak. When was the last time Rachel Maddow got chased off a campus? Noam Chomsky?

If Al Franken, who left the Senate under a #MeToo cloud, tried speaking on any campsus tomorrow he wouldn't need a Shapiro-sized security detail.

One example I can think of where a liberal nearly got canceled is Bill Maher, whose UC Berkeley speech got attacked from the far-Left. The speech, thankfully, went on. Come to think of it, Maher should have been part of No Safe Spaces. He's been a strong voice for free expression for folks across the political spectrum. I wonder if he was even asked to be a part of the project.

It's interesting that The Daily Beast just slammed Maher for daring to give Prager a platform on his HBO show.

Your average woke warrior isn't shutting down Rob Reiner, Michael Moore or Stephen Colbert. They're cheering them on. Meanwhile, every other week a new movement erupts to fire this Fox News talker or that Fox News talker for saying the "wrong" thing. That almost never happens to MSNBC talent. Why? Because conservatives aren't into the cancel culture game like the far Left is today.

Yes, some conservatives bristle over the "war on Christmas" and similar cultural battles. They don't march in protest, or drown out the voices with whom they disagree. And they don't riot on or off campuses to shut them down. No Safe Spaces is simply reflecting that reality.

I do agree with the film should have had more liberal voices in the narrative. Still, compared to most one-sided documentaries the inclusion of Van Jones, Cornel West and Alan Dershowitz shows the free speech defense has some bipartisan appeal.

No Safe Spaces isn't perfect, but if it lets audiences know about what's going on in the culture I think that's a wonderful thing.

MM: Well, we certainly agree on the inappropriateness of Griffin's photo, and I concur that Louis CK is an immensely gifted comedian, even if I personally can't separate the art from the artist in that case. (I used to love him but now he's too creepy for me to laugh at.)

I think the reason it's conservatives who are shut down -- and I faulted the film in my review for not acknowledging this -- is that some of the things these speakers and/or Fox News personalities say is potentially harmful to certain groups. The LGBT community has felt dehumanized by certain statements made by prominent conservatives, as have many people of color. So of course they're going to strike back, as will their allies. When, for instance, Milo Yiannopoulos says that Muslims are rapists and terrorists, Muslim college students might not want him spreading that message across campus, for fear that other students will hear it and attack them. If liberal speakers were going around to colleges and saying comparable things about conservatives, I believe we would be seeing the same thing.

Put another way, one guy saying "I think we should burn down that building" is just an idea. A guy saying that in front of 500 like-minded people increases the chance that the building is going to get torched. Comments that people believe could lead to action against them are understandably viewed as threatening.

Even if imperfect, No Safe Spaces does provide ideas worth discussing and debating. I hope that the people who see it will be inspired to have respectful, productive conversations like the one we've had. I thank you for inviting me to do this. There's so much animosity in politics right now. It's shocking to me how much people on the Left and Right hate each other and take pleasure in insults, name-calling, and vitriol. We're all Americans, and we should take care to remember that. If we start focusing on the commonalities and begin treating each other with respect, maybe it will help reduce the future likelihood of anyone's voice being silenced.