Perhaps part of the reason there’s not more interest in the attacks on free speech happening on college campuses — which happens to be the subject of a great new documentary enjoying a limited release in theaters called “No Safe Spaces” — is that there’s no easy answer for why it’s happening.
The rage of the “OK, Boomer” generation and their immediate elders, the much-maligned millennials, is something of a mystery to be sure. These are kids who grew up in the most prosperous country in the world, during one of its most prosperous times. They’ve enjoyed freedoms leaders in other, less cosmopolitan places, would never dream of allowing. They’ve always been encouraged to speak their minds and find their bliss. That’s how most American children are raised, and certainly most of the ones who make it college.
And yet, as this new documentary from Dangerous Documentaries showcases in unrelenting — and often frightening — fashion, these very, very entitled kids are very, very angry.
The stars of the documentary, Dennis Prager of Prager University and comedian and radio host (among many other career pursuits he lays claim to) Adam Carolla, are a fascinating sort of Abbott and Costello (or Kermit and Fozzie) team; which is to say they are very nearly polar opposites but they make a great and interesting duo.
The reason for that chemistry — and in fact the reason for the documentary at all — is because they both love and cherish the First Amendment and believe free speech, a cornerstone of freedom, is under attack.
And ground zero is the bubble-wrapped world of academia.
Pulling from a bipartisan guest list that includes Van Jones, Alan Dershowitz, and Tim Allen among many others, “No Safe Spaces” attempts to show what’s been happening on college campuses right under our noses, largely kept a secret because most media outlets seem reluctant to cover it.
The documentary — which intersperses personal history flashback techniques to contextualize its stars , as well as animation techniques both funny and uncomfortable — appears to have been born of Prager's and Carolla’s experiences booking speaking gigs together at colleges and encountering protests (sometimes nearly violent ones) with the resultant calls of racism, homophobia, fascism and the like from student communities that simply couldn’t bear to hear their ideas.
Interviews with Evergreen State’s now-shunned professor Bret Weinstein are sobering and frightening, with Weinstein — who may have been the individual most endangered by his defense of free speech — warning that these same kids will be going out into the work world and taking their fragile rage with them, shutting down dissent wherever they land.
A panel of comedians is equally worried that their profession has become almost a shriveled, useless thing because the speech police are also notoriously bereft of senses of humor.
And all the while, throughout the film, as people wonder what’s happened on college campuses — once the laboratory of the free exchange of ideas but now the prison yard shuttering open minds — no one really offers a good reason for why this is all happening.
Until the end, with a snippet of testimony from Carolla as he testified before Congress within the last few years on free speech issues.
It’s the adults, he says, who have to allow children to fall down — physically and emotionally — so they know that falling down won’t kill them and they’ll learn how to do it properly next time without getting hurt. It’s the adults — parents, professors, and administrators at these schools — who have to provide these children with gravity so they don’t float off into space in their protective rage bubbles, alone and unenlightened.
And it’s the responsibility of all of us to refuse to be afraid and keep exercising the right of speech in the face of all attempts — violent or otherwise — to silence it. It’s going to take diligent work.
This documentary is a good place to start practicing.
Sarah Lee is a freelance writer and policy wonk living and working in Washington, D.C.