Bill Maher is scared of tolerance brought by safe spaces

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Established liberal comedian and political commentator Bill Maher has made a career of pushing back at “political correctness” from his fellow progressives and peers. He, infamously, used a racial slur on air just last year and has been spouting clear Islamophobia under the guise of atheism for well over a decade. In our modern political climate, however, Maher has taken a new direction in pushing back against the left.

Maher frequently invites guests — such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Jordan Peterson — that are either part of the alt-right or are sometimes affiliated with the alt-right. Another common factor linking Yiannopoulos and Peterson is the resistance they have faced when speaking on college campuses. Maher takes particular issue with mass protests that prevent public figures from speaking at pre-arranged events at various universities; his go-to example is UC Berkeley, which, by Maher’s view, is consistent politically and administratively with every college campus in America. But while Maher likes to elevate these folks to an even greater public platform on his show than they would receive at any given university, he simultaneously plays into the hands of far-right extremists and bigots operating under the purported protections of free speech.

Maher finds common ground with figures like Yiannopoulos and especially Peterson on the issue of free speech, or perhaps more accurately, the ability of any given person to say whatever they want, no matter the harm they may do unto others. Maher’s favorite scapegoat is, of course, college students, especially the ones who stage protests at speaking events or take issue with jokes that are “politically incorrect.” (As an aside, Maher’s first show was called Politically Incorrect, which, incidentally, was canceled after Maher said something politically incorrect post-9/11.) So, even as a prominent liberal television personality, Maher’s opponents of choice appear to be his younger liberal peers.

What Maher misses in his criticism is key to understanding the disconnect between liberal intellectuals of his generation and younger, more progressive liberals. Maher hates the idea of “safe spaces,” first and foremost, but he does not actually understand their purpose or frequency. Safe spaces are intended to give students — especially those who are disadvantaged or marginalized — the physical space and time to unwind with those of similar backgrounds and experiences. They are meant to help build strength and patience for those of us whose patience has been worn thin by discrimination and injustice present in their everyday lives.

Moreover, safe spaces are not the be all and end all. Safe spaces allow people to re-enter regular, unfiltered dialogue about these issues with skills specifically meant to further these tough conversations. Practicing discussion or debriefing in a safe space actually furthers one’s capacity to handle and confront the ugly side of difficult social realities in their everyday lives or in the context of unfiltered dialogue with opposing or even hostile counterparts. They are not about avoiding tough issues, they are about learning how to deal with them in a smart, healthy way.

And yet, the reason Maher fails to understand safe spaces is far more complex. He is the product of a generation that, in many ways, is responsible for the social unrest that persists today. He may, in many cases, call out the problematic behaviors of those on the right or even be supportive of the marginalized and disadvantaged, but he is uncomfortable with the idea of a shifting conversation. Maher is scared of a major culture shift. The framework of the conversation, as he understands it, extends to tolerance, but not acceptance, and as a result, he remains inhibited in our modern dialogue. I, personally, am drawn to the “not that there’s anything wrong with it” joke from Seinfeld as reflective of Maher’s behavior. He may not take issue with the idea of gay people existing, for instance, but he does not want to view homosexuality as normal or serve as an ally. His understanding of what it means to be progressive is stagnant, and because he was on the cutting edge for so long, he refuses to confront the possibility that his beliefs may be dated.

So, instead, Maher turns to those on the far right for common ground, as the criticisms facing Maher and the extremist guests of his show become more and more similar. He will continue to defend his right, and the right of his traditional opponents – right-wing extremists and bigots – to say horrible, sexist, racist, transphobic things, and in the meantime, he will continue to elevate and indirectly legitimize the viewpoints of those whose beliefs he would have attacked vehemently even five years ago.

Maybe, truly, when he said the N-word on television last year, he held no sort of racial contempt in his heart. Even if that is the case, if even one bigot feels legitimized or justified in watching the show, is their much of a difference between Maher and the bigot? Some would say of course, but the impact will remain unchanged. This is why college students call for higher standards. This is why we protest when someone comes to our community spouting awful things. They may have the right to shout racial slurs and misogynistic curses and homophobic garbage, but college students have the right to fight back. We have the right to say, “that is not welcome in our community.” Because, if we allowed every intolerant person a platform and a microphone to let out every horrible thing that came to mind, we would be fighting each other constantly, and we would be too focused shutting down nonsense to actually help the people who need it most.