Campus insanity no match for ‘An Unsafe Space’

Theater is normally a great escape from life’s absurdities. That is, unless a show is crafted around those very things.

An Unsafe Space premiered in Toronto this week, a two-act play written and directed by my friend Richard Klagsbrun.

As the play’s name suggests, it’s a take on the insanity that now passes for normalcy on most college and university campuses.

Set in a liberal arts professor’s home, the plot is driven by a meeting of students and faculty brainstorming how to block some evil, conservative benefactor’s $40 million grant, which they feel will stymie the school’s social justice bona fides.

Of course, their collective unity is threatened when Oliver, an aboriginal lawyer invited to assist their mission, ends up challenging their ideas and their assumptions about him.

The nonplussed Oliver is played by Craig Lauzon, the indigenous actor of Royal Canadian Air Farce fame. Opposite Lauzon is Precious Chong of Pearl Harbor, also something in the way of Canadian artistic royalty as the daughter of Tommy Chong.

The meeting is a solid reflection of the cast of characters you’d find on a 2019 campus. The bisexual Muslim, the intersectional feminist lesbian, the lecherous white, male “ally”, and so on.

Student activist Lisa Cooper (Jenny Weisz) consoled after triggering conversation with Oliver (Craig Lauzon) (left). L-R: Joanna (Precious Chong), Lindy (Jane Spidell), Patrick (John Jarvis), Jamal (Chanakya Mukherjee). (Photo: Paul Alexander / An Unsafe Space)

As I wrote in a promotional blurb after reading the show some months ago, “An Unsafe Space slays every sacred cow…offering a tragically funny look at how the perpetually offended interact behind closed doors.”

At a preview performance Wednesday night, Klagsbrun’s writing elicited the laughs it deserved, aptly aided by the cast’s adoption of their characters’ eccentricities.

Though my amusement turned melancholic when I was reminded how real these people and their attitudes are.

Take campus activist Lisa’s response to the simple question of whether she studies political science.

“I’m doing my honours BA in gender studies,” she replies. “But I may take some poli sci courses. It’s a natural fit, since the intersection of gender and politics are critical to understanding the hegemonic oppression imposed by western, sexist, racist, capitalist structures.”

Or one professor touting his colleague’s worth as a romantic partner.

“Don’t worry. She believes in all the right things,” he says. “Feminism, anti-capitalism, anti-globalization, opposition to hegemonic hetero-domination of society.”

I fear some audience members may view the dialogue as stilted and contrived, not realizing this is legitimately how the social justice warriors parodied in this production speak.

I’m no theater critic, but I am a student of the cultural trends that led to demands for safe spaces and the pigeon-holing of people in certain identity groups to believe certain things. That expectation from the characters and the audience is what makes Oliver so compelling.

The first act is somewhat circular, though I suspect this is a deliberate reflection of how a meeting of this sort would unfold in real life. The second act is a raucous, action-packed affair that I hope challenges the audience as much as it entertains.

My note of caution to would-be viewers is that An Unsafe Space is unabashed in its message. There’s no subtlety to it, though it shouldn’t have been written any other way given the subject matter.

Typically my criticism of any conservative-inspired art is that producers put the conservatism above the art. Conservative filmmakers are notoriously bad for this.

An Unsafe Space stands on its own, irrespective of its message. Though the message is what makes it so effective and timely.

Good as it is, it will never see the light of day on a campus. That is perhaps its greatest endorsement.

An Unsafe Space runs until Jan. 20 at Toronto’s Tranzac Club. Get show times and ticket information here.

It’s illegal to defame Muhammad, European human rights court rules

If you dare to criticize the Islamic prophet Muhammad in Europe, prepare to pay for it. Literally.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled this week that an Austrian woman broke the law in 2009 when she gave two seminars in which she accused Muhammad of being a pedophile, based on his marriage to Aisha.

Scholars say Aisha was likely six or seven years old at the time, though the marriage wasn’t consummated until she was nine or 10.

Despite the historic record, the ECHR decision, which upheld an earlier Austrian criminal court ruling, said the woman’s remarks go “beyond the permissible limits of an objective debate” and “could stir up prejudice and put at risk religious peace.”

As of press time, the ECHR had regretfully not been razed to the ground.

That’s the only solution I can propose for a body that so effortlessly brings back blasphemy law and codifies political correctness.

Understandably, Muslims aren’t keen on their prophet being mocked. I don’t blame them. As a Christian, I don’t like it when an artist tours the world with a crucifix soaked in urine. Freedom requires people of faith sucking it up when others don’t share their reverence.

Incidentally, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, so Muhammad hardly needs the public relations help from European judicial bureaucrats.

The perpetrator was fined €480 for the offence, and also had to pay for the proceedings against her. I can’t imagine that was all that cheap considering the case spanned for nine years.

Almost a decade to determine that free speech isn’t important. The woman tried to argue it was, but the ECHR said its decision “carefully balanced her right to freedom of expression with the right of others to have their religious feelings protected, and served the legitimate aim of preserving religious peace in Austria.”

You read that right. Religious feelings. The “feelings” of Muslims are more important than everyone’s fundamental right to criticize religion, or anything really.

The timing of this is interesting for me, having just returned from the United Kingdom where I was covering the case of Tommy Robinson, a vocal critic of Islamism. In an interview with Robinson, which will be published in the coming days, I challenged him on what I see as an uncomfortably broad brush he uses to define and characterize Islam.

The “Muhammad is a pedophile” argument is not a particularly new one from anti-Muslim activists. Muslims don’t dispute the timeline of Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha, but do defend the union based on historical context and traditions that suggest it wasn’t atypical, disgusting as it is by today’s standards.

Today, it’s difficult to imagine anyone taking issue with you for calling a 50-something married to a seven-year old a pedophile. Hence the absurdity of the state—or in the case of the European Court of Human Rights, a judicial body above any one country—carving out special protection for Muhammad, or any religious figure.

What’s next, a fine for calling Buddha fat?

Part of free speech means not having to be civil, and not having to justify why you say something. And that doesn’t mean speech is always free of consequences, but in this case the court wasn’t even interested in whether there were any.

The ECHR said the woman’s comments “could” spark some sort of prejudice.

Criticizing Muhammad means you’re taking your life into your own hands, as numerous incidents have shown over the last 15 years. From threats against those involved in producing the infamous Danish cartoons to the attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s office, blood has been shed for the right to be uncivil and offensive.

Now, if the terrorists don’t get you, the government will.