The Cost of Free Speech
At the risk of overstating things - and I certainly hope that I am doing exactly that - industry, speech, expression, and art, all fundamentally changed this week. And it may never be the same again.
It started slowly, years ago. Certain books were deemed offensive. A television show here or there was considered too controversial. And so they went away.
Then speeches and speech givers were the next come under scrutiny. And once one university commencement speaker had their invite rescinded because a group of 22-year olds decided amongst themselves that the speaker’s views/biography/experiences didn’t conform with their’s, other groups of 22-year olds followed. And so those speakers went away. And we accepted it.
Now Sony Pictures has shelved a $44 million movie (plus another $30 mil spent on promotion) because a group of computer hackers, either working in or for the North Korean government, didn’t like the content of the film. Granted, it took more than just these hackers protests to silence the project. First they hacked into Sony and embarrassed them with leaked emails. Then they threatened violence. But the public as accessories to the ultimate capitulation remains the same. The hackers could only mine the emails and other sensitive documents and make them accessible. It took an all too compliant press to disseminate the details to the public, and a hungry public that feels that those in the entertainment industry don’t warrant common sense privacies, to actually give the hackers power.
That power has now brought one of the most powerful and influential industries in the world to its knees.
A few defenders of the move say that this is simply an isolated business decision made by one film company regarding a movie that likely wasn’t going to be a big success anyway. Regarding the last part of that sentence, I agree. But this will not be isolated. Every film, book, or song that dares to be critical will be looked at with fear by the powers that be. And now, even some movies from the past are being self-surrendered without even a peep from the expended offended parties. Paramount, on the heels of Sony’s decision to pull a current release about a current sitting head of state, has decided to pull Team America: World Police, a release from 10 years ago about a now dead head of state, all done with puppets. It’s absolute insanity piled on cowardice that is both shocking and depressing.
Imagine if Charlie Chaplin couldn't make The Great Dictator in 1940 because it was too critical of Adolf Hitler. Two great Cold War films of the 1960s, Dr. Strangelove and The Manchurian Candidate, were not doubt not terribly popular in Nikita Khrushchev's Kremlin. Dr Zhivago, another film of the 60s, was banned in Russia. Would it have been able to find Western distribution in December of 2014?
What if all of Michael Moore’s films could have been shelved by angry and threatening conservatives? Or on the other side of the political spectrum, the same thing held true for Dinesh D’Souza’s films that were critical of Barack Obama. Should the Catholic church get final say on Dan Brown’s next book? Will Showtime’s Homeland get another season? Certainly not with it set in Pakistan, and depicting a quite corrupt and evil Pakistani government. Do all future Bond villains have to come from fictitious countries, lest some group be offended?
An entire industry of powerful and influential people remained silent as the Sony embarrassment unfolded. Perhaps they too felt vulnerable to the same kind of blackmail, and thus chose to retreat, rather than fight for their fellow artists. And now that embarrassing emails have turned into million dollar business blackmail, it’s too late for them to find their voice.
And let’s not pretend that this will remain in Hollywood. Is it a stretch to see some tech savvy environmental extremist hacking into the computers of Exxon and threatening them? The banking industry is vital to the way the world works, but it is not without its enemies hellbent on anarchy.
The responsibility of free speech, free expression, and the ability and absolute duty to hold our governments accountable, is ours. And we must fight for it most vigorously when it is speech that runs counter to our own. If the Dixie Chicks were allowed to be critical of President Bush in 2003 while on tour in Europe, the fans who publicly burned their CDs in anger were also allowed that expression. If someone can stand on the corner reading the Bible allowed, he can also, as long as he does it safely, burn the American flag.
When Salman Rushdie writes a controversial book such as the Satanic Verses, the Muslim community must be the most vocal in defending his right to do so. Just as it is imperative that Christians defend noted atheist Christopher Hitchens’s right to say and write what he wants.
We have become too accepting of the erosions of the rights of people we don’t agree with. Lines of integrity get blurred when the opinions and beliefs run counter to our own. And for a quite awhile you can delude yourself into believing that what’s happening is okay. “Well, that speech was offensive.” “Those thoughts are dangerous.” “That person shouldn’t have a platform to espouse their hate.”
And then all of sudden it is something that you value that becomes the target. Like movies. Or one move in particular. Or books. Or one author in particular. Or your religion. Or your right to not have a religion. Or your right to love whom you want, how you want. Or your right to simply ignore the perpetually aggrieved, because they will always be there, always chattering, and always looking for something to ban.
There is nothing more empowering to a human being than freedom. Free will, free thought, and free expression are paramount in a thriving and growing society. It is up to us to take that freedom. And it is up to us to keep it.
"If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter." - George Washington