Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Rights and Responsibilities of Expression

Just before the Christmas holiday, there was a lot of buzz around a cyberattack on Sony Studios in retaliation for their film, "The Interview", a comedy which depicts a plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In a nutshell, the cyberattack (purportedly from North Korean-affiliated hackers) was initially comprised of the leaking of proprietary material, including personal data and e-mail correspondence casting both studio executives and Hollywood celebrities in bad light, before it escalated to ominous threats hinting at 9/11-type attacks. Nervous movie theater chains opted not to show the movie, which led to an uproar from an odd alliance of progressives and conservatives who were furious that freedom of expression was being threatened through intimidation. 

I also found it offensive that a rogue country could successfully strong arm the most powerful free democracy in the world to force its citizenry to not watch a movie. My reasoning was pretty straightforward: I may have no desire to see "The Interview", but Kim Jong Un has absolutely no right to make that decision for me. 

Over a holiday meal with my extended family, I appreciated hearing a slightly nuanced take on the topic from my brother, who thought it was in poor taste and offensive to depict the assassination of any sitting world leader, even one as fascist and deplorable as Kim Jong Un. My perspective was that while it might be deeply offensive, it didn't warrant censorship and certainly not threatened or actual crime against person or property. I cited that while I was a student of the University of Pennsylvania, Andres Serano's "Piss Christ" exhibit (depicting a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist's urine) came to town and there was enormous pressure that this had no place in a civilized society. As a Christian, I found it offensive, but realized that as long as we want to live in a world which I could share my ideas and even my faith, to prevent the expression of something deemed offensive to me personally was a dangerous slippery slope.

Fast forward to last week, where the stakes around freedom and expression and outrage manifesting itself in violence jumped to a horrifying level, when two radicalized Islamist terrorists killed 12 in an attack aimed at the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, which in addition to its equal-opportunity impertinent attacks on politicians, religions and celebrities of all walks of life, on numerous occasions mocked the most sacred of figures in Islam, the Prophet Mohammed. Some of these depictions included Mohammed with the body and a dog, or Mohammed wearing a bomb-shaped turban, both highly blasphemous and offensive to those adherents to this religious faith.

So while I reiterate my condemnation and rejection of any violence of people or property in response to being offended in the course of freedom of expression, I wonder if we can appreciate the complexities and nuances in a society which also values diversity and goodwill.

In the midst of the outrage and outpouring of support by stating "Je Suis Charlie" ("I am Charlie"), are we standing for free expression without any regard for the deep offense and marginalization for Muslims who found the depictions hurtful? Or put another way, if a black man had in a rage killed Ku Klux Klan Wizard James Earl Ray for lighting cross on fire in his own front lawn, would we all march with signs saying "I am James" in honor of him being a martyr for his freedom of expression? I somehow doubt it.

Do those who think that Muslims should "lighten up" or "not take such offense" at bawdy descriptions of their most sacred figure similarly think that the Westboro Church chanting "God hates fags" at military funerals are also harmless in their freedom of expression? Are we consistent in the defense of freedom of expression when we are most offended?

I also wonder if in our embrace of freedom of expression, we've lost the responsibility which comes along with it. Do we speak provocatively because we think we can make positive change through our words, or do we do so simply to provoke? Or simply because we want to prove that we have the right to speak provocatively? Sadly, we've seemed to have lost the ability to have spirited, yet respectful, discourse on the topics which divide us. By all means, have the conversations and speak boldly and forcefully, but let's try to have a point besides offending people we don't happen to regard.

I came across the following on the ACLU website, and while I'd say that I may not see eye-to-eye on everything that they do or stand for, I deeply appreciate their consistency of principles, some of which has been placed in this memo regarding "hate speech on campus", which I think can be applied more broadly to society:
Speech that deeply offends our morality or is hostile to our way of life warrants the same constitutional protection as other speech because the right of free speech is indivisible: When one of us is denied this right, all of us are denied. Since its founding in 1920, the ACLU has fought for the free expression of all ideas, popular or unpopular. That's the constitutional mandate... 
Defending First Amendment rights for the enemies of civil liberties and civil rights means defending it for you and me... 
ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser stated, in a speech at the City College of New York: "There is no clash between the constitutional right of free speech and equality. Both are crucial to society. Universities ought to stop restricting speech and start teaching.
Let's all keep talking. Let's all keep listening. And let's be consistent in how we value the rights and responsibilities of our freedom of expression.

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