As a writer and an American citizen, I strongly support freedom of expression. I support a person’s right to submerge a cross in a jar of urine and call it art. I support peoples’ right to gather in protest or support gun control. I support a movie studio’s right to naively believe there would be no blow-back from a tyrant they fantasize about killing—all in good fun of course. (I’m going on the current belief that NoKo is behind the cyberattack and actually threatened violence against movie-goers had “The Interview” been released.)
Our Constitution’s First Amendment is a hallmark of this nation, so let’s be clear on what this entails.
Some Americans believe that freedom of speech means saying whatever we want without having to suffer consequences. God forbid we should be persecuted for expressing opinions or art!
Reality check #1: This is the age of instantaneousness and permanence. Anything we publish in the public domain can rocket around the world in minutes and stay there. Forever. Even long after we no longer support an idea we once espoused. Can we really expect not to get some flak for expressing unpopular or potentially incendiary things? And you can forget about thinking that even the most secure cyber systems could never fall victim to hackers.
Some Americans believe Sonygate sets a precedent for other rogue nations to trounce on our First Amendment rights with impunity (read George Clooney’s response.) I feel a show coming on; we could call it “DPRK Military Uniform is the New Black.”
Reality check #2: Despite our love affair with freedom of speech, our nation itself hasn’t always freely allowed expression for all. Today, homosexuals and peaceful Muslims are attacked. Not so long ago Blacks were targeted—and still are—for expressing their right to be human beings. A little farther back, it wasn’t safe to be a Jew or a Catholic or a woman, nor German, Japanese, or Italian during the world wars.
Some Americans think canceling the release of a film equates to being held hostage by those who deny freedoms to their own people. Hey, this is the land of the free and the brave!
Reality check #3: Americans have been held hostage in the current age since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. You cannot freely walk into the Capitol building and watch your legislators, whom you pay, ruin, er run, this country. If you try walking up the Capitol’s steps beyond a certain point, you will be shot dead by snipers who patrol from the roof. Hmm, sounds like a scenario in a dictatorship. You can’t even go to a museum on the Mall in DC—a museum!—without going through a metal detector and having your handbag searched.
Does this mean we shouldn’t publicly express ourselves or not make art because it might offend someone? Does it mean we should throw people in jail for not respecting the First Amendment? Does it mean we shouldn’t take precautions to safeguard against the reality of bomb attacks and mad shooters? No, no, and no. But it does mean we should take a good look at ourselves before charging in on our tall steed crying “betrayal.” That horse headed out the barn and over the hill ages ago. We are outraged by a film’s cancellation but are in no hurry to defend real victims of persecution in our own country.
It also doesn’t mean Hollywood should stop making inane films for cheap laughs. But let’s be honest, Hollywood isn’t just in the entertainment business. The American film industry has a huge influence on the world, sometimes shaping beliefs and even informing politics. For this reason alone, Hollywood should be more careful about what it produces.
If “The Interview” were a documentary or an exposé, the conversation would be different. (Sony, why didn’t you just change the script to a fictitious country with a fictitious leader? Can you really expect to court the devil without being burned?) The world isn’t going to be a lesser place for not having seen “The Interview”; serious issues aren’t being swept under the carpet. Yes, some people won’t get their form of art up on the silver screen. The Yellow Brick Road is paved with tough-luck tales.
Instead of seeing this as hostage-taking of American liberties, why not use it as an opportunity to give more thought to our intention behind expressing an idea, thought, opinion, or art and the consequences of doing so? This is an especially useful exercise for public figures and entities whose—by extension—expressions have potentially greater effects on a greater number of people, including internationally.
The First Amendment entitles us to freedom of expression. It does not, however, entitle us to freedom from responsibility. So here’s my pitch for a new Hollywood film titled “Mr. Smith Goes to Pyongyang”:
Hollywood funny guy visits a rogue nation with the intent of making their people laugh at a topic that they clearly find offensive, and, after a series of hilarious mishaps—including almost getting killed—learns that just because you can say something, doesn’t mean you should.