Friday, December 26, 2014

On Sony, THE INTERVIEW, and Free Speech

I got into an interesting Facebook discussion with my friend Zaid Jilani after I posted this article about how both Republicans and Democrats are standing together against attempts by North Korea (or groups putting on a very good show of acting on behalf of the regime) to stop The Interview as a piece of uplifting news.

To make a long story short, Zaid said that this wasn't a free-speech issue, but Sony covering up for the incompetence of its IT department (Sony has been hacked before, on top of this recent bit of idiocy) by using the hack as part of a publicity campaign for The Interview, a movie that it feared would not do well. He did not see why he ought to give money to a company that repeatedly puts its customers at risk by failing to secure its electronics. To make a long story short, he said that Sony has been playing everybody rushing to its defense in the name of "free speech."

To be fair, he's raised some good points. If he doesn't want to see The Interview because that would be rewarding incompetence, so be it. And I could easily imagine any executive with any degree of intelligence following the dictum of never letting a good crisis go to waste. No less an authority than Forbes magazine agrees.

However, I disagree that it's not a free-speech issue:

*Most of the major American movie chains refused to screen the movie out of fear of extralegal violence, be it a threat of 9/11-esque violence (which might inspired some homegrown moron to attack a theater--I doubt there are North Korean commandos running around) or the more probable danger of hacking. The Sony hack crippled its electronic infrastructure--hacking isn't just a matter of embarrassment (racist Sony e-mails, nude pictures) but a real threat to one's business.

*For a time it seemed like Sony was going to bury the movie completely--they initially said there were "no plans" to release it on Video On Demand or DVD. Had that happened, the North Koreans would have straight-up silenced a critic well outside of their territory. It'd be like agents of the Nazi regime coming into the U.S. and waging a terror campaign to get United Artists to shelve The Great Dictator.

*An adaptation of the graphic novel Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea that might feature Steve Carrell had the plug pulled on it in the middle of development.

*When a Texas theater chain decided to air Team America World Police in place of The Interview to show it would not be intimidated by North Korean threats, Paramount Pictures prevented them from screening the movie.

*The Associated Press theorized that the attack on Sony would deter Hollywood from making films featuring overseas villains.

These electronic attacks and threats of physical violence have unleashed a massive "chilling effect." People are being intimidated from speaking their minds, producing art, etc. by either a foreign regime, a private entity (a hacker gang trying to sound scarier than it really is), or a combination of the two (a hacker gang working for North Korea). Chuck Wendig explains it very well.

Zaid repeatedly referred to The Interview as a crappy movie. That's purely a subjective matter--I've loved movies like Skyline that had horrible RottenTomatoes ratings and disliked movies like Get Him to the Greek that had much better ratings. RT currently gives The Interview a 48% and a kind of middling critical consensus. I could easily imagine the movie being crap--I didn't really enjoy Wedding Crashers and I disliked Get Him To The Greek so much I turned off the movie 15 minutes in and returned it.

However, just because a movie is crap doesn't mean it isn't worth defending. I read parts of The Satanic Verses and didn't really understand or enjoy it, but that doesn't mean Salman Rushdie should have been left to the tender mercies of the Ayatollah Khomeini and goons inspired by him.

Furthermore, free speech is something that should be extended as broadly as possible to the most unpopular people to make sure everybody is protected.

For example, Hustler magazine is incredibly tasteless, vile, and sexist. It ran an ad depicting Jerry Falwell confessing to incest with his mother, it mocks female politicians by depicting them in sexual situations, one magazine cover featured a woman in a meat grinder, and apparently it had some kind of spread depicting a pornographic version of a concentration camp. Even if you don't have a moral objection to pornography, Hustler is garbage.

However, so long as Hustler's right to free speech, however vile, is protected, more prosaic incidents of artistic nudity (and I mean legitimate art) are in significantly less danger from Moral Guardians on the right (artistic nudity is sinful and immodest, and according to the Calvinists undermines the gospel) or on the left (artistic nudity is exploitation of women). And if history is anything to go by, these groups will impose censorship if they could. This applies to both social conservatives and social liberals.

The same goes for "hate speech." As long as the speech of definitely hateful people like the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, etc. is protected, you won't have the kind of censorship of far more innocent things that "hate speech" laws in France, India, Poland, Britain, etc. have led to.

To quote A Man for All Seasons, I'd give the Devil the benefit of the law for my own safety's sake.

So I will be seeing The Interview as a matter of principle. If the movie sucks, so be it. If I'm giving money to a company that's too inept to protect its employees and customers, so be it. This is about taking a stand against appeasement and threats of violence, in defense of artistic freedom against crude coercion.

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