Opinion: Protecting free speech does not mean all speech is right

Opinion: Protecting free speech does not mean all speech is right

Sony’s decision to release the satirical film “The Interview” over Christmas was hailed by many in America as a victory of freedom. “Freedom has prevailed!” Seth Rogen, one of the film’s stars, declared on Twitter. Two weeks later the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, known for their unapologetic political incorrectness, were savagely attacked by two gunmen who left 12 victims dead.

Charlie Hebdo’s murdered writers and cartoonists were almost universally hailed by the West as heroes, the guardians of secular democratic values who refused to keel into self-censorship.

Satire is very dear to my heart. I, along with two friends, run a popular satirical Facebook page here called The Calvin Chives. At its best, satire has the ability to ridicule wrongs and expose injustice in a way that is accessible and constructive. Satire is subversive in its very nature.

Hitler was known to be sent into foaming fits of rage when he saw cartoon caricatures of himself. In Soviet Russia, political jokes were punishable by death. Satire can be a biting tool of dissidence for oppressed people — a peaceful and powerful alternative to the gun. It is also often very funny.

Likewise, I am an advocate for free speech. Free speech matters because it keeps power accountable and democracies constantly progressing. The ability to speak your mind is an inalienable human right. Free speech means that all voices can contribute to a society and all voices can question current systems of power.

When we start putting any parameters on speech it not only impedes progress but also undermines the very values secular democracies are founded on. Defending free speech will always be a worthy cause, and satirizing violent extremists and evil dictatorships may seem harmless, if not morally defensible.

However, “The Interview,” which was poorly received by critics, is not an example of constructive satire. This is despite Rogen’s insistence that his film could somehow bring positive change to North Korea.

There is nothing funny about taking the plight of millions of people – who suffer famine, concentration camps and a daily denial of their humanity– and making it the background of a Hollywood production for the pockets of two young American millionaires.

I am confident that “The Interview,” despite being a topical satire, didn’t persuade many to donate to organizations helping North Korean refugees. To hail the screenings of “The Interview” as an act of bravery, as many have lauded it, is misleading.

In North Korea, making a joke about the ruling family could send you and your family to a gulag. Screening a movie about a despot on the other side of the world should not be seen as brave. Surviving underneath one, however, should.

The real offensiveness of “The Interview” is not that it makes fun of a vile dictator. Its offensiveness is that that it glazes over the North Koreans’ suffering and turns it into a punch line. There is no mention of America’s history of military intervention in the peninsula or the human suffering of the North Korean people. It instead relies on old racist stereotypes for cheap gags.

“The Interview” is not a clever attempt to educate people about North Korea or an exercise in “freedom,” but an act of colonization that profits off Orientalizing a foreign culture. An equally crass satire about the “strangeness” of the Islamic State or the “weirdness” of women trafficking would not be digested so readily.

For similar reasons, I fail to see the merit in Charlie Hebdo’s deliberate enticement of people’s sensitivities. Charlie Hebdo purposely used inflammatory imagery — the Holy Trinity engaging in an orgy, racist caricatures of minorities and nude depictions of the Prophet Muhammad — to push the boundaries of what was deemed acceptable.

As the media has seemed to have quickly forgotten, the vast majority of these cartoons were tactless and designed specifically to offend. If Charlie Hebdo were published in America, it could very well be classified as hate speech.

I am not convinced that Charlie Hebdo’s confrontational satire actually achieved much, other than demonstrating their genuine bravery in defense of free speech. There is nothing biting or valuable about a cheap racist jab.

There was no purpose in engaging in what Muslims consider blasphemy other than to say that they could. And while you could argue that it served to ridicule the very extremists who eventually killed Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists, that would mean that the world’s 1.6 billion other Muslims are simply collateral damage.

For all their controversy and courage, Charlie Hebdo only seemed to be further galvanizing an already oppressed minority. This was in a famously xenophobic country where the public display of burqas has been banned and where Muslims are greatly discriminated against.

The freedom of speech allows us to say stupid and hateful things without legal consequence, and for the larger sake of our secular democracies, we are obligated to defend that. But that doesn’t make it right or beneficial.

Of course, magazines such as Charlie Hebdo and films like “The Interview” only exist because people are willing to consume them without discernment. For every badly made or tasteless film are cinemas full of ticket-payers. And for every magazine cover that aims to hurt a particular people group is a thriving market of callous readers.

We should not say that Charlie Hebdo or Sony Pictures had it coming for them as a result of the content of their speech: to say so would endorse the heinous crimes committed by their attackers and mitigate the attackers’ responsibility.

Sony Pictures did not deserve criminal intimidation and the victims at Charlie Hebdo certainty did not deserve senseless violence. All attacks on freedom of speech are unjustifiable and unfit for a thinking society, and the fault should always lie completely with the aggressor.

However, let’s have a more nuanced perspective when we defend the freedom of speech. It is not a binary, an either/or matter. We can call out “The Interview” and Charlie Hebdo for being insensitive and immoral without condoning attacks on our liberties.

And we can condemn the massacre at Charlie Hebdo and mourn its victims without adopting the magazine’s Islamophobia. We are able to do this for the same reasons that Christians can deem pornography immoral but not call for its censorship.

So should a comedy about an active genocide be banned? And should a xenophobic publication be taken off the shelves? Well, I suppose not in principle. However, such works of satire should not be consumed so readily in the first place.

And if we are to anger those who wield violence to silence their critics, we may as well create something constructive and meaningful in the process. The solution here is not censorship: the solution is better satire