Voltaire, who famously wrote in 1770, “I detest what you write, but would give my life to make it possible for you to continue,” never met Seth Rogen. Today the French philosopher might yearn to tweak that a bit.
The centuries-long struggle to fortify free expression, particularly in recent decades, is packed with examples of brave people with enlightened minds and patriotic souls defending speech wholly repugnant to them and most other people. To exist for anyone, freedom must exist for everyone. Pornographic, homophobic, profane expression must qualify, no less than prayer and epic poetry, for reasonable protection.
And that’s why the nation faces the prospect of going to war – cyber or conventional – to defend Sony Pictures’ trashy, juvenile “comedy” described by one reviewer as “weepy bromance, gross-out humor, gratuitous female nudity and intimations of homosexuality.” Titled “The Interview,” it never rises above slapstick to satire, an advance that perhaps could give it a gram of social value.
Co-starring and co-directed by Rogen, it’s about – and graphically depicts – an American-planned assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, so it’s no surprise that leaders of that medieval and humorless theocracy launched a cyberattack. Hackers vacuumed Sony’s poorly protected database, posted enough online to get Sony’s attention, and threatened to blow up theaters showing it.
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This series of events, wholly avoidable if Sony’s leaders had been even minimally sensitive to their responsibilities in a wired global environment, has generated issues far more troubling than whether another junk movie opens.
▪ Doesn’t North Korea’s success encourage the use of cyberextortion against more serious and useful speech? Of course. So producers of expression as well as consumers of it must learn to distinguish necessary and responsible speech from the exploitative and banal and accept the necessity of defending the former and discouraging the latter. That’s not self-censorship; it’s the exercise of mature judgment. If the prospect of more attacks chills some entertainment companies that aggressively explore the outer boundaries of free speech purely for profit, that’s not all bad for our society.
▪ Doesn’t the First Amendment protect us? Freedom of speech has never been free; it carries consequences. Our Constitution only ensures that our government cannot prevent or punish protected speech; people – or other governments – can and often do choose to punish it. The necessity of free expression for any democratic society far predates our Constitution, which codified principles from centuries of Enlightenment philosophy and experience.
▪ Aren’t Sony and the U.S. innocent victims? Apparently not. Among the e-mails scooped up but little reported, according to the Daily Beast website, was an exchange involving Sony’s CEO, a Rand Corp. analyst and a high State Department official about how the film could “start some real thinking” in North and South Korea about “removal of the Kim family regime.” That may have been Hollywood-mogul-to-Rand-analyst-self-important bluster, but many other nations’ leaders who distrust us would find it threatening.
▪ Aren’t our freedoms threatened by an escalating cyberwar? Yes. Global cyberwar is hardly new and is both unavoidable and unwinnable; stalemate is the best outcome available, and that requires hardened, dispersed and costly data defenses. That’s the national mission that we must emphasize, not just incremental payback for Sony.
And all this because of a pile of greed-driven rubbish. But we must.
Davis Merritt, a Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.