The murders of Charlie Hebdo staff and the police who were assigned to protect them come shortly after the kerfuffle over “The Interview” subsided here in the United States. In that case, prominent theater chains declined to screen a satirical (and very silly) movie about reporters (James Franco and Seth Rogen) who were asked by the CIA to try to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (Randall Park) after hackers made vague but grandiose threats against showings of the film. The attack on Charlie Hebdo and its writers is a striking reminder that threats against artists and journalists are not abstractions. And the awkward handling of “The Interview” here in the United States is an illustration of how ill-prepared we are to handle them.
Both “The Interview” and Charlie Hebdo’s publishing on Islam are provocations, rather than immortal works of art. But someone has to define the boundaries of speech in a free society, and it’s not always the people with the best taste and the greatest talent who feel driven to poke at the margins, seeing how far they’ll stretch. You can dislike Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons or the profound silliness of “The Interview” and still feel that the artists in question are doing a service to the community of which they are a part.
The responses in both France and the United States to threats against Charlie Hebdo and “The Interview” illustrate the conflicts in both societies over what resources it makes sense to commit to freedom of speech.
As Julian Borger and Anne Penketh report in the Guardian this morning, after Charlie Hebdo’s editors decided to run more cartoons in the wake of the firebombing, a hacking and a series of death threats, “The French government had appealed to the editors not to go ahead with publication, and shut down embassies, cultural centres and schools in 20 countries out of fear of reprisals when they went ahead anyway. Riot police were also deployed to the Charlie Hebdo offices to protect it from direct attacks.”
French officials may have disapproved of Charlie Hebdo’s exercise of the publication’s free speech rights, but the government defended the magazine anyway. Today, two public servants died in defense of those rights.
With “The Interview,” President Obama faced a somewhat more complicated situation: a private company (Sony) had produced a provocation, but its commercial partners (the movie theaters that were afraid to screen the movie) were making it difficult for Sony to get that provocation in front of audiences. “I’m sympathetic that Sony as a private company was worried about liabilities, and this and that and the other. I wish they had spoken to me first. I would have told them, do not get into a pattern in which you’re intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks,” Obama said in his year-end press conference. It was a statement that inadvertently raised the question of why the administration hadn’t proactively reached out to theater chains to buck them up and suggest that they had some civic responsibility to do a sober assessment of the threats and to proceed with some reasonable precautions.
These are difficult equations of governance and freedom; how to express respect for the beliefs of others without sanctioning attacks on those who offend those beliefs; how to exhort private individuals and companies to courage while also protecting anyone who might suffer as a result of their actions.
And as we experiment with our calculations, we reach different and unpredictable results. In the United States, “The Interview” has inadvertently become an advertisement for a new model of movie development, netting $31 million in online sales and rental fees. It’s as much a lesson about commerce as about courage. But in France, at least twelve people are dead.
In the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the hack of Sony Pictures, we see the costs of making provocative art and protecting the people who make and distribute it. But we shouldn’t let these consequences blind us to the very high price we would pay for backing away from such a defense: a grayer, duller, smaller society, in which much milder challenges to orthodoxy and taste are met with ugliness and violence.