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Monday, December 22, 2014

Sony and the Interview

I'm simply baffled by why anyone -- least of all Barack Obama -- expects Sony to stand up for the "free speech" and go forward with "The Interview."  Sony is a corporation, and not even a U.S. corporation at that.  They will wrap themselves up in the first amendment if it suits their bottom line, but they have no independent desire to stand up for free speech.  In this case, theater owners were refusing to screen the film because of very believable threats of violence.  Yes, it's unfortunate that a country like North Korea can prevent us from laughing at them in the movies, but on the "free speech"/censorship scale, that's not that big a deal.  The first amendment is merely a limit -- and one fiercely enforced by the Supreme Court at that -- on what our government can do to suppress our speech.  Whether or not a given individual thinks that it's a good idea to exercise the "free speech" right in a particular way, time, or place is up to that individual.

What if the movie theaters had stayed open, but nobody had come?  Would the citizens be blamed for not standing up for their rights to go to the movies?

I may be rambling here, but this just doesn't make any sense.  Again, Sony is a corporation.  All we ever want from corporations is that they do what they can to make a profit.  That's why we have corporations that aggressively pollute or hide their pollution, corporations that abuse the animals we use for food, corporations that knowingly sell unsafe products that are too dangerous to recall, corporations that fight against climate change legislation, corporations that charge exorbitant interest rates, corporations that overcharge for pharmaceuticals, healthcare, insurance, you name it.   The theory underlying capitalism is that if they overcharge too much, someone else will come in and charge less.  It doesn't always work that way, but that's the basic theory.  And it's against that background that Sony makes decisions about whether or not to screen a particular movie.  It's not about vindicating our right not to be censored.

If the threats against Sony were secret, and it was not likely to be known that Sony knew about them, then perhaps Sony would have allowed the movie to be shown.  But here, there were threats that everybody knew about, and some people even believed.  There was a real possibility -- unquantifiable, but nevertheless real -- that a certain number of people -- maybe even a whole theater full, maybe several theaters-full -- would die as a result of Sony's decision.  If that had happened, Sony would have been sued out the wazoo, or not?

Don't feel sorry for Sony.  One way or another, the Interview is going to get out, and people are going to pay to watch it, and Sony is going to make a lot of money.  Probably more than they would have made without all the free publicity that they've now gotten.

Now about the first amendment generally:  The idea that it's some kind of absolute "right" that is essential to our democracy is what makes campaign finance reform so difficult.  See Citizens United. Maybe the "Interview" situation will cause us to start thinking about the first amendment on a case-by-case basis, instead of insisting that it is the most important precept of our democracy.

Update:  I saw the movie on Youtube over Christmas.  Not very good cinematically, although overall, one could say that it contained a serious message about the problems in North Korea.  Watching it made me think about self-censorship just a little bit more.  There is much in the movies today that simply would not have appeared in a movie in the "old days" (back when all films were essentially rated G), or even in the slightly less-old days (when the vast majority of movies for public consumption were still rated PG, not R).  That was self-censorship by the film industry - through the Motion Picture Code, which was in force from about 1930 to 1968.  I'm not sure that it was a bad thing.  And it didn't prevent the industry from taking on challenging topics, like the rise of Hitler in Europe.

In other words, there is doubtless "good" speech to be made that would would work to help people understand how certain sects have twisted the Muslim faith in order to justify senseless violence against non-believers.  But the "goodness" and value of the speech gets a lot blurrier when the speech itself indiscriminately offends all Muslims.  See my recent post the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

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