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Hollywood and freedom of speech

If freedom of speech wasn’t already just about the most hot-button issue of our time, stories that have dominated the news cycle over the last month or so – from Charlie Hebdo to Peter Greste – suggest that it was at least quick off the blocks in its campaign for the title of Hottest Potato 2015.

Now it’s also the fraught subject of three films coming out all at once: Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’ documentary on Edward Snowden; the screwball comedy The Interview, in which James Franco and Seth Rogen play journalists tasked with assassinating Kim Jong-un; and Rosewater, Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, which tells the story of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, who was held and tortured by the Iranian government for 118 days for his coverage of the controversial 2009 presidential election.

If these three wildly different films have anything in common, it may be the way they romp back and forth across the ever-porous border between fact and fiction. Watching Citizenfour is a disorienting experience primarily because it is a documentary – but one that plays like a mash-up of every political thriller to have breached our collective consciousness over the last couple of decades. Both Snowden and the journalists interviewing him seem acutely conscious of these blurred lines; the film could almost be subtitled “How some conversations are impossible to have without talking like you’re in a movie”.

For many, Snowden’s revelations to Poitras in 2013 about the far-reaching and highly illegal surveillance activities of his employer, the NSA, felt almost like a non-story simply because (thanks to a thousand sinister TV and film incarnations of the US government), well, we all kind of assumed they were doing that sort of thing anyway, didn’t we? The constant sense of filmic déjà vu you get watching Citizenfour means that you can’t help but expect, at least every fifteen minutes or so, that somebody is going to be shot by a sniper, or run off the road, or otherwise eliminated by one or another all-seeing, ruthless, and supremely competent American security agency. That’s just what happens next, right? I’ve seen this one.

The Interview, on the other hand, is bawdy, crackpot, rollicking fiction that’s been making some serious forays into real-world politics – presumably the highest concentration of poo jokes and juvenile sexual innuendo ever to have caused (or nearly) an international incident. When the film’s release was announced in mid-last year, North Korean officials condemned it as a “blatant act of terrorism and war”, and threatened a “resolute and merciless” response against the US if the release went ahead. In the kind of kooky rhetoric we’ve come to expect from the eccentric dictatorship, the regime claimed that Obama himself was responsible for “forcing” Sony to distribute the film, declaring that the US President “always goes reckless in words and deeds like a monkey in a tropical forest”.

Comedy is also a surprisingly dominant thread in the more serious Rosewater. In a way, really, this shouldn’t come as a surprise; it is written and directed by Jon Stewart, after all, and one of its underlying assumptions is that humour makes for a piercing, versatile weapon against heavy-handed attempts to silence and control. Rosewater somehow manages to maintain a levity and hopefulness that doesn’t betray the appalling reality of Bahari’s experience – and that makes this an unflaggingly enjoyable film to watch.

Being basically three films about journalists and journalism, it’s to be expected that they make a strong case for the cherished principle of freedom of speech – and for the power of truth-telling to (as in The Interview) “start a revolution”.

And yet … as important as it may be for the West to keep rehearsing the dystopian outcomes of repressing people’s right to speak – a kind of safeguard against complacency – these films do have a preaching-to-the-choir feel to them. Of course we’re all passionately behind free speech when the alternative is the police state; but what about the more subtle and tangled guises in which the challenge presents itself in our own societies?

… if left to our own devices, we’re bad at disagreeing well. Like, stunningly bad at it.

The sentiment attributed to Voltaire, “I disagree with (or disapprove of, or despise) what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, is as quotable as ever, but who among us can think of a legitimate case (outside the narrow spectrum of our middle-left/right politics, perhaps) in which we actually mean it? Many of us heartily applauded when pick-up artist Julien Blanc’s visa was revoked last November, or when anti-vaxxer Sherri Tenpenny’s planned tour of Australia was recently cancelled. It’s certainly easy to despise their messages, to make a case that they’re dangerous to the kind of community we want to live in. But who decides which ideas are “good” dangerous (à la Festival of Dangerous Ideas), and which ones are just plain dangerous? Isn’t the idea of freedom of speech that we fight those messages with our own, rather than doing our best to make sure people can’t hear them?

It’s difficult even to perceive the asymmetry of freedom-of-speech discussions – the way that, when we strongly disagree with someone, suddenly the debate stops being about free speech and starts being framed in terms of public safety, or mental health, or keeping the peace – unless you personally hold some view held to be despicable by mainstream culture. Only then does it become apparent what a chill wind blows on the outskirts of public opinion.

Surely the point of freedom of speech is that humans are in many ways bad at truth, and bad at empathy. History (and the internet) furnish us with superabundant evidence that, if left to our own devices and our native sense of justice, we’re bad at disagreeing well. Like, stunningly bad at it. We need an incredibly robust principle of free speech because we can’t be trusted to be impartial when it comes to people we really, really think are wrong.

Yes, it’s a monumentally complex issue. No, it’s not an absolute right; some limits are good and necessary. But loss of privacy and the persecution of journalists by despotic regimes are not the only threats to free, open discussion today. The rising culture of political correctness, micro-aggressions and trigger warningspublic shaming, and shouting down those we disagree with, also offers plenty of material for satire. CitizenfourRosewater, and The Interview all showcase in some way the glories of free speech; but a courageous take on its intrinsic goodness within our own, less extreme contexts – that may be the film about freedom of speech that we really need to see.

Dr Natasha Moore is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. She has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge.

This article first appeared at On Line Opinion.