Of course it had to escalate this way. We live in a time of consistent gutlessness on the part of institutions notionally committed to free speech and intellectual diversity, a time of cancelled commencement invitations and CEOs defenestrated for their political donations, a time of Twitter mobs and cringing public apologies. A time when journalists and publishers tiptoe around Islamic fundamentalism, when free speech is under increasing pressure on both sides of the Atlantic, when a hypersensitive political correctness has the whip hand on many college campuses.
So why should anyone be remotely surprised that Kim Jong Un decided to get in on the “don’t offend me” act?
The North Korean regime is arguably more evil than any other present-day dictatorship, its apparent hack of Sony Pictures is a deadly serious act of cyberterrorism, and the response by Sony — the outright withdrawal, after theatre chains balked at showing it, of the offending comedy, The Interview, in which the North Korean dictator is blown to smithereens — sets a uniquely terrible precedent.
It’s terrible for cinema, since the film industry, already wary of any controversy that might make its blockbusters hard to sell in Asia, will no doubt retreat even further into the safety of superhero franchises. More important, it’s terrible for any future institution or individual hacked or blackmailed by groups seeking similar concessions.
So the Sony affair is more serious than many other debates about speech and power in the West right now. But the difference is still one of magnitude, not kind.
After all, the basic strategy employed by the apparently North Korean-backed hackers is the same one employed for years by Islamic extremists against novelists and newspapers and TV shows that dare to portray the Prophet Muhammad in a negative light (or in any light at all). And the weak response from Hollywood, where the town’s movers and shakers proved unwilling to even sign a George Clooney-organised public petition pledging solidarity against the hackers, isn’t so very different from the self-censorship by networks and publishers that have fallen afoul of Islamist sensitivities over the years.
Moreover, the demand that The Interview be withdrawn because it treats North Korea disrespectfully isn’t all that different from the arguments behind the various speech codes that have proliferated in Europe and Canada of late, exposing people to fines and prosecution for speaking too critically about the religions, cultures and sexual identities of others.
Nor is it all that different from the arguments used in the US to justify cancelling an increasing number of commencement speakers — including Condoleezza Rice and Christine Lagarde — when some hothouse campus activists decided they couldn’t bear to sit and hear them. Or the mentality that forced out the CEO and co-founder of Mozilla, Brendan Eich, when it was revealed that he had once donated money to a ballot initiative that opposed same-sex marriage. Or the free-floating, shape-shifting outrage that now pervades the Internet, always looking for some offensive or un-PC remark to fasten on and furiously attack.
The common thread in all these cases is a belief that the most important power is the power to silence, and that the perfect community is one in which nothing uncongenial to your own worldview is ever tweeted, stated, supported or screened. And the other common thread is the pathetic response from the cultural entities that are supposedly most invested in free speech — universities, Internet companies, the press and the film industry, all of which seem disinclined to risk much on behalf of the ideals they officially cherish.
As a conservative, you take for granted that these institutions are often political monocultures — that the average commencement speaker, like the average academic, will be several degrees left of centre, that Silicon Valley isn’t the most hospitable place to be a religious conservative, that when Hollywood gets “edgy” or “controversial” it’s usually a right-wing ox that’s being gored.
But it would be far easier to live with this predictable liberalism if these institutions weren’t so quick to knuckle under to illiberalism in all its varied forms.
“We cannot have a society,” President Barack Obama said last Friday, when asked about the Sony hack, “where some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States.”
In theory, that’s right. But in practice, Kim Jong Un has our culture’s number: Letting angry people impose a little censorship is just the way we live right now.
Coomi Kapoor’s Inside Track will be back in January