The North Korean attack on SONY raised the issue of America’s vaunted “freedom of expression” to dizzying heights as the company withdrew the offending film. There is intense concern over yielding to this cyber-attack because that would encourage other attacks, and they could become more frequent and damaging. If a backward nation like N. Korea can bring down a major corporation, we are in new territory of “cyber-feedback” where angered leaders can impose damage on enemies at will.
While it may be reasonable for Americans to see this as an assault on basic freedoms, it can appear very different from a broader perspective. At the symbolic level where we all impute meaning, the offending movie is seen as a poke in the eye of N. Korea. Yes, the movie’s criticism may be valid, and comedy has always been used to promote change. But that’s not how N. Koreans see it, and the result is to provoke conflict.
Americans have a habit of speaking truth to power, and our independence is the source of robust creativity and enterprise. But we often overdo it badly. When Westerners mock the Prophet Mohammed, for instance, this incites violence among Muslims around the globe. If we really want to insist on total freedom of expression, we should also expect a lot more retaliatory violence.
From this broader perspective, America seems more like a rowdy teenager than a global colossus. Issuing offensive media in an increasingly emotional and connected world looks not too different from the way teens attack one another on Facebook. What’s worse, those who favor showing the offending movie are like parents who tell their child it’s OK to continue the eye poking.
Americans face a tough choice. If we continue pushing the freedom to say anything, regardless of how hurtful it may be, we should not be surprised if people fight back. Or we could temper our indulgence in being candid to avoid provoking conflict, and become a little more mature. After all, most adults usually withhold gratuitous insults simply because they want to avoid confrontations.