A Matter of Respect, Not of Freedom

Published 7:24 pm Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A few weeks ago, we learned that Sony Pictures had been hacked and that much proprietary information had been leaked to the public, causing embarrassment and the loss of millions of dollars to the company.

The culprits apparently were North Koreans who were reacting to Sony’s upcoming movie, “The Interview,” which depicted the assassination of their president, Kim Jung Un.

Some time later, we got the news that 12 people at the offices of a French magazine publisher had been killed by Islamic terrorists. The assassinations of these people were in response to an issue of the magazine “Charlie Hebdo” that showed a cartoon depiction of the prophet Mohammed.

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Both cases resulted in a public response that mostly centered upon the freedoms of speech and of the press that we and most free nations around the world enjoy. The argument is that since we have those freedoms, we can say, write, and publish anything we want to.

The problem with this logic is that even though we can speak freely, we can’t assume there will not be consequences if we do. This is where Sony Pictures went wrong.

North Korea’s Kim Jung Un is an attractive target for satire. He is the leader of a rogue country, is armed with nuclear weapons, suppresses his own people, and is totally unpredictable. Sony assumed it could safely pick on Kim Jun Un in a whimsical movie, without consequences. They were surprised when they found that they couldn’t.

Sony Pictures reminds me of the schoolyard bully who picks a fight with the wrong little guy and gets his own nose bloodied. He runs home crying to Mama. I have no sympathy for Sony.

The “Charlie Hebdo” case is similar but carries much deeper consequences. It is a magazine that deals with topics in ways that are clearly outlandish. Their readers take it with a grain of salt and get the writer’s intended meaning: It is satire.

There is nothing wrong with satire. Before the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin wrote an article entitled, “Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One,” in which he used a pointed analogy to show the British the error of their ways in dealing with the colonies. As Franklin later proved, he was prepared to endure the consequences of his words.

Satire does not have to insult people in order to be effective. Political cartoons appear in newspapers every day that make political statements without being offensive. “Charlie Hebdo,” by contrast, goes out of its way to disrespect people. It is a good example of using freedom of the press without regard for consequences.

It is no secret that Muslims are particularly sensitive about cartoon depictions of Mohammed. There have been many incidents in the news where Muslims, not just Muslim extremists, took offense to such actions.

The consequence is the anger that has been stirred between the people of primarily Christian western countries and those of primarily Islamic eastern countries. This was triggered by “Charlie Hebdo’s” lack of respect for Islam. I’m afraid it is perpetuated by the natural tendency we have to look down upon others who are different from us.

I like to think that all people are worthy of respect, at least until they prove that they aren’t. The vast majority of Muslims, those who deplore the acts of the few terrorists, still deserve our respect, whether or not we agree with their religion.

I’m not suggesting that we should not express what we believe to be the truth. I’m just saying that when we do, it should be in a respectful manner. And if there are consequences, we must be prepared to accept them.

Kermit Hobbs Jr. is an accomplished Suffolk historian and businessman. Email him at khobbs5@aol.com.