As a comedian, one of the few social issues that really gets me fired up is censorship. I am of the firm belief that telling people what they can and can’t say and to whom is precisely how marginalization begins, and I’m stunned and disappointed at how many of my “open minded” acquaintances have endorsed censorship in the name of progressiveness, or even worse, in the name of a lame joke (“The Interview was gonna suck anyway so who cares? Hardy har har!”)
At its most basic, the Sony hacking is a very successful terrorist attack. Using threats of violence and embarrassment, an anonymous entity has capitalized on America’s fetish for fear-based decisions and managed to dictate (yes, dictate) our freedom to consume art as we please. The counterpoint I always hear is “uhhh, it’s just a movie.” No. No it is not. Let’s be clear: I can live and die having never seen The Interview (although I really would like to), but this is bigger than that. By giving in to one bully, we now must give any and all threats, even the most baseless, serious consideration. Given our culture’s propensity toward fear, and our inclination to shirk personal responsibility, this will mean more and more fear-based decisions made under the pretext of “better safe than sorry.” Make no bones about it, that concept is indeed an illusion.
I think we all need a refresher course in why the slope of censorship is a slippery one, and why it’s worth fighting against. And since I’m probably not eloquent enough to incite the proper emotion, I’ll let these three movies do the talking.
South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999 – dir. Trey Parker)
Trey Parker and Matt Stone have always been warriors for freedom of expression, and have devoted multiple episodes of their show to the idea of “either everything is ok, or nothing is,” and they couldn’t be more right. Perhaps the most literal entry on this list, “Bigger, Longer, and Uncut” is a wonderful examination of the dangers of using one’s power to dictate (yes, dictate) the actions of others based on one’s own comfort level.
Lesson: Constantly pushing the line of decency forward will inevitably result in everyone crossing it.
Good Night, and Good Luck (2005 – dir. George Clooney)
George Clooney’s second directorial effort tells the story of Journalist/TV Host Edward R. Murrow who, despite corporate pressure, has made it a point to criticize Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt in the early 1950’s. As threats against Murrow’s livelihood mount against him, he remains unflappable, and urges the public to question everything, to fight for fact-based journalism, and not to eschew the potential of television as a medium for dispensing truth. It’s no wonder that George Clooney has been so vocal in the days since the Sony hack.
Lesson: There will always be enemies to free speech, and they will win unless resisted.
The Aristocrats (2005 – dir. Paul Provenza)
This documentary, a study of a single filthy joke told hundreds of ways, says more about the evils of censorship than any movie of recent memory. No, it doesn’t expressly condemn censorship (and if memory serves, I don’t think it even mentions it) but it does show the magic that can happen with the free exchange of ideas, no matter how offensive. The joke at the heart of The Aristocrats is purposefully crass, the titular punchline functioning as the metaphorical rug that gets pulled. The whole point of telling a version of this joke is to be as blatantly crude as possible, a device which, if this movie is to be believed (and it is), opens a discussion between minds, and even goes so far as to tell us a little about the person telling the joke, a truly progressive exchange which would have been immediately stifled had some baby-eared whelp with some semblance of power decided the content was too much to bear.
Lesson: Even the most offensive or immature ideas are worthy of discussion, and those discussions can lead to an understanding that wouldn’t be gained otherwise.
With freedom of expression comes the freedom to ignore and dismiss things that one finds disagreeable, but not the freedom to silence dissent. When people in power are able to dictate (yes, dictate) the voice of dissent, the option to freely speak and the choice to listen can no longer exist … and that’s how bland, unoriginal, and thematically empty art is made. That’s how people and groups become marginalized. That’s how freedom dies. The whole “The Interview was gonna suck anyway” joke is a prime example of bland, unoriginal, thematically empty art; and while you have every right to say it, I have every right to contest it … while that’s still an option.
I sincerely hope that you and yours have a wonderful holiday, whichever ones you celebrate. Stay safe, stay warm, and if you can find the time, go see a movie!
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.