There’s no clear good guy in the Sonyhack story

Not every story has a winner, or a good guy, and in my opinion the Sonyhack story (which would make for a more interesting film than The Interview) has neither. Let’s review the cast of characters.

Sony executives have been revealed as greedy, immoral, and cowardly. While it is not technically a free speech issue, since Sony was not legally compelled to pull the movie (and there are normal external forces that influence how we express ourselves on a smaller scale every day), it is still disheartening to see an American company so thoroughly manipulated. Those who point to personal cowardice on the part of Sony execs and theaters may be right in fact, but as an explanation it is incomplete.

Insurance companies and lawyers, it seems, still rule our lives, since movie theaters knew that showing the Interview in the face of the slightest indication of threat means they will not be covered by insurance, and thus would be responsible if these unsubstantiated threats actually materialized. I think this reflects an odd American trait that we are more willing to risk death than legal responsibility in the face of danger. In either case, the remedy for such a scenario is not simply more “courage”, but a system that incentivizes it, or at least doesn’t discourage it.

The American people are rightly offended at the idea of a foreign government determining how we practice our right to free speech. But let’s be very clear on the distinction between the right and the content in this case. The Interview, making fun of both a murderous head of state with no sense of humor and (I’m told) North Korean culture, with the typical millennial crass and uninformed humor over serious political realities, was a stupid movie to make.

Those who don’t believe in free speech argue by pointing to evil or offensive content. The counterargument is *not* that all speech is good, but that yes, some speech is bad, but it must still be protected in order for speech that is good and true to have a chance. This is not to say there should never be limits, only that we could stand to be a little more aware of the danger to all speech posed by imposing them (whether legal or social) too readily. The resilience of opposing views in western society is a strong argument for freedom; conversely when the other side sees us seek not to persuade but to silence our domestic opponents, they feel vindicated. Freedom takes work, and requires a sense of responsibility. When free speech is challenged, we tend to think of extreme examples, like the right of Illinois Nazis to hold a parade. (Though I think we are changing our collective minds on this; if so, we really should have the discussion outright, so we’re sure that’s what we want.) But if we ask ourselves why we so cherish free speech, I dare say it is more valuable to focus on diverse voices contributing to a shared view of reality from multiple perspectives, informing all but ultimately based on desire to get at the truth. At root, discipline, a bit of prudence, and commitment to seeking truth build the strongest defense of free speech.

Kim_Jong-Un_Sketch-croppedNorth Korea is not justified in doing what it did either, of course. I hardly need to say much about it as a player, except to note that while the details of their capacity for cyberwarfare and -espionage may have been a surprise, their overall reaction – and willingness to take some action in response – was entirely knowable, based on openly available knowledge of their culture and on past experiences. Should Sony have known this, and/or cared? I would answer that at the least, since we as Americans know that our audience is increasingly global, the right answer is not to pretend otherwise. Knowing more about the world is never a bad thing, though many Americans like to think it is. And it’s not an infringement of free speech to allow ourselves to make our own discourse a little more nuanced and informed in light of our global audience.

Then there’s the White House which, despite some conservative complaints of inaction and my own political leanings, I think comes away with the least egg on its face so far. Contemporaneous complaints that the White House has done nothing should always be interpreted as “the White House has done nothing publicly.” Being late to the game in publicly identifying North Korea is not as bad as getting it wrong if it really turns out to be Russia or China. The serious US negligence of two key areas – cybersecurity and counterintelligence – will continue to hurt and endanger us. The list of US failures in these areas is massive, and making them real priorities will take a degree of leadership that Americans on all sides thirst for, but which I fear our current process of choosing leaders is not designed to reward.

Sorry to end on a negative note, but as I warned at the outset, there are no true unblemished good guys here. That’s just the world we live in. There’s always room for improvement, even when you’re a victim.

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