In a year that has been marked by faux outrage and offence-taking, the North Koreans may have won the crown for the biggest overreaction of 2014. Next week was supposed to see the release of the Seth Rogen/James Franco film The Interview, about a plot to assassinate the Democratic Republic’s spirited young dictator Kim Jong-un. However, and to the astonishment of many, a cyberattack carried out by supporters of the dictatorship against Sony Pictures and threats to cinemas planning to show the film has led the company to withdraw it.
As Binyamin Appelbaum of the New York Times wrote this week:
We’ve just experienced the most successful terrorist attack on the United States since 9/11. Has any politician said anything about it?
— Binyamin Appelbaum (@BCAppelbaum) December 17, 2014
That might not be an exaggeration, for such is the chilling effect of the attack that other projects about North Korea have been shelved.
That’s the real danger with threats; terrorise one person and 10,000 will fall into line. Following the Salman Rushdie and Mohammed cartoon sagas Britain has de facto censorship laws protecting Islam from the same mockery that other religions must put up with; it takes huge, almost suicidal bravery to take on such taboos, and most people aren’t suicidally brave.
And it’s much harder for this small group of very courageous people when they don’t get support from the wider society; yesterday’s response to the Sony capitulation was one of unreserved contempt, with condemnations from across Hollywood and politics. But a precedent was set with the Mohammed cartoons when Western politicians almost universally condemned the blasphemers for lacking ‘respect’ for Islam. As with the Innocence of Muslims film fiasco, that sent a key clear signal to the rest of the world that the West is not prepared to stand up for its freedoms.
Ross Douthat made a point on Twitter summing up the problem faced by a post modern West:
Decadence, n. Reveling in coarseness/transgression right up until it requires some risk, at which point, swiftly self-censoring.
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) December 17, 2014
I wonder if Mr Douthat noticed the ‘face-sitting protest’ held last Friday in Westminster in which a number of people mimicked certain sexual practices to protest about government restrictions on some kinds of pornography. To me and a few other weirdos stuck in the Edwardian era the whole thing showed a society in the depths of decadence; to compare 21st century Britain to Weimar Germany would be an insult to the latter, which actually produced a lot of good art and had a world-beating education system (neither of which could be said of my country today).
The quantity and quality of taboo-breaking or transgressive behaviour in society and in particular its art will depend on the risks involved to the individuals, compared to the rewards; expletives and sexual crudeness generally have proliferated in theatre, film and television because there is very low risk attached to including them, and great benefits.
Sexual swearwords are popular with scriptwriters because liberals are brave about tackling the taboos and power structures of 50 years ago, and these were shocking in, say, 1963. The same goes for the political taboos of the age; you’re more likely to see a play in the West End about racial injustice in the old Deep South than a play about the more relevant but far, far more sensitive issue of sexual grooming scandal in Rotherham.
It’s easy to behave in a way that provokes or shocks when you’re up against people who have your best interests at heart, or don’t want to harm you. Staging a topless protest inside a church is risk-free because the Catholic Church is essentially pacifist and conservative Catholics do not physically harm people who offend them.
More generally in democracies people who wish to liberalise social mores are basically teenagers protesting against their old-fashioned but benevolent parents; they’re good at winning these sorts of arguments, but faced with outside forces who don’t have their best interests at heart, and will resort to violence if necessary, they crumble. This was the shock that hit England in 1989 with the Satantic Verses affair; 26 years after the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial essentially removed all censorship and opened up the permissive society, the country’s establishment realised it was up against people who didn’t care about western ideas of freedom. A quarter of a century later, it is still in denial about this problem.
North Korea, likewise, doesn’t see history as an inevitable march towards liberal democracy. This week it’s won, but what’s disturbing about Sony’s decision is not North Korea, a weak if dangerous country, but its main ally, China. If America capitulates so easy to the one, how likely is it that it will stand up to an authoritarian state that will soon have the largest economy on earth?