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First published 14.01.2015

In recent days and weeks two events have become worldwide news: the cyber attack on Sony, and the horrific barbarity of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Both incidents were inspired by creative content that certain parties found offensive. These are not the first such incidents, and are certainly not going to be the last.

For those of us that grew up in relatively free societies that value freedom of expression, these actions seem irrational. We don’t understand how others could feel so extremely outraged by artistic expression. Don’t they understand our humanistic principles? In the US, broadly speaking - with caveats - we have freedom of speech / expression as a Constitutional Right. But every time I dissect such an issue, to find the edges, the parameters, I end up with this conclusion: Freedom of expression ends when it infringes on the rights of others. Not when it offends others. This conclusion is not unique; many developed countries have reached the same (or very similar) conclusion.

There is a huge difference. People can be offended by all kinds of things. What offends me, may not offend you, and vice-versa. So to curb expression based on the potential to offend would effectively shut down a tremendous variety of communication. That’s a wholly unreasonable standard.

Having said that, at what point does expression for the sole purpose of provocation become an accessory to violence? There are clear legal statutes (in the US) that expression for the purpose of inciting violence is not a protected form of free expression. This is a legal standard that most of society accepts and is comfortable with.

So we have some questions to ask:

- Did Sony incite violence? No. Is it being provocative? Yes, potentially, but not primarily (it’s primary goal was to entertain thereby generating revenue). Should it be free to be provocative? Yes. Would a reasonable person expect serious consequences? Not really. It’s not a serious film; it’s a comedy, a satire. Did the cyber attack teach Sony (or freedom of expression supporters) a lesson? Sure. It’s profitable and fantastic advertising to parody a dictatorial regime.

- Did Charlie Hebdo incite violence? No. Is it provocative? Yes, purposefully so. Should it be free to be provocative? Yes. Would a reasonable person expect serious consequences? Not really. Charlie Hedbo is an equal opportunity offender; no power structure is exempt from their satire. Any rational person would understand that they (or their views) are not being singled out. Did the attack teach Charlie Hedbo (or freedom of expression supporters) a lesson? Sure. Provocations highlighted the irrational power diktats of a motivated homicidal worldview, that they really are anti-freedom, and are enthusiastic about killing people whose views don’t conform to their own. The lesson may sway fence-sitters one way or another, in their opinions regarding expressive liberty.

Not all societies have pluralism, and the above ideas are not incorporated into their cultural fabric. From some cultures’ perspective, that's a value system they reject. There are many democratic principles not universally accepted. Maybe given lip service, but not adopted by all societies, or all segments of society. Which begs the question: would Charlie Hebdo survive as a publication in the bastion of free speech, the Universities of the US…? Ponder that one…

- This subject is of import to those that create content and distribute that content. Artists fall deeply into this category. It’s also of great import to those of us who prefer a society not censor, control, or dictate content.

Regarding the art-world and artistic freedom at its core, we (artists of any kind) in the US are free to make any kind of art we want. No topic or subject is really taboo. As a matter of fact, in many circumstances, the more taboo, the better…

Sony creates content to entertain. Their agenda is to generate money with their creative content. They support the idea of freedom of expression, because they want to be free to express.

Charlie Hebdo also creates content to entertain and make money with. But they have another agenda too, that goes back centuries: to provoke and mock power. Their content isn’t only the specific cartoons they express. Their more important content is the affirmation of the right to express it.

From Da Vinci to Daumier, artists have been engaged in this activity for centuries. Today we have a field separated from “fine art” whose practitioners are called editorial cartoonists. Their mandate is to provoke and mock power. Developed societies pay artists and writers to do this as a legitimate job, stimulating and entertaining millions of people. And many times, provoking outrage.

For some, the idea that a society should tolerate this sort of mockery is unfathomable. For many others it’s OK, as long as their personal favorites or institutions they support are not abused.

For others still, the creative class, the art-makers, they are generally supporters of the third option: active encouragement of provocation. It’s not the provocation itself that’s important. It’s the affirmation of the right to freely express.

By George Kozmon 

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