Free To Speak

Preface: There are some issues that truly challenge your ideals, situations that would appear to be very cut and dry upon passing consideration but that become far more thorny when you truly start to examine what you truly believe. I’ve debated with myself over the past two days about posting this; not only because it’s an ugly issue sure to potential polarize readers, but also because I’m not sure exactly where I stand on the issue. However, equivocation aside…

Over the last three days, the Middle East has become aflame with anti-American sentiment. On September 11th, protesters stormed the US Embassy in Cairo and tore down the American flag. On the same day, armed militants stormed the US Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, torching the compound and ultimately killing four American embassy workers, including US Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens. Today, the embassy in Yemen also faced a violent protest and another protest occurred in Cairo, this one more violent than the prevous one.  Experts fear this is simply the beginning of a growing trend.

With the possible exception of the suspciously well-organized militant assault on the Benghazi embassy, all of these attacks have been in response to the YouTube release of a trailer for an inflammatory movie called The Innocence of Muslims. The movie is an independent film, produced and directed by a man identifying himself as either ‘Alan Roberts’ and ‘Sam Bacile’, although both of these appear to be simply aliases and are possibly psuedonuyms for a number of Coptic Christians in Egypt as well as other parts of the Middle East. Another man, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, has admitted to being the film’s production manager. The film is touted as an exposé on Islam and depicts the Prophet Muhammad as a debauched womanizer and drunkard. Naturally, Muslims worldwide are enraged by this blasphemous representation of their spiritual leader.

So, why am I talking about this? Well, I don’t limit myself to just gaming and geek culture -I will frequently discuss political issues if they seem worthwhile – but international affairs does seem a little bit out of my wheelhouse. The reason I decided to post this is because this international crisis that America is currently experiencing involves some serious Freedom of Speech considerations. In the coming weeks, after the international crisis (hopefully) is resolved, we might be –and should be– examining the ramifications of Free Speech in our vastly interconnected world. The question of the right to free speech is also a discussion that has recently affected video gaming, especially in areas like gender equality and violence. So, I feel it’s apropos to discuss this issue given that it is a hot-button issue with gamers as well.

First off, let me state that this issue is about far more than our freedom to express ourselves; four people have died and our Middle East foreign policy is in grave jeopardy. Anything I say today is vastly overshadowed by the tragedy of these lives that were lost and the ramifications of recent events on America and the world. Secondly, I will not be blaming that loss of life on the film or the filmmaker. The militants who attacked the Cairo embassy clearly made the choices that led to these deaths, aside from the possible fact that the attack was too well planned to be a spontaneous reaction to a video that had been discovered only hours earlier. Speech of any form does have the ability to inspire and even incite, but not to control. People chose to act upon their impulses and the murderers in Cairo made their own choices.

The problem I am currently conflicted about is that while I ardently support the exercise of free speech, I also believe that this exercise must be perfomed responsibly. The Innocense of Muslims is not some controversial documentary about Islam, detailing the problem with its growing fundamentalism or the tendency of its adherents to resort to militancy. It is a propaganda piece, created by affirmed anti-Muslim Christians, seemingly for the express purpose of being inflammatory. This movie is not a corollary to Salman Rushdie‘s seminal work The Satanic Verses, which was a cricial examination of (at the time) the burgeoning growth of an increasingly radicalized Islamist faction in the Muslim community.

This movie takes a purely historical figure and attributes grossly exaggerated flaws to them that one can find no basis for in recorded history. Furthermore, the actors and crew have expressed that the director and producer lied about the intent of the film, calling it ‘an examination of desert warriors 2000 years ago’ and not disclosing his/their true intent. The producers also overdubbed much of the dialogue, changing it radically. In effect, they lied to their cast and crew and then grossly distorted the original performances to create a radically different film in tone and intent. Plus, they didn’t even have the balls to put their true names on this pile of crap and stand by their opinions. This is an incredibly nefarious exercise of free speech at best.

At worse (and in actuality), it is tantamout to trolling Muslims on 4Chan. “The Innocence of Muslims” was not created to educate or expose, it was created to incite. Unfortunately, the consequences of this trolling is not that someone behind a computer screen experiences a few minutes of nerdrage; it is that four devoted humanitarians and servants of world peace have lost their lives and the foreign policy of the United States may be grave damaged, not to mention the legions of Americans abroad who are now also in danger. This movie has no intrinsic value and serves no greater good. It exists purely as a vehicle for hate-filed rhetoric and racist bile. Now, I will defend Mr I.M Bacile’s (or whatever his real name is) right to make this movie and espouse his opinions. That is his right, but I also feel that along with this right, there comes a responsibility to exercise his rights in service of a greater truth or for a greater good and not purely to troll Muslims and spread hate-speech.

This catastrophic string of events is definitive proof of the need to express our opinions responsibly, to strive for there to be a purpose and a need for us to open our mouths or code our sites or roll our cameras and to put our visions and ideas out into the world. It is your right to create a flash game wherein you brutally beat Anita Sarkeesian for her opinions of gender in gaming (oh, yes, I will come back to that topic later. I guarantee!) but that does not make you insightful or mean that you are nobly challenging an issue. It makes you an ignorant troll. Neither the makers of the movie nor of the aforementioned flash game elevated the discussion of their respective issues; they guttered them, mistaking their right to spew filth as an obligation to spew filth.

As gamers (and more importantly, as Americans), we must be wary of endorsing or excusing individuals who cannot make that distinction. We must exercise peer review and censure.  As we have seen recently, there are consequences -usually unintended- for speaking our minds. In this case, people lost their lives. It’s not the fault of the filmmakers, but they clearly contributed something vile and negative to the envorinment that certainly did not improve the world. As gamers, we must make sure that the media we consume does not do controversial things purely for the ‘lulz‘, but rather to try and improve the medium and its potential. We must approach debates in the circumference of gaming critically and thoughtfully, hesitating to respond with venom and immaturity, because we do not exist in a vacuum.

While it’s highly unlikely that armed militants will storm BioWare Austin -although after the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy, I’d not have been surprised- because of inflammatory or controversial content, there are equally zealous and fundementalist politicians that would be more than willing to pick up that slack. Actions and opinions are not without consequence, even in our special, geeky corner of the world. We (God Willing) will always have the right to say what we want, to express opinions and expose injustice or duplicity, but we must temper our right by exercising responsibility or else we invalidate the very voice we’ve been given and empower rather than invalidate those we chose to challenge.


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