Sony copped a lot a flak for caving in to the mysterious Guardians of Peace and pulling The Interview from theaters. It may have since rediscovered its spine, allowing the movie to be released in a few theaters on Christmas Day and making it available online too, but the impact of its act of self-censorship continues to reverberate. It has rightly found itself lambasted for initially hiding away a piece of culture at the behest of a yammering mob making threats and wailing about feeling offended.
But we shouldn't single out Sony as the sole jeopardizer of artistic freedom, for it is far from the only institution to cave in to demands for self-censorship this year. 2014 has been the year of the self-gag, the year of institutions silencing themselves in response to shrill hollers of "You can't say that!" Here's a countdown of the Top 10 cavers of 2014, all of whom helped set the stage for Sony's behaviour.
The British TV channel dumped its sexist comedian Dapper Laughs in response to a virtual uprising of pearl-clutching, prudish souls. Dapper, real name Daniel O'Reilly, is a 25-year-old funnyman who gave advice to twentysomething blokes about how to pull "birds" (women) and get "gash" (pussy). Sensitive commentators churned out op-eds slamming his misogyny. An online petition was launched, calling on ITV2 to "Cancel Dapper Laughs": 62,000 people signed it. Outrageously, 44 comedians wrote an open letter denouncing Dapper, bringing to mind the regime-friendly artists of the GDR who would shop their less right-on arty pals to the Stasi.
The censorious virtual mob got its way: in November, ITV2 pulled Dapper, and O'Reilly himself appeared on a news show to say sorry and confirm that his character Dapper would never again make a public appearance. A mob-extracted, Stalinist-style public apology—truly ugly.
9) The Economist
The bible of the business elite prides itself on having both brains and balls. "In opinion polls, 100% of Economist readers had one," its adverts say. But it seems some opinions are too controversial, even for The Economist. In September, following an outburst of spittle-flecked fury on Twitter and blogs, The Economist took the extraordinary, and Orwellian, decision to "unpublish" an article about slavery. The piece, a review of Edward Baptist's book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of America, expressed a longing for an "objective history of slavery" that doesn't conform to the narrative that "all the blacks… are victims, [and] all the whites villains."
A silly view, we can agree, given that slavery was a pretty clear-cut case of black victimhood and white supremacy. But in abjectly apologizing for the review, and withdrawing it from its official archive, The Economist made itself, and the rest of us, hostage to the offense-takers. The offencerati celebrated The Economist's climbdown as a great victory, with one tweeting: "It took a Twitter riot to get The Economist to withdraw their idiotic review." So next time The Economist publishes an article you don't like, just start a Twitter riot—that should get rid of it.
8) Festival of Dangerous Ideas
In August, the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI), an intellectual staple of the Aussie liberal elite that takes place in Sydney every year, pulled an Islamist speaker in response to media shouts and online cries. The speaker, one Uthman Badar, was due to give a talk called "Honour killings are morally justified"—a rather provocative title for a speech that was actually just going to try to explain why some Islamic communities overseas *think* honour killings are justified. Politicians complained, journalists mass-produced angry columns, Twitter went into meltdown, and eventually the organizers of FODI capitulated, killing the planned speech on the basis that "the level of public outrage" was too much to bear. See? It isn't only Kim Jong-un (or whoever's behind Guardians of Peace) who weaponizes outrage to squash offensive speech. Rumors that the festival will change its name to the Festival of Ideas Deemed Acceptable by Australia's Chattering and Tweeting Classes have yet to be confirmed.
7) The Barbican
What should an art gallery do when a crowd of 200 gather outside and demand an exhibition be shut down? The London arts venue the Barbican gave a depressing answer this year: shut down the exhibition. The Barbican had been due to host a piece of performance art called Exhibit B, featuring, among other things, black actors in cages. It was a study of our attitudes toward race and history. But at the opening night in September, a gathering of self-styled spokespeople for Britain's black community blockaded the entrance, waved placards, and the Barbican executed a stunning cave-in, closing the exhibition. Perhaps Kim Jong-un, or whoever, was inspired to shout The Interview out of existence by this earlier, very British elevation of hecklers' rights over artistic freedom.
We're all marvelling at the colossal humourlessness of North Korea and its fanboys on the internet, who can't even take a Seth Rogen-delivered joke about their Glorious Leader. But they're not the only ones who demand the censure of allegedly off-colour humour. In November, Time magazine caved in to po-faced feminist agitators who complained about its inclusion of the f-word—feminism —in its annual light-hearted poll on what words have become so annoying that they should be banned. After some Twitter-fems lost their shit, Time issued a mea culpa and pulled the f-word from the poll. Eleanor Smeal of the Feminist Majority Foundation said she was relieved Time had "come to its senses," because the word feminist "cannot and must not be trivialized." Just as Kim Jong-un cannot and must not be trivialized by Hollywood.
5) Oxford University
If you think it's only big corporations concerned about their reputations who kill content on request, think again. At one of the highest seats of learning on Earth—Christ Church College, Oxford—a debate was pulled in November after a mob of 300 students threatened to turn up with "instruments" and disrupt it. Why? Because it was a debate about abortion at which both of the speakers were men (one of whom was me). College officials caved into the controversy-allergic student agitators and binned the debate on the basis that it might threaten students' "mental safety." (Isn't that what university is meant to do—shake up students' "mental safety?")
One of the debate-squishers later wrote in the Independent that "the idea that in a free society absolutely everything should be open to debate has a detrimental effect on marginalised groups." That isn't a million miles from what the Guardians of Peace say: that The Interview had to be bullied out of theaters because it was a case of Big Bad America using free speech to attack poor, marginalised North Korea.
4) Opera Australia
Back Down Under, where, in June, Opera Australia caved in to the demands of a Twittermob to expel Tamar Iveri, a Georgian opera singer, from its production of Othello. The reason: Ms. Iveri once said something derogatory about homosexuals on her Facebook page. Yes, that's right, the McCarthyite insistence that all artsy people must have the right and same moral views has been given a new lease on life. An online petition calling for Iveri's visa to work in Australia to be revoked "immediately and irrevocably" got 4,698 signatures. The petition page now boasts of its "Confirmed Victory," not dissimilar to what Mashable calls the "horrifying victory" won by the Guardians of Peace.
In April, Mozilla bowed to demands to ditch its new CEO, Brendan Eich, after it was revealed that— horror of horrors—he isn't a huge fan of gay marriage. A mob demanded his metaphorical scalp, with OKCupid pleading with its users to boycott Mozilla's Firefox on the basis that "those who seek to deny love and instead enforce misery, shame, and frustration are our enemies, and we wish them nothing but failure." In short, Eich is an enemy of the people and therefore had to be expelled from public life, propelled into a life of failure for daring to hold and express the Wrong Views. Isn't there a country somewhere that similarly practices such expulsions from public view of the enemies of decency?
2) Edinburgh Fringe
This annual gathering of thespians and comedians for a month of performance and chatter is looked upon as a free-wheeling, open-minded cultural shebang. Not this year, it wasn't. A theatre called the Underbelly caved into protesters and cultural bigwigs who said its hosting of a hip-hop opera by an Israeli theatre company was an outrage. Luvvies hate Israel, you see. The Jerusalem-based company, Incubator, is part-funded by the Israeli government and that was enough to have keffiyeh-wearing liberals gathering outside the Underbelly every day to demand its show be shut down. Of course they didn't protest at any of the many performances part-funded by the UK government's Arts Council, despite the fact that the UK government has been involved in more wars and killed more people than Israel has over the past 10 years. But hey, moral consistency has never been censors' strong point. The Underbelly capitulated and sent the Jews into theatrical exile.
1) American universities
The slamming of Sony for caving in to foreign, terroristic bullyboys gives the impression that mob-like demands for censorship are a totally un-American activity. Yet at the heart of the American academy, a new breed of het-up, intolerant, debate-dodging student is likewise using pressure and cries of "I'm offended!" to have words they don't like extinguished. Controversial speakers are disinvited from campus or shouted down by angry mobs. Most alarmingly, in April Brandeis University cancelled plans to award an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali after a gaggle of bloggers and agitated students branded her "anti-Muslim" and unfit for Brandeis approval. A woman who escaped moral tyranny overseas being subjected to a new form of moral tyranny in her adopted homeland—possibly the most shameful cave of the year.
So all that hating on Sony before it changed its mind was, I'm afraid, too little, too late. Self-censorship has been rampant in 2014. We need a more consistent commitment to standing up to the intolerant, whether they're Western feminists, Scottish luvvies, or North Korean nutters, and to asserting the right of artists and writers to think, say, and depict whatever they like without requiring the approval of moral majorities or angry minorities. In 2015, let's make sure freedom of expression should trump individuals' sensitivities every single time.