As I wrap up the semester, I think back on the work related to globalization and ethics, and I can’t help but connect it to a song from the musical “Hair.” In case you hadn’t heard, PEN American Center found itself in some controversy over the decision to award Charlie Hebdo, the French publication at the heart of a tragedy in January 2015, with an award for courageous freedom of speech. A piece describing the response can be found at The New York Times.
Now, let me emphatically condemn violence before I launch into my response. In reading an article on ethics among communication professionals during my classes, I had to frame this in the way that I, someone in the field of communication, would have to view all sides. The loss of any life can have tremendous emotion and meaning for those experiencing the loss, and no one should ever have to face that kind of loss. Yet, as we in America continue to see the discord sown by embedded acts of hate, and the lives lost among citizens and those tasked with protecting the public, perhaps we should be even more aware of the impact of words. Put another way, when someone is constantly abused, disrespected, and neglected from the conversation, sparking controversy can only edge the situation to a potentially destructive response.
Looking at the cartoon that Charlie Hebdo published, I cannot deny someone the right to express their perspective, but I am well within my rights to decide whether or not I find the content meaningful to me, or whether in this case, I see how much hurt such a depiction could cause. The thing that troubles me is that many people forget that it is the one who receives a message who is allowed to interpret their own meaning, and in the case of such a depiction, to be upset at the disrespectful depiction of someone’s religion. Again, violent responses don’t solve matters, but PEN American Center awarding the publishers, an act perhaps to honor the fallen, takes a tone-deaf response to the many people who were marginalized and disrespected by media in such a cartoon. As other authors wrote in protest, this action crosses from protecting the right to free speech into an area of promoting inflammatory speech. Last time I checked, we have enough trouble with internet trolls and bullies, why should we congratulate people for sparking controversy when we need people to start respectful conversations?
Now, if you know anything about the musical “Hair,” there is a song called “Easy to be Hard” that hauntingly embodies this situation, much as the culture experienced when the show was written. The words that spoke to me are as follows:
How can people be so heartless
How can people be so cruel
Easy to be hard
Easy to be cold
How can people have no feelings
How can they ignore their friends
Easy to be proud
Easy to say no
And especially people
Who care about strangers
Who care about evil
And social injustice
Do you only
Care about the bleeding crowd?
How about a needing friend?
I need a friend
Taking up the ethical mantle of a communication professional, my heart goes to the fallen just as much as the people who every day face a society at odds with their faith, possibly even their existence. It’s so easy to be hard, or to be cold, taking on religion with claims of free speech, but we cannot forget that words have power. I still recall the mantra of “Time, Place, and Manner” each time I write or speak because meaning is not something affixed in stone, but a dynamic and changing force that constantly shapes our lives. Sometimes growth requires stirring the pot, but productive change comes when people try to make a collaborative process, not one based on inciting responses.
In agreement with the writers who protested, we can still honor the lives of those we’ve lost, but if we want to truly honor and elevate the world, we can’t do it by praising work that may perpetuate the dysfunctional conflict.
What do you think of the awards? Where should we draw the line for expression and respect? Share your thoughts.