Freedom of Expression versus Fear of Repercussion
It may seem pompous, but I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.
Stéphane Charbonnier, Cartoonist and Editor of Charlie Hebdo
Every day, tragedies happen all over the world. But since I’m not a TV-watcher, I don’t tend to see them unfold in graphic detail. When the Paris shootings happened last week, however, I happened to be staying in a hotel so I was glued to CNN.
Here’s my perspective on what happened…because frankly, I’m torn.
The night before the shootings, I was telling someone about the concerns I had over possible negative repercussions that could come as the result of the release of one of my future films, God’s Country.
God’s Country is partly about a silent screen star named Nell Shipman…at least, that’s the part I emphasize when I’m talking to friends and family in Alberta about the project. I’ve got into one too many heated discussions when I dared disclose the other subject matter explored in the film: the hyper-development of the Alberta oil sands.
Nobody bites my head off when I talk about Nell Shipman. But when I bring up the subject of the oil sands and have the audacity to suggest that perhaps we ought to be worrying less about pipelines and instead focusing our efforts on shifting away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy, look out. I get an earful.
And fair enough. If an oil company paid my bills, I wouldn’t be writing this blog. But they don’t; the City of Calgary does. Why? Because my husband was a Calgary police officer who died in the line of duty and thus I am entitled to receive his paycheque for the rest of my life.
As such, I have a financial freedom most writers can barely dream of. But with freedom comes responsibility. And I take that responsibility seriously – perhaps because I paid so dearly for said freedom…and my husband paid with his life. Yes, he died for something he believed in: the safety and protection of society. But that did very little to comfort me in the years following his death. For the loved ones left behind also pay a significant price.
“If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered.”
– Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Pissing off my friends and family with God’s Country is the least of my concerns…they may not agree with my ideas but at the end of the day, they’ll probably still love me.
No, my real concern with God’s Country was – and still is – the potential negative impacts on the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund (JPMF), a charity started after my husband’s death.
I have spent the past 14 years of my life helping build the JPMF into an organization that educates people – including Albertans – about why and how to make their workplaces safe for everyone, including emergency responders. The speakers in our Safety Presentation Program deliver workplace safety presentations throughout Alberta. We are reaching thousands of people with important safety messages; the last thing I want to do is create a film that might jeopardize all the good we’re doing to help create safer workplaces.
And how could that happen, you ask?
The oil industry, in one form or another, is one of the JPMF’s largest audiences in Alberta. I am the Board Chair of the JPMF. If I am associated with – and responsible for – an unrelated project, such as God’s Country, that leads to controversy and possibly even change, I may have succeeded as a filmmaker but possibly at the cost of alienating industry and government in the very province the JPMF is making the most headway in terms of raising awareness about workplace safety issues. This is not a risk I am willing to take.
In other words, I fear the repercussions of exercising my freedom of expression…not for myself but for a cause – safer workplaces – that I care deeply about.
On the other hand, as someone who also cares about environmental issues, I know God’s Country is an important story to tell. And once I’d cooled down enough to actually hear the criticism I’d received from my family and friends in Alberta about my perspective on the oil sands, the more I realized they actually had some very valid points.
So I went back to the script and did yet another round of re-writes to better reflect the different perspectives and issues – and capture the dilemma we all face regarding climate change: we know we need to make a drastic shift away from fossil fuels but we don’t know how.
And do you know what? The script is significantly stronger. Out of my fear of repercussion, I was forced to create a far better story. Yes, the resultant film will still cause controversy – but at least I will have done due diligence, as the writer, to focus less on deliberately offending people who have different ideas than I do about oil sands development – and more on the individual and collective struggle of knowing we need to change but are frustrated because we aren’t.
Our actions have consequences. What we believe in – a deity, the status quo or the freedom of expression – may or may not be truth but the actions we take to defend our beliefs quickly become fact. We saw an extreme example of this with the Paris shootings that left 12 people dead – and the subsequent 3 days of terror that left another police officer dead.
Stéphane Charbonnier, the editor of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, made the decision to publish images that he knew would antagonize Muslim extremists. He paid the price with his life and inadvertently took others down with him…cartoonists, maintenance workers and a police officer.
Charbonnier died in defence of his belief in the freedom of expression. I get that. But the terrorists who killed him, and the others, were defending their beliefs. Whether that was a belief in Allah or a belief in the effectiveness of terror, in the end perhaps what people are killing and dying for matters less than the simple fact that people are killing and dying.
Put another way: what we believe in pales in comparison to the actions we are willing to take to defend our beliefs.
There are no simple answers to any of the problems we face on the planet, from terrorism to climate change and everything in between. But this much I’ve learned: deliberately alienating and antagonizing people whose beliefs we do not agree with doesn’t solve much. It can, however, make matters far worse.
Interestingly, in response to the Paris shootings, the front cover of the next edition of Charlie Hebdo was a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad. The cover shows the prophet shedding a tear and holding up a sign reading “Je suis Charlie” in sympathy with the dead journalists. The headline read, “All is forgiven”.
The acting editor deliberately chose to publish the most blasphemous possible cover to a Muslim – an image of the prophet Muhammad – along with the words ‘All is Forgiven’? That’s an odd way to take the high road. In fact, I would venture to guess that all is not forgiven, for a picture speaks far louder than words.
This mixed-message response by the magazine is akin to pouring fuel on an already raging bonfire. Why would they take the chance of deliberately provoking further acts of terror that could put even more people at risk? It makes me wonder if perhaps the bigger issue unfolding here isn’t the freedom of expression – but rather the need for people take responsibility for their actions.
“If the cartoon had read ‘Je suis Ahmed’, given that many were carrying that badge after the police Ahmed Merabet who was killed, that might not have put more salt to the wound but taken it to another level.”
– Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan
My thoughts exactly. Journalists aren’t the only ones who pay the price for the freedom of expression.
So in honour of all the lives lost, here’s what I’m choosing to take from the Paris shootings…my own little way of taking it to another level, if you will: as I move forward with my own writing projects, I shall endeavour to not deliberately antagonize people whose beliefs I strongly disagree with – regardless of what they’ve done.
Rather, I will try instead to write balanced works that yes, still raise uncomfortable questions and challenge what needs to be challenged, but perhaps also offer a few solutions…and in the end, hopefully contribute to making the world a better, safer, more tolerant place that, from an environmental perspective, is still inhabitable by future generations.
The tragedy in Paris and the subsequent response by Charlie Hebdo is a powerful reminder that as a writer, Je suis responsible for my actions – because I’m not the only one who may suffer the consequences.
In the meantime, my heart goes out to those who lost someone in the Paris attacks. I know from experience there is nothing glorious whatsoever about burying a loved one before their time – for a cause…regardless of what it is.
I’ll end this blog with another Stephen King quote:
“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”
– Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
As such, I welcome your feedback.
Maryanne Pope is the CEO of Pink Gazelle Productions and Chair of the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund. She is the author of A Widow’s Awakening and the playwright of Saviour. If you would like to receive her weekly blog, please sign up here.