That Inevitable Post About Freedom of Expression.

I’ve spent hours contemplating this and I’m using Newton’s Third Law like a sledgehammer. So here I go.

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

So was the conclusion of Sir Isaac Newton in the 17th Century. Every interaction has two forces working against each other; you cannot have a reaction without a catalyst, so to speak. If you push a crate down a tunnel, it’s slow to do so because friction from the ground makes pushing the crate difficult. That friction does not exist in a motionless state. It is by the act of applying force of motion to the crate that allows friction to be applied as an equal yet opposite force.

It’s an accepted fact today that this is the nature of how the world works. But what has this to do with gaming, or journalism? Quite a lot, actually.

It was sad to see the terrible events in Paris the last couple of days. A small-circulation magazine with cartoons (at least on the cover), Charlie Hebdo, was at the centre of a religiously-driven massacre. It’s crime? Publishing cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammed. To you or me, hardly something to murder a dozen people over. But to those who took offence, the catalyst that gave them the ‘right’ to provide a reaction, a reaction filled with lead and underlined in the blood of people who were simply doing their job – to ridicule things that they felt were at their core ridiculous.

But I shook my head because, ultimately, I couldn’t shake the feeling that attempts to silence criticism of their religion would only escalate the problem. If one force in an interaction escalates in size, mass or volume, the opposite reaction grows to work against it. The two effectively attempt to cancel each other out, like a fly hitting a windshield. Except a fly is kind of small and squishy, and the windscreen is wide and solid. The forces at work are the same – just for the fly, it’s organically not designed to withstand those forces. And so it has been; cartoonists the world over showed their solidarity with the victims of the publication by effectively mocking the core, which is sweet and gooey and ridiculous. “For being offensive about our religion we will kill you!” Because that’s totally a good way to get positive coverage from the press.

Attempting to silence people via an act of terror has rarely been proven effective. You either create enough noise to draw attention – or leave a void of silence where there was none before, which effectively loops into the basic tenants of The Streisand Effect.

Ahh, yes, that old chestnut. Ten years or so ago, the phrase was coined when Barbra Streisand attempted to suppress images of her large home on the Californian coast. She argued it damaged her privacy, but the truth was no-one would have been any the wiser or would have cared about her home. You see, the photographer who took the image was not some roving paparazzi trying to tell the world that Ms. Streisand had a big home (she’s a wealthy singer and actress, of course she’s going to have a big mansion on prime real estate!), but working with the environmental agency to document the effects of coastal erosion around the, well, coast of California. There was no malice at work. No terrible agenda. Just someone doing their job, and Ms. Streisand’s home just happened to be located on the coast which was being photographed. She attempted to sue the photographer in order to stop people knowing it was her home.

Her action had a predictable and – for her – opposite reaction; everyone saw how ridiculous is was. It was no longer just “a house on the coast”. It was Barbra Streisand’s house on the coast. And far from suppressing the image, it spread like wildfire across the media and Internet. Everyone now knew the home in THAT image belonged to Barbra Streisand. Her attempts to hide that fact only served to inspire the free press to further use the image, because it became synonymous with her actions. When she relented, the forces that conspired (in the basic meaning sense) against her eased off. We still joke about it, and it coined a term. But it went away when she stopped making a big deal out of it.

In a sense, the reason why publications like Charlie Hebdo (and other cultural magazines of its type like Private Eye in the UK) exist is because there are these forces out there who fuel their material. There are religious, political and indeed social ideologies who would use threats, violence and/or murder against those who would oppose them. There are super-rich over-privileged sh*tlords (oh god, using that term is so deliciously transgressive!) whose intellect and common sense works inversely to their own vast wealth and influence. There are those who seek to discriminate in the name of equality, not realising the patent hypocrisy that lies at the very heart of that statement. These forces on their own could be overwhelming; but there is always an equal and opposite force working against them, mocking them, satirising them, calling them out on their crap.

Before this becomes too much like throwing my hat in with the #GamerGate side, do note however that logically, as long as two forces are interacting they will attempt to cancel each other out. As I said before, if one force escalates in some way, the other force will attempt to compensate. We know that two wrongs don’t make a right, but they always try to cancel each other out regardless because that’s one of the basic principles of physics, and by definition, life. This isn’t to say there isn’t the concept of right and wrong. Or that any side adheres to my views of those concepts. The law just is. It doesn’t discriminate. Why should I?

Do I find the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo offensive? A little. But in a sense, that’s kind of the point. Provoking a reaction from their target. Exposing them to ridicule. It’s not a new thing, and I don’t for a second think such things are ever, in any way, worth killing people over. Seriously. You don’t have to like the cartoons; just accept that they are a response to actual forces in the world outside, the cartoonists attempt – however futile it may seem – to apply their own equal yet opposite force on something, a reaction to lies, slander, hypocrisy or rampant stupidity. They do it in the only way they know how – through sketches, images, pen and paper. We use what little skillsets we are blessed with to respond. Not all of us have useful contributions to make. But we try.

Cartoonists are reactionary by definition though; if they have no subject to cover, they can’t cover it. Rather like that crate, with no force being applied, there is no friction to impede its movement – because there is none. They need a subject to lampoon, a topic to base their work on. If you don’t provide the fuel needed for that, then they can’t do their job. There would be no need for it. Because we’d have at that point achieved world peace. No conflict, no escalation, no forces working against each other. Sounds kind of boring, I know, but that’s effectively the concept of world peace for you. Sounds lovely. And also sounds a bit dull when you scratch the surface.

This could go on for ages really. And I don’t want it to. It’s 5am and I am a little tired.

Ultimately, I just find myself wondering if we’re all kind of oblivious or if some people genuinely believe that ignorance of Newton’s Third Law somehow exempts them from the basic mechanics that underline it. Like quicksand, the more you struggle, the faster you sink. It’s not an especially new thing; nor is it an especially controversial viewpoint I feel. If cartoonists are finding subjects to satirise, then those being satirised might want to think about WHY they are being satirised. And the more they struggle, it seems, the more the press at large will respond. Lawsuits, murder, violent rampages and vocal threats. Salacious gossip and headlines that can be used to stir up people and generate more traffic or sales! We’re seeing this now. Charlie Hebdo had – and it’s important to use the past tense there – a small circulation, supposedly around 60,000 a week or something. Next week? They’re printing a million copies. They haven’t shut down. They haven’t been silenced. Their audience has grown, exponentially some might say.

An escalation of force has been applied. The opposite reaction? Now we ALL want to read Charlie Hebdo. Heck, I’d buy a copy if they sold it in the UK! And you know what sticklers most Brits are about the French, right? (That feels like a cultural thing anyway here. I couldn’t care either way; like most countries, I don’t think, “Now I can blame X for this!”)

I don’t want to end there cynically because I think it’s human nature to be generally inquisitive; asking why something happened isn’t always offensive, after all. Education serves a greater purpose without resorting to shaming or embarrassing those without the facts. And in a sense, we ALL feel something about this. It’s a senseless waste of human life. It’s senseless violence in the name of a religion that already has been under extreme assault in the last fifteen years. And when we have no answers to give, let’s just say, “We don’t know. It’s such a waste.” Because it is. We all want to support those grieving. That’s great. Human compassion is an amazing thing. I highly rate it. We want the publication to survive and thrive because it’s that compassion that makes us want the very best for those left behind.

In that, there is one final set of forces at play; the more you hurt people with hate and violence, the more the sympathetic will respond with love and compassion. And I’d like to think an increase in hate will see an equal increase in love. After all, it’s Newton’s Third Law. “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” So if that really is the case, this spike of rampant and unjustifiable hatred should equally find itself being countered by an overwhelming flood of unconditional compassion and solidarity. See? It’s not always working against you!

My thoughts and wishes are with those who have lost friends, loved ones, parents and children. Every person is one of these to someone. And to the people of Paris, who must feel shocked at this event happening in the City of Love. Keep on doing what you do and be strong and awesome.

Because after all, universal balance requires it, no?

Header image using some paid clipart I had lying around and about 60 seconds of MSPaint.
Forgive the crummy rush job. Because it was a crummy rush job. It’s 6am! I’m still here! AARRGGHH!

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