Last week, I sat next to a French production executive at the Reality TV Awards. Our discussion centered around the attack a couple weeks earlier at the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo and the world outpouring thereafter for free speech.
Let me be clear -- I support free speech. I support Charlie Hebdo and the premise that freedom of speech is a fundamental right of democracy. But I also support respect and its role as a fundamental ingredient of civility. Fundamentalism -- whether Islamic, Christian, Jewish or other -- is the enemy of both. It proclaims that others are wrong while they're right and that others are evil while they're righteous. Fundamentalists' worlds are black and white, with no shades of gray.
Free speech is both murky and gray. Free speech enables lots of points of view and truths, a virtual smorgasbord of thoughts, ideas, opinions, faiths, politics and emotions. The liberating thing about free speech is that it comes without a filter. It can be the domain of egomania, political opportunism, fundamentalism, religiosity, and secularism at the same time, leaving the audience to select its preference as we, presumably, come closer to "truth."
The bad thing about free speech is that, depending on who's doling it out, it's not necessarily tasteful, appropriate or respectful. Without being framed within a context of respect, it can inflame sentiments, fuel emotions, and hurt the psyche and mind. And because the mind determines our actions, it can prompt negative actions.
This was the topic at my reality awards lunch table with my new-found French friend. He pointed out to me that, in France hate-inducing speech is a crime. I pointed out to him that, in the United States, it isn't. But, criminalizing hate-speech or legalizing free speech is ineffective in preventing the disrespect and resulting anger that terrorists crave.
Charlie Hebdo, I pointed out, did nothing wrong, according to the law. It was just depicting the Prophet Mohammed in satirical and -- to the Western world -- comical ways. But it did exacerbate a culture of disrespect against Islam and its holy symbols that was bound to inflame and induce anger. And it provided fuel for the terrorists.
Historically, totalitarian regimes have used the press, cartoons and documentary media to depict others in derogatory ways, precisely because media can inflame. Although Charlie Hebdo's agenda was noble and satire is often used to get to the truth, it's hard to argue -- as seen through others' eyes -- that it wasn't disrespectful. I'm certainly not condoning the killing of innocents. But, it did inflame.
Teens see disrespect in action in schools and on the web every day, as words fueled by internet bullying have sparked multiple teen suicides and ruined lives. Women in the workplace have been the brunt of derogatory slurs and sex-talk by bosses and co-workers, assumed to be free speech. The "n" word and "f" word inflame sentiments in schools, on the street and in music. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin expressed this in the title of his bestselling book, saying that words can hurt, words can heal. Sometimes, he says, the consequences of hurt are irreversible.
These examples and many, many others are part of the double-edged sword of free speech. Without respect and responsibility, free speech can create havoc in the world.
This is the world I believe Pope Francis saw when he criticized Charlie Hebdo for publishing three million copies with a front page cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed holding a sign declaring, "Je Suis Charlie." He saw that, without respect, free speech falls apart because it can cause hurt, resentment, anger and negative reactions.
Depicting the consequences of negative speech in his most personal terms, he said that, hypothetically, if his friend said something negative about his mother, he could expect a punch. Regarding the newest Prophet Mohammed cartoon, he said, "One cannot provoke, one cannot make fun of another person's faith...."
The problem is that we live in a world and country that condones lack of respect. Talk show hosts throw word bombs and innuendo to inflame and excite their audiences. Politicians accuse their opponents, even spreading lies, in the interest of winning. And reality television regales by inflaming, cutting down and making fun. That I was having this timely conversation at a reality show awards luncheon was indeed ironic!
As a result of the culture that disrespect creates -- and I do believe that this is fueled by television and other media -- American teens have been transformed in a sea-changing way. Twenty years ago, when my wife Susan and I co-founded Project Love to provide school-based teen workshops on kindness, caring and respect, teens reported that they generally respect others and then expect that others will, in turn, respect them.
Ten years ago, we noticed that that sentiment had shifted -- that teens then and now say that they will respect others only after others first show them respect. In this new game of "who's on first," disrespect is often the by-product and anger is the result.
To me, building relationships is pretty easy, almost formulaic. Treat others as you would want to be treated. Show kindness and others will pay you back and pay it forward. Do the right thing and people will do right by you. What goes around comes around.
Norman Lear, legendary creator of All in the Family, keynoted the overall NATPE media conference, of which the reality TV awards was a small component. Both he and Russell Simmons, another speaker, noted that, except for a few shows such as Modern Family, television no longer struggles with right and wrong, critical social issues, racism and respect.
But in the stark reality of a world beset with terrorism, fundamentalism, anger and disrespect, building a culture of respect is as powerful an antidote as I can imagine -- kind of like the Chinese adage, "You can curse the darkness or light a candle." Media remains a powerful force, promoting respect or disrespect, darkness or light.
Face the Nation's Bob Schieffer said something similar about free speech: "There is a difference in having the right to do something and doing the right thing. That, too, should be a part of the conversation." Now, that would be a welcome new reality, especially on TV.
Muszynski is Founder of Purple America, a national initiative of Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.PurpleAmerica.us
Project Love is a school-based character-development program of Values-in-Action Foundation. To see information about Project Love school programming, go to www.projectlove.org