The First Amendment, something too hot from Newtown to Tunis?
Giancarlo Bosetti 28 December 2012

What does this change mean? They have done this by emphasizing the violence in the media, by criticizing not only those who profit from the weapons industry, but also the moguls of the entertainment world, accusing the rivers of blood, the gratuitous violence, the intoxication of the young with the constant flow of massacres to which they are exposed in films made by the major studios and the electronic games industry. “The currents of death run under the cover not only of the Second Amendment but also the First,” wrote Sleepers, and this was the accusation Karl Popper made in Against Television, in 1993, not long before he died, addressing far more than just television’s political effects and more specifically the subject of violent entertainment to which children are exposed.

Hence the proposal this liberal made, to introduce forms of self-limitation, the assumption of responsibility and even censorship, preventing violent programmes from being broadcast at certain times of the day, also respecting ratings for films restricted to certain age groups etc. Since then, the evolution of the media, at the time mainly based on broadcasting, and therefore generalist TV networks, has multiplied the manner in which the media is used, profoundly changed with its move to electronic means. The internet makes it hard to restrict minors from accessing any show or the sale of sex and violence, in spite of parental control software, the effectiveness of which is doubtful.

The move towards this kind of product usually results in two different negative reactions from liberal-“I-won’t-hear-of-it” supporters. One is expressed on the basis of the idea that the media has no effect on generating violence (a clearly false stand as proved by an infinite amount of literature and research), while the second is known as the “slippery slope”, on the basis of which, if one were to forbid a few excesses of violence today, one would in the future end up forbidding political or religious dissent, and so on. The American debate also includes the albeit reasonable objection that, following a case such as the Newtown massacre, if one insists on blaming the media, then there is a risk that primary and more direct responsibilities of those making weapons available to children will be attenuated.

The debate is destined to last a long time, as one can see, and one must hope that it will result not only in death but also legislative change (as called for here by Benjamin Barber).

It is also interesting to observe how the relationship between the use of freedom and responsibility is overturned in Arab societies, to which the West looks with very critical eyes due to excesses in restrictions as far as female nudity, homosexuality and all irreverent behaviour towards religion is concerned. In such cases the extreme reactions are the opposite of those of the uninhibited customs in the West.

If one considers the Tunisian public sphere, as Radwan Masmoudi from the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy does in this article, we see the risk of a radicalisation of the clash between the Islamist and the secular factions, between religious reformists and modernisers, who, against the backdrop of extremely serious economic issues, risk becoming inflamed on the basis of media events concerning irreverence towards religion in art, female nudity and pornography. Once again, it is the frontline of the “First Amendment” that sparks conflict in the area involving the exercising of freedom set between inalienable guarantees that must be written in Law, and the responsibility to restrict its use in limiting the freedom of others. The subject of Tunisia is so controversial that Masmoudi has asked that the debate be postponed in order to avoid conflict preventing the foundations of democracy from being created. Will it be possible to postpone the day of reckoning for the Arab and Tunisian versions of the First Amendment?

Translated by Francesca Simmons

Picture: Its original version is the winning entry of the 10 best Anti-Discrimination campaigns, one of hundreds submitted by advertising professionals around the world, is called West/East – both sides of intolerance and was created by Marcos Rene, Patricia Papp and Luiz Trevisani in Brazil. The image, depicts the face of two women, cheek to cheek, one with her eyes covered, the other with her eyes uncovered. Under the theme of tolerance, it shows that what we believe about each other across the West/East divide is often based on an unwillingness to really find out about each other.



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