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A director’s chair broken in rubble representing the Sound of Freedom Controversy

Sound of Freedom: A Movie, A Mirror

What does the Sound of Freedom Controversy reveal? It showcases a profound cultural discord, fueled by the media and cognitive biases, overshadowing our shared objectives.

The surprise summer hit “Sound of Freedom” has stirred a unique cultural reaction. It’s not unusual for a big movie to spark political reactions. “Barbie” is only the latest to see politicized takes, for example. There is something unique, however, about the discourse around “Sound of Freedom.” This is more than political talking heads bringing their political take to the latest cultural talking point. This discourse seems to be making moral judgments about those who watch and critique the film. I can’t help but be interested in the unique conversation that has cropped up around it.

The film portrays the heroic—fictionalized—efforts of a former special agent against child sexual exploitation. Aja Romano, writing for Vox, describes the left-wing backlash as targeting the film’s “QAnon-adjacent rhetoric and the film’s target audience.” The film review at Slate largely criticized not the film itself but the film’s actors, subject, and audience. The headline for Rolling Stone’s review said the audience was those with “brainworms.” And his entire first paragraph is devoted to mocking the audience because he “could tell” this audience was the kind of dupes who would believe the film is true. After criticizing the politics of the film’s lead actor and subject, he returns to describing the appearance of the audience and criticizing them for gasping and applauding during the film. This approach has been common in reviews of the film.  

This is most embodied by the near-constant connection of the film with QAnon, a dangerous conspiratorial movement that the film never mentions. QAnon does spend a lot of energy on claims of child sexual exploitation, but their unique claims, such as children being harvested for their blood by Hollywood elites, are not part of the film. Despite this, it’s been described as a “recruitment tool” for these ideas.

We’ve demonized those we disagree with.

This response has outraged the cultural right. One right-leaning site wrote, “The pedo-loving propagandists at the once-great Rolling Stone are at it again.” Another wonders how “being anti-pedophile” became “a right-wing position.” In other words, what the discourse seems to have concluded is that if you support this movie, you are dangerous conspiratorial QAnon adjacent. But if you don’t support this film, you are a pedophile apologist.

Unfortunately, this is far from the first time we’ve demonized those we disagree with.

Perhaps the most prominent example of the phenomenon we’re seeing with “Sound of Freedom” in my lifetime has been the debate around same-sex marriage. The laughable allegation was that those who didn’t promote government-supported same-sex marriage didn’t believe in loving one another. This allegation was rampant and still used as a cudgel to coerce people into supporting the newest social movements.

But take a moment to consider this. Do you really think that people who disagree with you on this, or any other issue, don’t believe in loving people? No one who takes even a minute to consider this would believe it. 

What becomes obvious is that what they truly disagree about is the best way to love others. They disagree about the expected long-term effect of certain policy changes. They don’t disagree about loving each other. Yet despite how obvious this conclusion is, so many on both sides of the political aisle are happily settling into the idea that their political opposition is a monster. 

Now we’ve gotten to the point that you’re a monster merely based on your opinion about a movie. It’s a good thing we weren’t at this level in 1977, or else I might be accused of being anti-plucky water farmers that save the galaxy. 

You aren’t pro-pedophile because you think a movie could cause more harm than good by oversimplifying the problem. And you aren’t a violent conspiracy theorist if you think it’s a notable problem that we now have more slaves in the world than at any time in history.

I can already anticipate objections. “How reductionist. You don’t understand the complex socio-political factors at play.” But that’s just it. We rely on increasingly opaque “specialized knowledge.” This specialized knowledge we argue to ourselves allows us to convince ourselves that we know those other people really are as evil as we want to think they are. This allows us to make some of the worst possible accusations against one another.

The media’s role in intensifying these divisions cannot be overstated. Each of the opinions I linked to above is held by thousands or more, but they have all been cultivated by a media ecosystem that thrives on outrage. No matter how many right-wing outlets howl about Miles Klee’s Rolling Stone editorial, his advertisers are certainly happy with the attention it generated. The same goes for each of the responses, which create instant attention by attacking the villainous other. It’s no secret among content creators that the emotion most effective at generating page views is anger. Articles like Klee’s feed that anger ecosystem by outraging his viewers with the evil people on the other side and providing fodder for his ideological opponents to be angry at him in return. And these articles often provide us the rationale for believing the unbelievable about our ideological others.

And because we spend most of our time in our own ideological bubble, we see the other side’s media only through the lens of what makes us outraged. Many supporters of “Sound of Freedom” are likely unaware, for example, that one of the most favorable reviews of the film came from the left-leaning Variety

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t try and address the important matters at play. Obviously. But amid the controversy surrounding “The Sound of Freedom,” the underlying subject of child sexual exploitation—an issue that everyone agrees needs to be addressed—has been somewhat eclipsed. There is, in fact, a political divide around this issue. The right tends to view the problem in terms of bad guys that need to be brought to justice through better law enforcement. The left tends to view the problem as a systemic issue that can be addressed by reducing poverty and drug addiction. Those differences should be explored in public debate.

I’m no policy expert on the nuances of child sexual exploitation. And I don’t pretend to have the answers here. But here is an urgent problem that would benefit from cooperation, yet our media ecosystem benefits from accusing the other side of being the source of the problem, all but precluding the possibility of that cooperation.

Our media ecosystem benefits from accusing the other.

Addressing this persistent polarization requires a shift in attitudes and approaches. Central to this is fostering a sense of curiosity and understanding. Instead of presuming the worst motivations of those with differing viewpoints, we can ask ourselves, “How can they be good and believe this?” This question, open-ended and devoid of accusation, invites explanation and understanding. It promotes empathy by encouraging us to step outside of our own perspectives and consider the experiences, values, and beliefs that have shaped the other’s viewpoint. This simple reframing can bridge divides and pave the way for more productive discussions.

So how can someone care about children being sexually abused and not like “Sound of Freedom?” It’s not that hard of a question if you take even a moment. Similarly, others ought to ask, could you care about child sexual abuse and not be a conspiracy theorist? That answer seems equally obvious.

Overcoming polarization is no easy task; it demands time, effort, and a collective commitment to empathetic understanding. Yet, the potential rewards—a more cohesive society, more productive policy debates, and a renewed focus on shared values—make this endeavor a crucial one. 

The divisions that often seem to define our cultural and political landscape are frequently borne out of misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and cognitive biases, rather than fundamental differences in values or goals. The cultural war surrounding “Sound of Freedom” serves as a stark illustration of this, showcasing how divergent perspectives can overshadow shared objectives. But perhaps it can serve as the wake-up call we need to realize we can do better.

About the author

C.D. Cunningham

C.D. Cunningham is the managing editor of Public Square magazine. After graduating from BYU-Idaho, he studied religion at Harvard University Extension. He serves on the board of the Latter-day Saint Publishing and Media Association.
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