On Liberty in the Social Media and a Practice Target for Dialogue

With the chain of cases involving racist or Islamophobic remarks within the space of a week this month, one could already sense a nagging voice coming our way (even before Minister Yaacob Ibrahim’s pat-on-the-back statement) that spells this for the net: ‘code of conduct’. But unlike MP Zaqy Mohamad who appeared to be advocating self-censorship in response to the YPAP case, many a netizen had held that the point is not to gag any bigoted view by invoking the Sedition Act, which is simply isolating the symptoms, but to get to the roots of the bigotry.

For anybody old enough should know the secret ‘Golden Rule’ in our society – no, not “Do unto others as you would others do unto you”, but “Do as you will but don’t get caught”. It is high time that there be some open and respectful dialogue on racial issues instead of encouraging the malaise of bigotry to infest in private corners away from sight, or inviting a cure that may be worse than the disease (if technology is available, we may all have to be brain-scanned for mind crimes one day!).

There are three messages we can glean from such hate speech or discriminatory remarks, not peculiar to multicultural Singapore per se but perhaps copied from a Eurocentric perspective: 1. Some people mentally associate the Muslim community with terrorism. 2. Some people see the value system in the Muslim faith as being absolutely different from that of the society they themselves like to have. 3. Some people see nothing wrong at all in making fun of anybody’s religion.

If one carries the first two mental attitudes to the point of stereotyping members of the community, you have a kind of essentialising and a discriminatory attitude that is not unlike racism. And if you combine the first and the third, you may produce something like the Danish cartoon controversy, a conflict which was heightened by the European championing of media freedom and the Muslim view on visual images which was not respected.

Some may consider the whole thing then as simple as a matter of moderating between our values for freedom and our values for mutual respect. (Let’s not go down the road now about ‘freedom’ being also an ‘F’ word misused by George W. Bush to wage a ‘war for peace’.) Actually, these should as simple as values we learnt back in kindergarten, about how to play and to be polite, it’s basically the same thing you learn anywhere you go; it is not like only if you went to a PAP kindergarten, then are you a fuller human being who is more likely to fight for justice and equality in Hong Lim Park.

But the world would be a much happier place if only life is as simple as in kindergarten. The game being played now may be more of a trickery. Imagine someone hears your religion preaches turning the other cheek, and comes to test it by slapping your face left and right nonstop. If you resist, he may say what your religion teaches does not hold true; if you simply ignore, he may push you further next time; and if you cry foul to whom you regard as authority, you may also be called names for having the authority side you. Therefore one really has to be careful with any recourse that may begin with a premise of what former Foreign Minister George Yeo phrased as some groups being “less likely to riot” than others, which may end up reinforcing a stereotype of violence, not to mention creating a sense of exceptionalism. The principle should be common: what is considered taboo is always specific to the religious community.

John Stuart Mill, who argued for the principle of absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment for the individual in his classic treatise On Liberty (1859), also stated a second principle on liberty of tastes and pursuits in doing as one likes without impediment from others, with the condition: “so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong”. That one of his biggest fans today is the Norwegian right-wing mass killer Anders Behring Breivik, known for hating Muslims, has to be totally incidental or warped of course. Mill was at least able to point out some maxim in the Koran with regards to governance that is more progressive than what can be found in the New Testament; he also argued ‘diversity’ of character and culture as a key to progress, lamenting that the Europe he saw was “advancing towards the Chinese ideal of making all people alike”.

But what we have to guard ourselves against in Mill’s liberalist ideas is a utilitarianism that justified colonialism and the dismantling of traditional cultures seen as ‘backward’. Mill may be helpful when cited for reforms in human rights, but not helpful when we need to conserve the values of our cultures and communities, for Mill championed individualism. Anyway, there are always possibilities of customs in any religion and culture changing over time, even laws may be reformed, but branding any community as being incapable of progress is not an opinion that is helpful, not to mention that the particular conceptions of ‘progress’ may be problematic in the first place.

Negative or insensitive remarks do not make a pleasant start for a dialogue, but there is a chance for us to make something constructive out of the discord. The worst that we can do is to magnify any isolated cases so much as to disturb societal harmony. Opinions can be judged and debated as to whether they are valid and sound, whether they are constructive, and whether they respect cultural sensitivities. The old model of tolerance among religions as simply “not talking about it”, like what three-quarter of 2800 surveyed secondary school students expressed in 2008, clearly is not working. We need to ask in what way the moral education in our society may have failed us, not expend energy in wondering if any individuals have flunked their lesson in conduct. And for God’s sake, stop racialising top students who have just received their PSLE results as Indian or Malay or Eurasian! Are we comparing report cards among different ethnic groups in their contribution to economic progress, instead of addressing general social mobility?

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