17 July 2006

Wednesday July 12, 2006

Double standards


SOMETIMES I think some people are right when saying that Malaysians are easily confused. We perpetually contradict ourselves without even being aware of it.

One of the concepts we are almost always confused about is the concept of freedom of speech. There are some people who don’t believe that anyone should have any freedom of speech but at least we know exactly where they stand. Then there’re the people who do believe in being free to say what you want and we know where they stand too. But then there’s that confused section whose general stand is “only people who agree with us should have the freedom to speak; everyone else should be made to shut up”.

Some time ago a group of people complained about how the media shut them out from a particular debate. Rightly, they complained about censorship and I side with them completely on that. But then they went on to say that the media really should not publish irritating columns by people such as me. Now which is it; freedom of speech or censorship? You can only have one, not both. If you want space for your views, then you must also allow views by people who don’t agree with you. That’s called democracy.

I saw that again recently in a letter to the editor which complained about not being allowed to have peaceful protests. I was rah-rahing the letter-writer until I came to the end when he said that the media should really shut down or censure the opinions of certain personalities. Again, which does he want?

I don’t know whether it is just cultural or a result of our force-down-your–throat education system but we have great difficulty entertaining the idea that people with diverse opinions should have equal space with us. We hide behind the amorphous concept of “sensitiveness” to ensure that contrary opinions don’t collide with each other. Either one takes the politically correct view or not at all.

But what if the politically correct view isn’t the right one, or at the very least needs refining? How does that happen if no other opinion is allowed to see the light of day?

That’s when the secret weapon comes out. Their opinion is divinely sanctioned. Therefore contrary opinions must surely be divinely forbidden. How anyone knows this with such certainty is a mystery. Surely they aren’t suggesting they are the Voice of God?

The plurality of voices has existed since the beginning of time. Over thousands of years, people find a way to talk to one another, to discuss and come to some consensus. Sometimes a lot of blood is shed to achieve this but surely we have come a long way since then?

There are some people who claim that having freedom of speech (or freedom of anything) means allowing the profane, the immoral and the hateful. But in most countries, there is some form of law that disallows such speech. In Germany you cannot say anything to glorify the Nazis. In Britain freedom of speech is limited by laws against “hate speech”, ie words that cause one group of people to hate another. In Malaysia supposedly we should be sensitive to the feelings of our different communities and not say anything to offend them. (Except maybe in Parliament?)

But I get the impression that such sensitivity only goes one way. People are exhorted not to hurt the feelings of one particular group, while some members of that group blithely say insulting things about others with no conscience at all. They talk as if the slightest contact with these others would taint their own people. Is this not hurtful? Yet these are the same people who complain about not being allowed to speak if anyone protests against them. Freedom to say vile things about others? I’m not sure about that.

There is always talk that rights and freedom should always be tempered with responsibility. Well I completely agree. But let’s walk the talk, shall we? I wonder if some of the things said by public figures in this country are responsible, especially when they claim divine authority? I see people defending them solely on the basis that they are holding taxpayer-paid posts. Claims are made that they are correct with no specific examples given (for example, there are those who claim that there are ungodly activities that go on at kongsi Raya events but without ever specifying what). How responsible is that?

When we allow freedom of speech that is fair to all, as well as hold people to high standards of evidence and truthfulness, then we will clear confusion. While our stand on this remains wobbly, then it’s no wonder that people think double standards is the norm.