What Vincent got wrong

Facebook was a particularly lively place these last few days after claim and counter-claim of cyber-bullying and sexism amongst some of Singapore’s most prominent civil society activists triggered significant debate. The incident was sparked by contentious comments on a blog posting by Jeraldine Phneah and her decision to apparently involve university authorities in seeking a resolution. This situation could have been the starting point for a crucial debate on freedom of speech and the appropriate way for individuals who put themselves in the public spotlight to seek redress when offended by vocal critics. However that debate appears to have been somewhat derailed by Vincent Wijeysingha’s decision to apparently criticise Jeraldine and her handling of the original incident in particularly personal, strident, and to some extent, sexist language. By bringing his own selection of offensive words to the fore, Vincent did civil society a disservice by distracting from the much more essential debate on freedom of speech in a democracy.

Why did he say that?

Many observers were shocked that Vincent would choose sexist language, apparently calculated to offend the subject of his criticism, in a debate on freedom of speech. While some may find a delicious irony in deliberately offending others in a debate not just on freedom of speech, but specifically on the freedom to offend in a democracy, to many the result was unpalatable. Staying on topic is an essential part of constructive debate. Just as a journalist should not ordinarily allow themselves to become part of the story, someone engaging in meaningful debate should be careful not to allow themselves to become the topic of discussion. This was Vincent’s mistake. The Facebook discussion that was spawned and grew almost uncontrollably last night was dominated by a discussion of Vincent’s own choice of words, an outcome which I am sure was not his intention, and which adds limited value to the actual debate on freedom of expression.

Andrew Loh expressed the sentiment of many:

well, even so, we can’t have a decent debate without resorting to sexist remarks? I find this highly improbable, given someone of VW’s intelligence and eloquence.

Sexist or not?

Despite picking through the ashes until 2am the next morning, little consensus could be found on Vincent’s true motive. While many found his choice of words blatantly offensive, others detected a (perhaps misguided) higher intent wherein a debate on freedom of speech could be triggered by chosing to utter deliberately offensive words without strictly meaning them to be derogatory.

I don’t know Vincent personally, but I do believe him to be intelligent and well-intentioned. The words he chose were obviously sexist. They were chosen to be sexist, deliberately and yes – provocatively – as far as I can tell at least. But, conversely, I don’t believe Vincent to be an offensive person. I believe that he was actually trying to trigger the debate rather than explicitly insult anyone. I assume at least that he was using those words to create a situation where the question of what is offensive is unavoidably front and centre, and where we are forced to address the question of how to resolve such problems. In fact he did apparently state this as his defense when challenged to explain his choice of words. So while he may have made a mistake in choosing such strident language, I don’t believe he deserves the same level of castigation as someone who honestly attempts to put someone down based on their gender.

Or as Voltaire may have put it: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”.

The real debate

While Vincent’s choice of words may have distracted from the very interesting debate on freedom of speech, it is not too late to try to get things back on track.

In Singapore we have this problem where authorities bend over backwards to protect the allegedly hurt feelings of public figures. To give an example, JBJ in 1996 said, as part of his election campaign, “Mr. Tang Liang Hong has just placed before me two [police] reports he has made against, you know, Mr. Goh Chok Tong and his people”. I’m sure we all know Goh Chok Tong and others sued JBJ for this. What you may not know is that GCT argued in court that this utterance was extremely harmful to him and his reputation, in fact he actually likened this statement to the throwing of a “Molotov cocktail“. To many there is a crucial question here, around whether it is reasonable for public figures to seek official redress when their feelings are hurt. Particularly, many find Goh Chok Tong’s use of the phrase “like throwing a Molotov cocktail” completely incredible and unreasonable – yet in apparent deference to protecting the then Prime Minister’s public reputation – GCT’s case was successful. Was this reasonable? “like throwing a Molotov cocktail”? Really?

Unlike with GCT, I have no reason to believe the hurt feelings Jeraldine originally described were anything other than sincere. But there is still a valid question of whether seeking “official” redress is a suitable course of action. As a civil society activist I would hope she values the importance of freedom of speech, particularly in Singapore where greater freedom to criticise public figures would be seen as progress. And I would further hope she can see that injury to feelings is an incredibly subjective concept, one with incredible scope for abuse if we blindly accept the level of offence purported to be felt by someone with a vested interest in silencing their critics.

An environment where greater criticism of public figures is tolerated would be good for Singapore, and I for one would like to see self-styled members of civil society leading the way.

* * * * *

As I wrote on Facebook – If you’re a good person doing good things, it’s important to learn to be strong and not let mindless critics get you down with whatever rubbish they may write. Jeraldine is a good person doing good things. Not least her petition to reintroduce dialects in local media. You can read more about it here. Please consider showing your support.

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