Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The Human World Is Not a Dichotomy

For almost four months I have refrained from uttering a word on current affairs. The reason is simple: Frustration.

I am frustrated because I no longer feel like part of the city where I was born and bred. I don't agree with what many people think, do and say, as seen in the press and social media. I find it harder than ever to agree with many other people on how any given issue should be defined and understood. Rarely can I see good analyses of any given problem, let alone viable solutions. All I come across is parodies, mockeries, bullying and meaningless war of words. I am never shy to voice out what I truly believe, but I have become more hesitant than ever to do so. This is because I don't want to invite arguments that will lead to nowhere. There is an increasing tendency here to force people to agree with what one thinks is right. If you don't agree, even with a good reason, you will become a target of attack. You can hardly get off the hook until you give up and surrender.

I have run into these situations not only on current affairs, but at work too. Complainants are always demanding "justice" in their own terms, laying down deadlines for response (implying apology and compensation, if applicable) and specific actions. Failure to follow is deemed to trigger off complaints to the media or endless harassment. Having worked in the communications industry for more than 15 years, I am never afraid of dealing with the media for issues and even crises. In the case of harassment, there is every legitimate reason for us to report to the police for assistance. But any sensible person can imagine how time-consuming and unpleasant it is to deal with situations like these. It also requires courage and determination to stand by your own principles, despite all the possible assaults and accusations. Worse still, it has now become a routine for many companies and organisations in Hong Kong. Once you are portrayed and perceived as morally bad – be it insincere, merciless, dishonest, corrupt, pro-establishment, pro-Beijing, you name it, then you are doomed. No one is going to listen to you, even if you clarify with sound evidence. The media and many others will continue to find counter-evidence to support their unfair accusations and show that you are lying to cover up the mess.

But the point is, is what someone think right is genuinely so? Even what most people think right is not necessarily the case. If quantity matters, how many do we need in any given case? What about the reasoning flaws, embedded biases, prejudice and other variables that also exert some influence in the thinking process?

In reality, however, what is right or wrong is extremely difficult to tell. Our human world is full of complications, mostly entangled conflicts of interests and clash of values. Any given issue is never a simple question of "yes" or "no", "good" or "bad", "like" or "dislike". In many cases, the right intentions may produce wrong actions or unacceptable results. There are also situations in which questionable goals may generate some positive, though unexpected, effects. It is, therefore, extremely dangerous to justify the means with the ends, and vice versa. For example, can you tell whether Edward Snowden is absolutely right by leaking details of the US and British mass surveillance programmes? Do you think they are evil devices that are prone to abuse and thus should never exist whatsoever? How about the US government’s claim that such programmes have successfully helped the intelligent and national security departments to pre-empt terrorist attacks in various locations? In my opinion, this is not a question of right or wrong. It is a question of how to reconcile the protection of personal data privacy and national security. Mass surveillance is undoubtedly effective, but is there any other option that does not compromise individual privacy? If not, how much are we willing to concede our rights for the security and well-being of all? Labelling Mr Snowden a hero or a villain is by no means helpful. But people love doing it, because it is simple and easy. No questions asked. No responsibility involved. They don't need to use their brain and search their soul. It also gives them power to attack Mr Snowden or the US administration as they please.

If everything in human life can be reduced to a simple dichotomy, then we don't have to spend so many years learning how to think critically and logically. Logical analysis and reasoning will be worthless. All we need to do is to remember a few examples of what is right or wrong and we can apply them in virtually all situations. This is what I regard as anti-intellectualism, and Hong Kong has shown signs of being anti-intellectual for too long. Sadly, there seems no hope of remedy in the foreseeable future.


  1. Anonymous6:06 am

    I understand and share your frustration. Almost any issue of discussion in HK invariably ends up in a shouting match. Have HK people, including some highly respected academics, lost the ability for a meaningful intellectual debate? Or as you suggested that Anti-Intellectualism wins the day.

    Since you are unlikely to leave HK, you need more than my understanding to fortify yourself for a long time to come. I came cross this famous poem sometime ago. Hope this will help you in some way.

    Ontario, Canada

    If--By Rudyard Kipling
    If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too:
    If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
    Or being hated don't give way to hating,
    And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

    If you can dream---and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think---and not make thoughts your aim,
    If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same:.
    If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
    Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build'em up with worn-out tools;

    If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
    And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
    And never breathe a word about your loss:
    If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
    And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

    If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with Kings---nor lose the common touch,
    If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much:
    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
    Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
    And---which is more---you'll be a Man, my son!

    1. Thanks. Never in history have I been so desperate to leave Hong Kong and start afresh, but I just can't at least in the foreseeable future. My mother is unlikely to leave and I have to support her living. So I will have to stay for at least some more years.

  2. A dichotomy is the easiest mental option to take. Take NZ as an example, it is quite difficult sometimes to explain the feelings of frustration of being Chinese, especially to someone who has never even been outside their comfort zone. What I mean is that, putting oneself into someone else's shoes is a bit of effort. I took a more cowardly approach by avoiding politics and current affairs altogether as convo topics.

    1. Exactly. Appreciate that. But being unable to step out of the comfort zone is one thing, whether one is aware of his/her own limitations and seek to broaden his/her horizons is another. Even awareness itself is rare.

  3. To be honest, sometimes the frustrations do catch up. Having to deal with idiots constantly is in itself a chore, never mind the pre-perceptions people take not by content of character, but by mere physical appearance.

    More to the point though is few have had to experience being the blatantly odd one out. Hence explaining the anger felt when judged only because of having a Chinese name, or some narrow ignoramus trying to stereotype all Chinese in his 'cult of confucius' blog, is almost impossible...


Thank you for your comment. It will be published after moderation by the blogger to avoid spam messages. Thank you in advance for your understanding.