Saturday, 25 April 2015

A Better Internet (On Freedom of Expression, Part 2)

[Part One: Over-rated.]

I saw this question (about making the Internet better): "Can you disagree with someone yet still respect their opinion?"

This is like the US position on Freedom of Speech: Contextless. Idealistic. Theoretical. Meaningless.

Context is important. How did the person arrived at their opinion?
- God spoke to him and told him what is true.
- He read it in the Bible/Koran/I-Ching/Torah/Holy Book and so it must be true.
- His Church/Temple/Mosque/Synagogue has reflected, meditated on the issue and had promulgated a position and he is required by his faith to adopt the same position.
- Someone sent  him an email, precisely on this matter.
- He read it at the Flat Earth Society website.
- He read it in Popular Science.
- He read it in Time Magazine.
- He read it in the Straits Times.
- He read it in his company's sales brochure. Heck, he WROTE the freaking sales brochure.
- He does research on the subject and has studied the issue.
- His view is informed by his personal experience or the experience of family members.
- After studying the issues from both sides, he has adopted his position because it offers the best hope for him/for his family/for Singapore/for the world.
Say you are having a debate on the internet with one or more persons. And the person has one or more of the above as the reason how he arrived at his position that differs from you.

Which would you be able to respect?

Insufficient information? You need to know WHAT his view is?

Okay. Try these:

A) "I have read the Bible, prayed, meditated, and fasted to get into the proper frame of mind, and GOD has revealed the Truth to me: Evolution is a FACT! Genesis is a metaphor and Creation is not to be taken literally!"

B) "I have been studying the coffee, caffeine, and coffee-drinkers for years, I have a lab with 20 staff doing all kinds of research, surveys, and experiments on this issue, and I have interviewed thousands of coffee and (this is important) non-coffee drinkers and non-caffeine users (not even tea or cocoa), taken their personal and family history, and I have concluded that caffeine use by parents causes autism in Children. To be fair the effect is rather small - that is, NOT EVERY coffee drinker will have an autistic child, but (this is important) NO non-caffeine user has ever had an autistic child. Yes. Yes. Yes. I know the difference between causation and correlation. But that is just semantics. The truth is clear to those who study the data!"

C) "Climate change is a complicated issue and there are complicated arguments which I, a non-scientist, am unable to restate or re-present to you. All I know is this: Climate Change is Real. You can say that I am taking this as a matter of Faith. I don't care. You can do your own research and reach the same conclusion, or not. If you don't share my conclusions, I'm fine with it. But if you do conclude that Climate Change is real, then the question is, What are you going to do about it? At this point the experts are unanimous. If we were to cut down our carbon emissions by 60%, we would still not stop climate change. The best we can do is to minimise Climate Change. A 60% cut in emissions will mean that the seas will still rise, but less than 1m and MOST cities and populations will still be safe. Yes, some people will need to be evacuated to higher grounds, but this would be manageable. If we do nothing, the seas will rise 6 to 8 m and most cities will be flooded, if not destroyed, uninhabitable. People will be homeless and hungry, disease will spread, and people will sicken, and die. If we all do this and we are wrong (there is no climate change), we would still have a cleaner planet, a cleaner earth - which is good no?. But if we don't do this and there really is climate change, then we would have destroyed the earth. So on balance, we should reduce our carbon emissions by 60% at least."

D) "I didn't want to believe it, but facts are facts. Undeniable. The HDB upgrading programme is a scam. What happened was that in in 70s, flats were built so fast that there were short-cuts taken, and the engineering level at that time was not up to current standards. So a lot of the blocks are actually in danger of collapsing over the next 20 years (from 1990). But what can HDB or the government do? Ninety percent of Singaporeans live in HDB flats. They can't evacuate 30% or so of flat owners! And if they told flat owners that their flats were in danger of collapsing, they would have expensive class action lawsuits and a PR disaster! But the brilliant people at HDB came up with the plan to offer HDB Upgrading, which included a new utility room. The new utility room is like reinforcement columns to stabilise the block! (Don't believe me? Look at the upgraded blocks, for yourself.) Problem solved! Best part? They sell the whole idea as a Upgrading programme, get political mileage out of it, AND get the flat owner to pay "subsidised costs" for the "upgrading"! The subsidy isn't from the govt! The flat owners are subsidising the govt to remedy their substandard flats! Brilliant no?"

E) "Look all about you. SC makes up just 60% of the population and of these, 1/3 were not born here. That means only 40% are True Singaporeans, born and bred. The rest are foreigners and immigrants! They come here for the good life. I don't blame them. Singapore is a successful country because of Great Leaders like Lee Kuan Yew; because our Pioneer Generation worked hard and sacrificed; Because SC born and bred serve NS to make this country safe and secure. Then the foreigners come and enjoy the good life WE Singaporeans made possible. The "Foreign Talent" come and take our jobs. The Ang Mos come and look down on us Poor Singaporeans. They enjoy our peace and security, and laugh at our "fake democracy" and make fun of us for "trading liberty for economic success." What about them? When they come to Singapore to work, aren't they trading their democracy for economic success? Hypocrites! And the Foreign Workers are just as bad! Filipinos calling us losers. Trying to turn our island into part of their country - You want to celebrate your national day, do it in your own embassy, lah! And the Indians... sorry, "South Asians"... rioting in our streets. Sorry ah, "Little India" doesn't mean you in India, ok? You bunch of ungrateful foreigners, just GO HOME! Don't come here and bite the hand that feeds you. Someone might bite you back!"

Which of the above views and arguments (with their explanation for how they arrived at their views/ arguments) could you respect, even if you disagreed with it?

Would you pick (A)? If you are not a creationist, and you take the position of science, the conclusion of this person is in line with science. However, his "cognitive journey"or thought process that led him to this conclusion does not accord with science. Could you AGREE with this person and RESPECT his views?

Would you pick (B) as an opinion that you find convincing, or even if you didn't, you would consider the person and his view worthy of respect? He seems to using science to arrive at his conclusions, although on the face of it, his conclusions seem daft or highly suspect. But what do you know? You're not a scientist.

What do you think of (C)? The person seems not to care about convincing you of the problem, but rather makes an argument for how to arrive at the solution instead. And that the solution is a no-lose solution. If you agree with him and reduce carbon emissions, there are only good effects. Convincing?

Narrative (D) seems highly coherent (and perhaps even compelling) narrative. Is it a convincing argument? Do you believe him? Has he persuaded you? Or is his logic suspect? The facts are all explained or supported? Even if you don't believe him (you cynical sceptic you!), you can't help but respect his coherent narrative, no?

And then we have (E). Does that summarise the views of many (if not most) Singaporeans? Can you agree with him and respect his views?

Back to the question: Can you disagree with someone and still respect their opinion?

How do you respect what is patently false and untrue? How can you respect an opinion that is clearly stupid? Uninformed? Xenophobic? How can you passively endorse (via your respect) opinions that spread fear, anger, hatred, and violence?

How do you respond to paranoid conspiracy theories? Demagoguery? Politics of envy?

Oh, but those are extremes, you might say. Most of the time, people are not like that, right?

And talk is only talk, right?

Yes, for most of us.

Someone who rants like in example (E) against foreigners, may or may not be xenophobic. They may consider themselves patriots and True Singaporeans. But their speech denigrates foreigners, imputes negative affect on the part of the foreigners and may promote envy, anger, hatred on the part of Singaporeans.

Can we be sure that the teenager that went around looking for foreigners to beat up, "to practise his kung fu" was not influenced and affected by all this negativity? That he felt he could pick on this group because Singaporeans would not care or even mind if a foreign worker was beat up?

Isn't it likely that the general ill-feeling (even hatred) towards foreign workers might have emboldened the little hooligan to think that he could beat up foreign workers with impunity? Isn't it likely that general sentiments that imply that foreign workers may be less than human might have led this thug to think it permissible (even laudable?) to beat up these "sub-humans"?

Or do you think the last two paras are hyperbole on my part?

Maybe. It is only speculation on my part.

When freedom of speech is not bounded by responsibility, irresponsible speech can warp and distort perceptions of reality and other people's freedom and security.

Can you respect irresponsible opinions?

Too euphemistic? Okay, Can you respect hate speech?

The internet isn't a clean, logical, informative place where you get the unvarnished truth. It is full of people with their own agendas. Where people will present opinions, ideologies, and values as facts, where conviction passes for evidence, and Truth is democratically determined (by the number of likes they received).

The problem with "Truth" being democratically determined is that you end up with the Tyranny of the Majority. What if more than 50% of Singaporeans believe that Foreign Workers are less than human. Is that "truth" now?

The problem arises when one confuses values or opinions with facts. When what you believe (values) is what you think of as "facts"; when what you value is what you think the world should be like; when your position is not based on facts, but based on a prescription of what you think the world should be. Or as Bilahari said, we conflate "information with opinion and [treat] both as entertainment."

On 5th April, I posted my proposed response to the same-old criticisms of Singapore (and Lee Kuan Yew). In the first part of the post, I had a round-up of the usual criticisms. In the second part I proposed that we have no need to engaged with the ideologically intractable.

The point was this: there is no point arguing with these ideologically-bound people. Arguing with them is asymmetrical. They are propounding on ideologies, which are values, which are at best opinions. And they are basically trying to explain how Singapore can be successful despite not practicing the pedigreed version of democracy. That Singapore has succeeded is a fact. By any objective metric. That Singapore deviates significantly from pure democracy (defined as "US Democracy") is also a fact. This is a conundrum. Of their own ideological creation.

Singaporeans who attempt to rebut these theoretical and ad hominem arguments (Lee Kuan Yew is a dictator) will use facts, as well as personal views or experience. But against pure ideology, what good is personal testimony? Especially if you have been brainwashed. Or subverted and seduced by economic success.

But I digress.

My conclusion and continuing theme is this: Most people on the internet are not arguing with facts, they are simply propounding their opinion, based at best on values or ideology, and what passes for evidentiary support is at best popularism, appeal to authority, or getting a quote from someone famous.

As Bilahari observes: "What passes for critical thinking... is too often simply crying white if the establishment should say black."

One comment on the post about the same old criticisms about Singapore quoted (in support of her assertion that liberty is valued or should be valued) Jean-Jacques Rousseau: "I prefer liberty with danger than peace with slavery."

That is an argument? I wonder if she even knows who Rousseau is? That he is a five-time child-abandoning hypocrite?

Anyone can say "I prefer liberty with danger than raising the 5 children I fathered". In his case "Liberty with danger" is philosopher's code for sending all five of his newly born children (as soon as they were born) to an orphanage (a.k.a. "foundling hospital"). When he was accused of having left his children at the door of the orphanage,
Rousseau steadfastly denied having done so, insisting that he had taken them inside, which shows that he was kind of an expert at missing the point.
Although I must say, I can see how Rousseau might consider child-rearing as "slavery".

As for me, I prefer liberty with peace, to danger with slavery. But don't quote me, cos I'm Singaporean.

The best places on the internet are moderated spaces - where someone takes responsibility for the direction, tone, and purpose of the space.

Everywhere else is the Wild Wild West. And it will take work to carve out little corners of civilised discourse.

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