Hong Kong protests: justified but futile in the end

The world is closely watching the developments in Hong Kong. Brave youngsters are testing the limits and patience of the Hong Kong authorities, first protesting against the extradition law, enabling Hong Kong citizens to be sent to China in case of serious allegations, and now with much broader demands for several kinds of liberties. Anybody with who cares for personal and political freedom can only watch in great sympathy, knowing that this is a modern day version of a number of small Davids against the towering power of the Chinese autocratic Goliath, with the Hong Kong authorities as its stumbling middle man.

I happened to be in Hong Kong for a few days, just for touristic purposes, in the first half of the past week. Arriving from mainland China on Monday, we encountered the protests a number of times. The protests caused major traffic jams, making it impossible to leave the train station in the regular way. Yet a small detour on the metro sufficed to reach our hotel. Later that night, we tried to reach one of the night markets, which turned out to be impossible: not only had the traders already packed their stuff, because a prominent protest location was just around the corner, students had also blocked the road and made sure our taxi returned nicely to where it came from.

protest 3

In the hotel we could watch live footage from confrontations between the police and the protesters, with the latter throwing stones and rocks against a police station just a few hundred meters from our hotel in Kowloon City. At times, it seemed there were as many journalists as there were protesters, which is of course an encouraging sign from the perspective of press freedom. The next day we went to Hong Kong University, but only the Student Union was in full protest mode, there were no visible signs of other unrest at the campus.

There were lots of protests at night though, as the coverage in the main Hong Kong quality paper South China Morning Post made clear.

One of the main questions this week was whether the Chinese army or police force would interfere. The local Chinese army commander hinted at it, while about 12,000 policemen gathered in nearby Shenzhen, just across the border in the mainland. The Hong Kong authorities, notably executive leader Carrie Lam and several police commanders, emphasized they were perfectly capable of handling this situation themselves. Given the developments in the past months one can question this, but the hesitation of Beijing to interfere is comprehendible. They do not want unrest, in the wake of the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic later this year, while they know that direct action will make it impossible to get realigned with Taiwan in the foreseeable future, which has been a main goal of any Chinese leader since Mao, current leader Xi Jinping in particular.

Lam hinted at a press conference that the protests only foster the quick termination of the ‘one country two systems’ situation, agreed as part of the handover Treaty with the British in the nineteen eighties. One of the important elements is that Hong Kong keeps its own liberal laws and regulations for the first 50 years after the transfer of sovereignty in 1997.

Earlier protests died down, without much change achieved, mainly because the protesters did not succeed in broadening their movement to the wider public in Hong Kong. Although there was a supporting demonstration of public servants last Friday, this may happen again. On Wednesday, small traders already complained about the income they lose due to all the protests. And there are the mysterious groups of men in white t-shirts who beat up the protesters.

However, in the midterm, the protests will be futile. In the end this is an internal Chinese issue. Sure enough, there will be international protests, and depending on the outcome of the current crisis, perhaps also economic sanctions against China, if it just ends the protests by police or army action. These international protests are mainly symbolic though. Economic sanctions are the instruments of the impotent, not the powerful. Never have they worked to change a regime, or to make live very miserable for the leaders of a country. They do hit the population, but his and her concerns are easily overlooked in the international arena. The sad but undeniable truth is that no foreigner is going to die for Hong Kong. The great powers will treat this an internal Chinese affair. The USA already said so. No foreign power will intervene in China if the terms of the Sino-British Treaty are tampered with. At present, it is far more likely that Hong Kong will lose its special status, perhaps also earlier than the 50 years agreed, than that China will change into the liberal direction. The world may protest, but in the end the Chinese will have their way.

Let’s rehash! When is speech violence?

A new column at the New York Times attempted to use our knowledge about distress and human psychology to conclude that “speech that bullies or torments … is literally a form of violence.”

The response online has been swift and largely just a rehash of a debate, which is feverishly boring by now, on the connection between speech and action. We’ve been having this discussion at least since student activists began protesting non-left speakers on campuses, which frequently turned violent — batterizing professors, throwing smoke bombs, shoving around attendees. That was actual violence.

All the cards are on the table at this point, collecting dust: there are the civil libertarians looking to preserve the conditions for debate in a free society, and the left-wing response which sees some issues as non-debatable and wants to protect vulnerable groups at whatever cost. The speech restrictionists receive some philosophical backbone from people like Herbert Marcuse while speech defenders are supported by the Constitutional legal system. Just last month, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of free speech twice without dissent (on the topics of trademarks and social media). Justice Alito wrote, simply, “Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.”

Rigor mortis was just about settling into this long-dead debate until Lisa Barrett published this article, “When is speech violent?”, in which she presents an argument as fresh which is actually well known by its opponents. That said, the column is well-written, if not logically sound; she recognizes the fundamental difference between Yiannopolous and Murray; she offers some benefit of the doubt to Republicans in their distrust of the new university, although presumably that is not her political camp; her example from class demonstrates a recognition of the overall importance of pushing bad ideas into the spotlight. These notes distinguish Barrett’s article from the usual ideo-fanatical imbroglio that unceasingly propagates from the left to justify chilling speech. The argument itself, in a general form, is old and already receiving ample criticism. I want to comment on just one line. 

She abbreviates the crux of her argument as thus:

If words can cause stress, and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech — at least certain types of speech — can be a form of violence. But which types?

That is one huge “but,” and a painful stretch of transitivity. 

Obviously this argument allows for anything that causes prolonged stress to be a form of violence. Thusly, I can report my professors for every finals week I’ve ever had. The implicit assumption is that things which cause physical harm are always forms of violence (more specifically: if x can cause physical harm then x is a form of violence when it does so). This is how that little leap of logic is made toward the end. What is even more interesting, however, is that this thing might not be a form of violence when it doesn’t cause physical harm, according to the logic — and of course Barrett must believe that, lest she commit all speech to be a form of battery.

This position is interesting to me because, like many other advocacies being discussed today, it seems to violate our basic usage of terms.

Is there an example of any other action (taken here to include anything done by a human) — given our vocabulary for “violence” — that the doing of itself need not be necessarily violent but which can still be dubbed “violent” based on the physical harm it causes? A subsequently rather than simultaneously judged violence? … I don’t think so. I think our standard usage of the word “violence” hitherto this Times article includes and only includes those actions whereby their occurrence itself necessarily means physical harm has also been done. (The relationship being one-sided.) Put simply, our usage of violence is such that if the action happened then harm was committed. Punching someone in the face is not violent only when it “causes physical harm.” It is a form of violence because it always causes physical harm. 

So, it seems to be a misuse of words to call speech violent. Torture, murder, rape: these things and others are violent because they are always so, not because they “can” be so. This fact is absolutely necessary for deliberation in the courtroom. However, speech can be abusive (likewise, spanking may or may not be abusive), and retribution for prolonged verbal harassment is already part of criminal law… so again, why even the need to keep talking about this?

I think everything else that could be said on the issue has been said on hundreds of blogs with dozens of different political attitudes, many times over. In my political and social philosophy class last year, a jurisprudence professor from Rutgers did a guest lecture on why America should adopt laws criminalizing hate speech. The main point, which she openly disclosed as an appeal to popularity, was that plenty of Western European countries had done likewise and the United States was beginning to look a little stubborn. She then accused her vocal opponents, myself included, of slippery slope fallacies when we complained about more government involvement in what people can and can not say.

Are there better defenders of speech restrictionism than this visiting professor? Yes, but by God there are not many. And the fact that most of them tend to be left-of-center, and especially far left, undermines the ostensible purity of the position. In the same way that right wing rhetoric has helped spark violence in people already predisposed to behave that way, and, further still, radicalized them from pacifistic tabula rasas, left wing rhetoric has too. Should we be eliminating Marxist thought from our universities, since orthodox theory predicts and lauds a violent uprising of the proletariat? In my sociology class last semester, our professor announced on the first day that we would be (exclusively) using a “Marxist framework to answer these questions.” Who can doubt that reading the socialist and left-anarchist canon, from Lenin to Guevara to Emma Goldman, has led to violence, when the text and much of the philosophical framework views physical harm as absolutely necessary to the supreme cause? The “revolutionary terror” perspective laughs at democratic reformation. 

This is not to say violence is never justified. I am no Nicholas II loyalist. But the decision about when it is justified is not up to a handful of left-leaning professors and journalists. So if speech is to be censored on the basis that it can lead to violence, the government will have to wipe out a lot of university cirricula — all of it has the potential for radicalization. 

As for the argument that speech literally is violence, no, that is not how words work.

 

Istanbul: The Protests

A moderately Islamist government has been in power in Turkey for about 10 years now. Over the weekend it faced its first stern test. One brave Turkish blogger has decided to reach out to the rest of the world:

No newspaper, no television channel was there to report the protest. It was a complete media black out.

But the police arrived with water cannon vehicles and pepper spray.  They chased the crowds out of the park.

In the evening of May 31st the number of protesters multiplied. So did the number of police forces around the park. Meanwhile local government of Istanbul shut down all the ways leading up to Taksim square where the Gezi Park is located. The metro was shut down, ferries were cancelled, roads were blocked.

Yet more and more people made their way up to the center of the city by walking.

They came from all around Istanbul. They came from all different backgrounds, different ideologies, different religions. They all gathered to prevent the demolition of something bigger than the park:

The right to live as honorable citizens of this country.

Read the rest. Hurriyet, one of Turkey’s best media outlets, has been doing an excellent job covering events after the fact. Their English-language site is here, and I recommend reading the site on a daily basis (even after the violence is over).

Here is my two cents: the Erdogan government (the Islamist one) put one too many straws upon the camel’s back. Ankara simply took too many liberties when it came to regulating the cultural and material life of the Turkish people. Too many blasphemy laws and too many clothing restrictions, coupled with too poor an economic performance made these protests inevitable. The harsh crackdown on an otherwise free people ensured violence and larger protests.

By the way, Turkey’s first post-Ottoman government, headed by the ardent secularist and Europhile, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, also insisted on regulating the cultural and material lives of Turkish citizens, so Islam has nothing to do with this (check out our many discussions we’ve had here on the blog on this).

Rather, the “authoritarianism lite” of the Turkish state has more to do with its status as a post-colonial imperial state and a Cold War pawn than it does with any inherent cultural traits of the Turkish people or of the Islamic faith.