Storms in teacups over hurt, not harm

Three men are in the news and under state scrutiny. Jason Neo, for captioning a photo of a school bus filled with children ‘Bus filled with young terrorists’. Christian Eliab Ratnam, for posting a photo on Facebook that some believe insult Islam. Donaldson Tan, for sharing another offensive image and declaring it flamebait. Then came the calls for police investigation and use of the Sedition Act.

Is this an overreaction? Absolutely.

Yes, feelings were hurt. People – not necessarily just Muslims – felt offended by their deeds. From their perspectives, to themselves, their feelings are completely justified.

But no harm was done.

These three remarks are one-off comments. None of the three are engaged in a calculated campaign to incite ill-will against Muslims. They are not engaged in harassing or bullying Muslims. None of the remarks they have made can reasonably be argued to incite others to violence. Donaldson Tan said he wanted to warn people that a certain image will attract a flame war – which probably means he acted in good faith. There are no race riots raging on the streets, and no sign that one will erupt any time soon. Nobody is using these comments as propaganda or to justify violence against anybody. Not even the terrorist comment, because it did not state, explicitly or otherwise, that violence against those children were justified.

For all the right or wrong of what the bloggers did, their comments did no harm. No potential or actual physical damage can be attributed to their remarks, and there is no sign that they harbour true malice towards Muslims. Malice, not prejudice – the difference being that the former is a will to violence and ill-doing, while the latter is thinking less of somebody else.

Feelings were hurt, but no harm has been done or will be done. This means that it should not be a police matter.

In democracies, laws that govern speech and expression have two purposes: preventing harm, and punishing harm. A man may spout all manner of angry words about Islam. He’s hurting feelings, but he’s not harming anyone. But a propagandist who spreads a message of violence towards Islam is inciting others to violence. That means he could harm someone through his deeds, and should rightfully be punished to minimise the damage done.

Using the law to prosecute someone for causing harm does social good. Using the law to prosecute someone for hurting feelings does social harm.

Firstly, it is not the job of the state to protect feelings in cases when hurt feelings do not cause harm. The state’s objective is to provide core services and protect the people from harm. There are all kinds of people living in the state, all of whom are unique. They have different experiences, mindsets and beliefs, which means they have different emotional responses to a given situation. The state can’t possibly account for them all. At the same time, the law must apply equally to everybody. Protecting hurt feelings is impossible: you need to accurately measure degrees of hurt, decide appropriate punishments, create objective tests for subjective feelings – all this in an environment where different people react differently to different things. The state cannot serve everybody by prosecuting people who hurt feelings. What the state can do is serve people at the level everybody has  in common: that of physical safety. If physical safety is not threatened, the state should not intervene.

Secondly, it drives undesirable elements underground. Calling down the police every time someone makes an offensive remark has a chilling effect. Very few people, if at all, will want to voice an opinion that would earn them police attention. This won’t eliminate racism or other negative -isms. It simply means that true believers will go elsewhere to share their opinions, out of public view, where they won’t be monitored and criticised. In the best case scenario, it will be that much harder to reach such people and persuade them to change their minds. So they’ll pop up again when the police crackdowns end – and their views would be hardened by the crackdowns, as they see themselves with The Ultimate Truth standing against a hostile, ignorant society. Do this too many times, and the racists and other -ists may just decide that the state poses a threat to them, and use violence against other people.  Using the power of the state needlessly, on cases where no harm is or will be done, is therefore counterproductive, and can backfire.

Thirdly, it strangles public discussion. This is in addition to people not wanting to speak up because they don’t want to get arrested. By using the power of the state to clamp down on ‘offensive’ points of view, the community is sending a message that those stances are not tolerated. The more often and more widely such moves are taken, the narrower the message becomes, to the point where the message is, effectively, there is just one acceptable point of view. We’re already seeing this in Singapore: it is completely unacceptable to say anything negative about any (government-defined) race or (mainstream) religion – say anything negative and you risk the hammer of the law coming down on you. Never mind that negative comments about races or religions in Singapore haven’t actually sparked any hate crimes. The trouble with having just one perspective causes public discussion to stagnate. That perspective is created, not through mutual consent, but through mutual fear. This means very few people will want to say anything that contradicts the One True View, which leads to stagnation. Locked in stasis, the mainstream view will not evolve to suit changing times. This is how autocrats, dictators and tyrants maintained power – not just by silencing everybody who disagrees, but by shaping the discourse so everybody thinks that the right course of action is to support the ruler.

Fourthly, this isn’t just about racism. It’s about rules of engagement on all topics. Someone’s point of view may hurt feelings. But it does not mean it is automatically wrong. Telling a bunch of good ol’ boys in the American Deep South, circa 1920, that all races are equal may hurt their feelings. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that statement is wrong. As my contact Rory Miller likes to say, people confuse emotion with truth. That is, many people believe something is right because they feel it is right – never mind the truth of the matter. By letting the state defend hurt feelings, such people will be allowed to dominate public policy debate by getting the police to arrest people who disagree with them.  This distorts freedom of speech and expression and causes stagnation of debate. It also allows people to push through pet agendas without having to consider reality, leading to waste of time, energy and money. We’ve already seen cases like this – minus the state punishing people who disagree – in Singapore’s Social Development Unit (Lee Kwan Yew’s gentle eugenics program), moral panics, and Satanist scares. By refusing to defend hurt feelings, the state is refusing to needlessly meddle in the marketplace of ideas, and allows people to speak truth to power.

If people’s feelings are or can be hurt by remarks, they can be handled without needing the police to intervene. This is what comment policies are for – to encourage and enforce a civilised discussion. This is what public discussions are for – to understand where people are coming from, and to generate consensus instead of imposing a point of view. This is what public statements are for – to tell people about your particular stance and to indicate what you feel is offensive and what is not. The police don’t and shouldn’t have to step in unless harm is imminent.

Freedom of speech and expression applies to everybody. Not just the people you agree with. If they offend you, you have the freedom to let them know exactly how you feel. If no harm is done, there’s no reason to call the police.

Post script

I received an e-mail from Donaldson Tan about his thoughts on the controversy surrounding him. With his permission, I’ve reproduced a section of the e-mail.

If I were a Muslim, this action would be appreciated by the Muslim community as being watchful and civic-minded. However, my action were interpreted otherwise as I am not a Muslim. It looks like to be a whistleblower over Muslim affairs, one has to be a Muslim.
You guys might recall Noor Firdaus. He posted Jason Neo’s photo that carried the remark “future young terrorists” on several Facebook pages which include The Online Citizen, Young PAP and the public pages of some MPs. He and I essentially did the same but I am being castigated online because I am not trusted to be a whistleblower by a certain faction of netizens.
The bit on censorship was subsequent reaction to the use of implied threat by my detractors. I held my ground against cyber-bullying of these individuals.It is essential to take note that I didn’t commit hate speech at all. I also stress that I didn’t author the controversial photo.
I’m not going to comment on what he said. I’ll leave it up to you to decide.