Amos Yee and the Freedom to Offend

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Yesterday 18-year-old Singaporean Amos Yee was granted asylum in the United States, throwing a spotlight on freedom of speech in Singapore. Judge Samuel Cole called him a “young political dissident”, and the ruling claimed that Yee has a “suffered past persecution” and has a “well-founded fear of future persecution”. Yee has been jailed twice, once in July 2015 and again in September 2016.

A victory for freedom of speech?

Maybe, but it’s a hollow victory indeed.

Yee has spoken no hard truths, fomented no revolutions and started no grassroots movements. He has created no groundbreaking works of art or philosophy or politics, nor has he revealed any government or corporate malfeasance. He has run for no political party and has contributed not one iota to the development of Singapore’s civil society.

Yee is merely a shock jock.

In 2015, Yee released an expletive-filled video praising the death of Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, calling him a ‘totalitarian’ and comparing him unfavourably to Jesus and Mao Zedong.

The government opened investigations into Yee and detained him for 53 days. A family and youth counsellor, Vincent Law, bailed Yee. On May 13 Yee demonstrated his gratitude by falsely accusing Law of molest on Facebook. Yee then claimed he would be present at Bukit Panjang MRT station to speak to the media. The media swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker, and Yee didn’t show up. The following day, he posted another expletive-laden Facebook post laughing at the media, boasting about how he had trolled them.

In 2016, Yee produced and uploaded a picture and two profanity-filled videos insulting Muslims and Christians. Once again, he was arrested, this time for ‘wounding religious feelings’. He was further fined $2000 for failing to show up at a police station twice to give his statement.

Amos Yee is no hero. He has not furthered the cause of democracy and freedom, nor has he contributed meaningfully to society. He is no free thinker or dissident, only an attention-seeking teenager whose only talent lies in offensive speech.

But freedom of speech means the freedom to offend. Wounding ‘feelings’ is no reason to arrest and jail people; down that path lies ritualised self-criticism, the gulags and the killing fields. People like Yee are canaries in the coal mine: when the government squashes the canary it’s a sign that freedom of speech is under fire. If people approve of shock jocks being arrested for spurious reasons, the government will be encouraged to crack down on people with legitimate arguments and different points of view. Free speech must be for everyone, or it applies to no one.

With that said, I don’t see Yee making the most of his second chance.

Yee claims he is now an ‘anarchist communist’ who believes in feminism. He has a known history of turning on people who want to help him, displaying callous disregard for anyone whom he hurts, employing vulgarities in place of cogent argument, and generating content that rely on offensiveness instead of rational thought. When the going gets tough and he’s in trouble, he has no qualms about compromising his principles to save his skin. Anarchist communism calls for abolition of private property, capitalism and the state; but he relied on a state organ to grant him safety, and when he was held in America, he asked for people to give him money to cover his costs instead of doing stuff for him like a proper anarcho-communist. He also claims that he supports free speech but like all good social justice warriors he has no problem with media platforms taking down ‘anti-feminist’ speech.

Yee is an arch-SJW who has doubled down and continues to double down. If Yee won’t change his ways — and I don’t see that happening anytime soon — he’s not going to amount to much.

What about the impact on Singapore?

Singaporean politician Kenneth Jeyaratnam claims that the ruling “may create waves in Singapore. It may show Singaporeans that there’s nothing to be afraid about. The Singapore government is a paper tiger. We don’t have to swallow the brainwashing that is constantly put out.”

Jeyaratnam sure is optimistic. The government has not softened its stance on Yee or hate speech. The police has not signaled any shift in policy, overtly or otherwise. Opposition politicians have not argued for liberalisation of Singapore’s laws on hate speech nor proposed new free speech laws in Parliament. Political bloggers are still free to say what they want, within the blurry boundaries of the law. Citizens still won’t know what are the limits of the law until someone like Yee tests it and is slapped down. Nothing has changed.

Save for one thing.

Amos Yee is America’s problem now.

Image from Yee’s Facebook page

Reclaiming the Centre Through Word and Deed

In an op-ed for today’s Straits Times, Bilahari Kausikan intuits that European liberalism is failing, but I sense he jumps to the wrong conclusions. He says:

In West Europe, for instance, the political arrangements that we now call liberal democracy were arrived at only after several centuries of an often violent process of accommodation between different varieties of Christianity, each of which claimed a monopoly of divine revelation. These accommodations are now subject to the political, economic and cultural pressures generated by immigration – legal and illegal – from North Africa and the Middle East as well as from other parts of Europe. That large numbers of these new arrivals are ethnically distinct and Muslim are additional complications.

European liberalism, indeed all varieties of Western liberalism, have proved inadequate to deal with contemporary challenges. This is because liberalism prioritises one system of values and places it at the head of a hierarchy of value systems. But it is precisely this hierarchy that is now being contested – and contested not only by the new arrivals.

The liberal democratic value systems that formed the basis of late 20th century Europe’s political accommodations are now under pressure from European electorates. Hence, the rise of extreme right-wing – sometimes neo-fascist – movements across Europe. Their emergence points to a gap between the values of European elites and substantial numbers of their peoples that needs to be bridged if is not to metastasise into something darker and more malignant.

Across Europe, multiculturalism – an ideology derived from liberalism – is giving way to pressure for assimilation or integration. But assimilation or integration to what? What is, or ought to be, the core and what is the periphery? These are not abstract questions.

Since Kausikan will not mention what this ‘system of values’ and ‘hierarchy of value systems’ are, let me spell it out.

European culture is indeed based on democracy and Christianity: one man one vote, separation of Church and state, freedom of speech and expression, respect for minorities, human rights, and peaceful coexistence.

These immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East carry a different set of values based on Islam and Arabic norms: tribe above all, the majlis is the state, do and say nothing that will bring dishonour upon the tribe, minorities must submit to the majority through tax and slavery in exchange for ‘protection’, women are far less important than men, and the House of Islam and the House of War.

These aren’t simply a ‘hierarchy of value systems’ — these values are incompatible. They were developed in different lands, over different time periods, with a different set of historical baggage. Many immigrants entering Europe, especially the illegal immigrants, do not wish to integrate and become Europeans; instead, they are bringing their cultures into their new homelands, living by the old ways in the ghettoes and no-go zones instead of co-existing with their new neighbours.

Barely a century ago, humans used to call this ‘colonisation’.

Multiculturalism is indeed giving way — but not to assimilation. Assimilation is a symptom. Liberalism is giving way to nationalism: the outright rejection of immigrant culture and values, especially those from Africa, in favour of local cultures and values. The ‘centre’ of this loose ideological movement probably would have little objection to immigration, so long as the immigrants assimilate into the culture of their new homes and adopt their norms.

Specifically comparing the staff of Charlie Hebdo and their murderers, Kausikan says:

Both were equally wrong. I am not arguing that there is a moral equivalency between the terrorists and the cartoonists; clearly there is none. Nothing justifies murder. But is it right to constantly lampoon a religion?

I pointed out that even from the point of view of freedom of expression, a double standard was at play. France, like many other European countries, has laws against the denial of the Holocaust. When the law was challenged on the grounds that it infringed freedom of expression, the United Nations Human Rights Committee held that it was justifiable as necessary to counter anti-Semitism. Even the United States prohibits hate speech.

The central argument of Western political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, is that there is not only one Good, but that there are multiple Goods and these often contradict each other and so cannot be simultaneously realised.

If this idea is accepted, the goal of a movement of moderates cannot be agreement or even consensus, only peaceful co-existence; a modus vivendi that allows for peaceful co-existence between ultimately irreconcilable systems of values. Such a modus vivendi is necessarily always tentative and constantly needs to be renegotiated. To seek a still, unchanging point of eternal nirvana is not only futile but to court an extremist response.

So how do we get to where we all want to go? The Langkawi Declaration on the GMM (adopted by Asean leaders in April this year) prescribes certain approaches, among them outreach programmes, interfaith and cross-cultural dialogues, sharing of best practices and information and academic exchanges.

What is only partly and indirectly stressed is the role of the state. There is no country that is today homogenous. Attempts to homogenise a country are today frowned upon: It is called genocide.

Notwithstanding education and the promotion of understanding, conflicts of values, including values that define core identities, will therefore inevitably arise. When this occurs, it is the role of the state to act as neutral arbiter, to hold the ring between different conceptions of the Good and to maintain whatever modus vivendi pertains at that point, if necessary by exercise of the coercive powers that are the legitimate monopoly of the state, including the pre-emptive or prophylactic exercise of such powers.

When conflicts of values lead to violence, it is usually due to state failure: Because the state or government was caught by surprise; because the state or government was too weak or too timid to take decisive action; because the state or government was unable to resist the temptation to seek political advantage by privileging one group over another; because the state or government was hamstrung by its own ideology.

Of course the West does not practice freedom of speech fully. I recall reading an observation that Greeks of 7th century BC Athens enjoyed more freedom of speech than a modern-day American. This is due to the West’s obsession with liberalism. Holocaust denial offends Jews — therefore, it must be censored. Hate speech aimed at blacks offends blacks — therefore it must be censored. Hate speech aimed at Islam offends Muslims — therefore it must be censored.  The key word here is ‘offend’, as in, ‘hurts the feelings of’. Not speech that incites to violence, merely speech that someone can interpret as insulting.

But if you look at how hate speech is actually defined and prosecuted, one would see roots in liberalism’s respect for minorities. Hate speech against whites, men, and Christians goes unpunished and uncommented.

This points to two things: the West is weak, and states cannot be trusted. The latter is not a Western notion either. In Malaysia, the government punished Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee for posting a photo of themselves eating pork during Ramadan, but did nothing about a group of Muslim protesters who demanded that a Christian church take down its cross. In Uganda, the government passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act in 2014, condemning all convicted homosexuals to lifetime imprisonment.

The state cannot play the role of a neutral arbiter because it is not neutral. The government running the state will have to pander to its support base, the people that confer legitimacy upon it, to remain in power. If the support base do not believe in unlimited freedom of speech then the government will not respect that freedom either. And if that support base screams that it is offended, then of course Big Government will step in to save the day.

It means more Kill the Gays bills — and any attempt to criticise it will be slammed as anti-Christian. It means more Alvin Tans being jailed while Muslim mobs walk free — and any attempt to criticise this will be slammed as anti-Muslim. It means more people being enslaved, tortured, and enslaved by Daish, the Lord’s Resistance Army, drug cartels that worship Santa Muerte, and other such groups — and attempts to criticise them will be slammed as anti-religious. And from these criticisms come punishments, to tell everybody else to keep in line – or else.

Unlike Kausikan’s thoughts, people cannot have it all. Rights and values need to be measured against each other. If you want freedom of speech and protection of human rights, you cannot have protection of  religion. If you want protection of religion, you cannot have freedom of speech. If you want the state to intervene, it will act in the interests of the government and then the interests of the people. Freedom is not freedom only for the ideas you find palatable — that would lead to tyranny. Freedom must be freedom for all.

So, what can be done to reclaim the centre?

The centre is representative of society as a whole. The values the centre embraces must in some way represent the values that bind society, so the first thing to do is to determine what values guide society. And different peoples must decide what societies they want to live in.

I believe in a society that seeks to maximise the rights of the individual while balancing that against obligations to the state. The society would respect the rights of groups while ensuring protection for the individual. It grants every individual the potential to influence the direction society is going, while preventing any interest group from hijacking the rest of society and undermining its core values.

By necessity, this is a society that respects rights over feelings, freedom over censorship. No religion should be protected from blasphemy, and equally representatives of every religion are free to respond to criticism in the marketplace of ideas. The state will plays a role as an arbiter, but it does not police all speech. it monitors instead speech that incites to violence — religious or not, racist or not, the motivation is unimportant — and takes appropriate measures to defuse the situation: counselling wayward attention-seekers, ignoring harmless moonbats, and in the gravest extreme prosecuting terrorist ideologues. The state must serve all people, not the group that keeps it in power, and the best to do that is to limit its role to words and deeds that would harm people, no matter the source. And by ‘harm’ I mean violence against people — not the temporary heartscrapes caused by hearing people express different opinions. Within the state, there must be checks and balances to ensure that it will uphold its duty: ombudsmen, a Supreme Court actually interested in justice, a body that consults with the people to ensure that the government is in touch with the citizens.

The state will probably fail in its duty as protector. It would likely be prejudiced in favour of the group that put it into power, overreact, or fail to act at all. It is inevitable: the mechanisms of state are run by people and people are imperfect. But in such a society, the media and the people would be free to point out the failings of the government in a bid to rectify it — and in this society, the government cannot crack down on such people on the grounds of alleged hate speech without consequences.

Banning Julien Blanc: NIMBYism on a global scale

I feel Julien Blanc is a loathsome, repulsive person. I feel that the tactics he employs are designed to subtly dominate people by invading their personal boundaries and psychologically overwhelming them to prevent a decisive rejection, treating people as commodities instead of humans. I feel the world would be better off without men like him who interact with women primarily to obtain sexual favours.

My feelings are also utterly irrelevant, because banning Julien Blanc undermines freedom of speech and movement.

Activists and social justice warriors are accusing Blanc of promoting violence against women. Assuming this is true, why ban him from travelling to different countries? A person of his dubious stature would still be able to travel to countries whose governments care more about tourist dollars than women’s rights, and the prevalence of information communications technology means that Blanc and his fellow travellers can still continue to propagate their doctrine. The techniques and technology available to Blanc and his ilk are no different from those employed by international lecturers and thinkers, SJWs, local celebrities breaking out into the world stage, and terrorists.

Banning Blanc does not only send the message that he is not welcome in a country, it also signals that the people of that country do not want to have to deal with him — they want someone else to do it. This is Not In My Backyard syndrome.

The court of public opinion has charged Blanc with misogyny, and produced as evidence his infamous choke opener. The photograph shows Blanc placing his hand on a woman’s throat, which he calls ‘choking’.

I have seen Blanc’s lectures and I have heard him speak. I noticed he used techniques commonly employed by public speakers and debaters. He promotes repeating memorised phrases at high speed, deluging the listener in a barrage of words to shut off rational thought and resistance while promising fun and pleasure. The choke opener is an extension of this: he begins a conversation with a woman, then places his hand on her throat to physically dominate her and force her to pay attention to what he is saying. The use of hand gestures, like a finger over his lips or a hand covering her mouth, is an extension of this.

Blanc calls it a choke opener, and activists call it choking. I am a martial artist, and I study combatives. I train in Pekiti Tirsia Kali, I have undergone some training in Krav Maga, and I am in contact with karateka, boxers, judoka, grapplers, and force professionals. Going by that picture alone, I sense Blanc isn’t actually choking her.

Let’s break it down, starting with Blanc’s motivations. I think it’s safe to say the following: Blanc wants interaction. He wants to elicit consent from the woman. He wants her to feel she can’t say no. He does not want her to start screaming for help or to attract unwanted attention. He does not want to be arrested and sent to jail. He does not want to be branded a sex offender, both for professional and personal reasons. The choke opener lies in that murky ground between assertiveness and violence, creating psychological dominance without actually harming the target.

A real choke, on the other hand, does two things: it closes off the airway and it defends the choker from a counterattack. The choke opener superficially resembles a front choke — only, it likely doesn’t actually do damage.

Place one hand on your throat and squeeze. It should feel uncomfortable. Sink into the moment, and imagine that a complete stranger was doing that to you. Feel the pulse in your neck, the pressure against your veins and windpipe. This produces a heightened state of awareness, and enhances a feeling of vulnerability. Now, maintaining that pressure, talk. Say something, anything, just talk.

If you can talk, you can breathe, and if you can breathe, you are not being choked.

Blanc wants the woman to be able to say ‘Yes’. This is domination, not violence. Violence harms the mark, dominance simply attempts to manipulate the target into surrender. Dominance can be countered with assertiveness or violence; the only answer to imminent violence is escape or even greater violence.

real front choke is completely different. Both arms and hands would be locked up straight and tight to provide maximum stability and biomechanical strength. The choker would be pressing the intended victim up against a wall or hard surface, arching the back to break the balance and prevent a counterattack. The choker would be leaning into the victim, applying his body weight and borrowing gravity. A real front choke will close off the airway, induce a panic response, and can leave bruises on the throat. The last can be used against Blanc in court, which he probably does not want, so it is not likely he is actually choking the woman.

Blanc calls this technique a ‘choke opener’ because he needs a dramatic, memorable name for that particular technique. It is linked to the idea of a can opener, comparing the act of opening up a can to opening up a woman. In this sense he is no different from a salesman-entrepeneur naming a product by metaphorically linking it to a commonplace item. Activists have seized on the very unfortunate name to turn it against him, using it to springboard their narrative of violence and generate outrage. Blanc’s propensity for aggrandisation got him into trouble — not actual or intended violence.

But assuming Blanc actually escalated to violence, front chokes are also very easy to break out of. Going back to the picture, Blanc only has one hand on the victim. Assuming some aggressor tries something similar, the defender need merely grab his thumb with both hands and peel back. Normally the technique requires bending the aggressor’s arm for leverage, but he has very thoughtfully done so already. This technique would break the choke and expose him to follow-up strikes.

Against a true double-handed choke, the defender should step back to stabilise herself, then circle her arms under the aggressor’s and shoot her palms through the empty space between his arms, going for his face. This has a high chance of breaking the choke. Even if it doesn’t, the attacker is likely to step back, weakening the choke, or release his hands to defend his face. If he does neither, the palms will strike, causing damage. If the attack rakes the eyes, this induces pain and blindness, encouraging him to let go. If the attack misses or he still insists on holding on, the defender can bring her hands back to his thumbs and peel them off. Or grab the back of his skull and introduce his face to a sharply rising knee.

For armed defenders, the counter is even simpler. Draw a knife and cut the biceps and inner forearms. If he holds on, back cut at the eye to force him to step back, bring his hands back and diminish his vision; stab through the armpits and ribs to collapse the lungs; and/or cut his throat to force blood down the windpipe and air into his heart. Or just draw a gun and shoot him until he drops. This is a lethal force situation, and crippling or killing an attacker is justifiable here.

If Blanc were promoting violence against women, he’s pretty inept about it, relying on his targets to be untrained and unarmed, and unwilling to defend themselves. On the other hand, I don’t see very many SJWs and feminists teaching women how to protect themselves against monsters in human skin. It seems to me that modern-day activists aren’t interested in actually dealing with threats or empowering people to handle them; they just want someone else to do it.

Even if I’m wrong and Blanc actually advocated physically harming women and has sexually assaulted them, banning him from various countries still won’t do any good. He is still free and still able to hurt people in his home country and wherever else would have him. To protect society from such a menace, the best approach is to arrest him and try him in a court of law, and if found guilty, punish him to the fullest extent of the law. This removes a threat from society and sends a message to other would-be predators that society does not tolerate such villainy.

Conversely, if he were found innocent, it means that he is guilty of nothing more than hurting feelings.

I know people who have lived in places where there is no law and no police presence. For people like them, a sexual assault is met with violence: either the woman will kill the attacker during the act (see what I wrote above?), or her friends and family will find and lynch the attacker after the assault. This serves the same purpose of destroying a threat and sending a message to other monsters. The main difference is that they step up and take responsibility of the problem, instead of delegating it to someone else like most civilised people.

The people who want to ban Blanc are not interested in actually dealing with the problem. They just do not want him in their backyard. This is NIMBYism on a global scale, sparked by little more than hurt feelings.

Blanc’s speech may be offensive, but the solution to offensive speech is more speech. His ideas have roundly criticised by people around the world, which means people are less likely to believe him. Or else just ignore him, denying him the fame he needs to continue his lifestyle. To curtail his ability to travel on the basis of offensive speech is to seize the tools of oppression on the basis of hurt feelings, punishing someone for saying the wrong things as opposed to actually harming someone. This sets a powerful precedent: if an international network of people can degrade someone’s freedoms for nothing more than saying politically incorrect words and hurting their feelings, who will they target next?

The answer: anybody else who disagrees with them and hurts their feelings.

People who use their freedom of speech to accuse someone of oppressing a designated victim group and take away his rights are not interested in freedom or protecting people. They just want to be the ones holding the whip.