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.

NGOs question joint MOM inspections, police inaction

Foreword: Funny things happen sometimes. For two years, I wanted to explore repatriation companies in my fiction, and why the authorities have not done anything about them. The fifth Michael Chang story involves one such company. I was planning that story when I received a certain assignment: write an original piece of journalism for my degree program. Naturally, I decided to write about repatriation companies in Singapore. 

It was supposed to be just homework. But the public interest demands going further. So I am publishing this story online. I only had 350 words to work with, but it was not enough to cover the scope of the issue. So I have added additional sentences, marked in italics, that were not in the article I submitted. 

Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) questioned on Wednesday the Joint Proactive Enforcement Inspections on Repatriation Companies in November. Conducted by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), police and Civil Defence Force, the inspections found “no infringement” of the law.

Foreign workers who are dissatisfied with their employers may lodge complaints with the MOM. The Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) claim that rogue repatriation companies coerce these workers into withdrawing their complaints. Tactics include threats, verbal abuse, illegal confinement, confiscating passports and personal belongings, and in rare cases assault. The NGOs also claim that some employers hire repatriation companies to pre-emptively abduct and repatriate “troublesome” workers, preventing them from raising complaints. Employers may also blacklist such workers, preventing them from ever returning to Singapore.

Mr Jolovan Wham, Executive Director of HOME, said, “I think the way [the inspections] were conducted were not sensitive to the situation. It’s unrealistic to expect migrant workers to complain about their plight to Ministry officials in the presence of repatriation company staff.” He added that he had questions with how the interviews were planned and how the questions were posed to the workers.

Mr Russell Heng, President of TWC2, asked, “What is the definition the Ministry used for infringement? If the police mount a check one night on a few roads and did not find any drunk drivers can they conclude that drunk driving does not exist in Singapore?”

The NGOs also claimed that the police ignored complaints from migrant workers allegedly abused by repatriation companies. They said that the police conducted superficial investigations and ignored phone calls from workers abducted by repatriation companies, and that officers who do respond to such calls refuse to free workers confined by repatriation companies.

Mr Wham said, “[The police] probably feel that there is a need for repatriation companies to control wayward migrant workers in Singapore in case they become illegal or commit crimes. They see repatriation companies as playing a positive role.”

“I see it as a very straightforward issue with a very straightforward solution,” he continued. “Just listen to the workers and enforce the law.”

As of press time, police and MOM officials have not responded to queries.

Yesterday, the Singapore Police Force informed me that they are “unable to assist” me on this matter. There is still no reply from the Ministry of Manpower.

Justice for All

Reading this commentary, Romans 12:17, 12:19 and 12:21 come to mind.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. (12:17)

Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. (12:19)

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (12:21)

(New International Version)

I’m not a Christian. The closest I had to a Christian education was three years in Anglo-Chinese Junior School. To my non-Christian eyes, this verse reads as a call to lay down thoughts of vengeance and do what is morally right. (As this blog is about humans and human behaviour, I won’t comment on a divine being taking vengeance.) Thane Rosenbaum argues that revenge is moral because it is natural, and that “the actual difference between vengeance and justice is not as great as people think”. I must disagree.

Rosenbaum says, “Recent studies in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology have claimed that human beings are hard-wired for vengeance.” He goes on to say, ‘Legal systems should punish the guilty commensurate with their crimes and recognise a moral duty to satisfy the needs of victims to feel avenged. ”

This claim sounds reasonable, but it is not. It is impossible for the legal system to fully satisfy these needs, because there is no objective standard to meet. The ‘needs’ Rosenbaum speaks of are emotional in nature, and emotions vary from person to person. I feel no need to avenge myself on the people who have tried to rob, con, kill, or otherwise harm me or mine. But I have known people who sought ways to seek vengeance on others who have done little more than exchange harsh words with them. Plus, quite clearly, the cases Rosenbaum brings up show people who declared a desire for vengeance. So different people have different reactions to something, and the courts cannot accommodate them all.

The ‘need’ Rosenbaum speaks of is not a need. It is really a desire. A ‘need’ is something a person cannot live without for a healthy life. Vengeance does not fall into that category. The root of vengeance is anger, and its cousins hatred and aggression.  A person seeks vengeance because he is angry and feels aggressive. Taking vengeance is to take action on the world outside of a person – but anger is an emotion within a person. An aggrieved person doesn’t need vengeance so much as need to discharge anger. Vengeance and discharging anger are, in my opinion and experience, too easily conflated.

Vengeance is taking injurious action against someone. Anger is a sense of being wronged. The former comes from the latter. Taking vengeance does not remove anger. Removing anger removes the desire for vengeance. Taking vengeance to deal with anger is like dipping a half-full glass of water into a filled sink to empty the glass. You don’t always succeed, and you’ll get wet. There are consequences to vengeance, chiefly legal prosecution, and starting a cycle of revenge pitting you, and your friends and family, against everybody you have acted against. It’s much easier to simply empty the glass. This removes the cause of vengeance. It addresses the very human need of attaining emotional tranquility, and removes the desire to take vengeance.

Even if taking vengeance were an appropriate course of action, the criminal justice system is not the means to do it. The criminal courts have four priorities. First, they need to isolate dangerous people from society. Second, they need to ensure the innocent are not harmed through the judicial process. Third, they need to neutralise criminals as short- and long-term threats to society. Lastly, they need to deter potential criminals from committing crimes. This, in fact, is all the courts can do.

The social contract between the people and the courts requires the courts to mete out justice for all. Justice, not vengeance. Justice is essentially moral rightness, and punishment of breaches of morality. For the justice system to apply equally to all, this demands objective standards. Vengeance is a desire to take action to address a perceived wrong, so it need only meet individual subjective standards. Justice and vengeance, unlike what Rosenbaum says, is essentially incompatible at this level of analysis. The courts are not empowered to take vengeance on behalf of the aggrieved. Nor should they.

To be clear, while the courts hands down punishment for criminal activity, I do not define this as vengeance. This is retributive justice. Its goal is to neutralise the criminal as a threat to society – and perhaps transform him into a productive member of society when he has served his time. The key difference between vengeance and retribution is that the former pays evil unto evil – the latter destroys evil and overcomes it with good. Instead of punishing someone to make someone else feel better, the idea behind legal retribution is to reform someone through punishment and rehabilitation.

Rosenbaum says that the legal system must “pass the gut test of seeming morally just; and revenge must always be just and proportionate.” The trouble with a ‘gut test’ is that it is subjective. Everybody is different, and therefore so is everybody’s gut test. ‘Just and proportionate’ only applies if there are objective standards – this is what people think of as the laws for criminal justice. Revenge is neither just nor proportionate, because revenge is based on subjective standards of satisfaction. Should the courts mete out different punishments for the same crime, the courts would breach their social contract much more grievously than its perceived failure to avenge.

Earlier, I said that the courts have four priorities, amongst which is deterrence. Inconsistent punishments will have little to no deterrent effect. Criminals will not have any standard to weigh against when planning crimes, and might feel more tempted to engage in more aggressive crimes if they believe they can pay the price if they are caught. A criminal who believes his victim might not press charges, or would be lenient, would be more likely to be more vicious than a criminal who thinks the law will come down harshly on him. This alone could be the difference between robbing someone at knifepoint, and ambushing a victim, beating him senseless, and then relieving him of his possessions. In both cases, the perpetrator gets what he wants – money. But a predator would be more likely to pick the second option, as it eliminates resistance and allows him to carry out his plans without interference from the victim. One of the reasons such crimes tend to be rare(r) is because the penalty – and therefore police attention – for the latter is much higher than the former. Without objective standards, there is no deterrence. Without deterrence, there may be more and more violent crime.

There is also a further implication of court-administrated revenge: objective standards of proof, prosecution, and defence would be compromised. The courts would focus on assuaging the victims’ anger, not justice. This opens the door to abuse of the justice system. A woman, angered by an ex-boyfriend, may cry molest or rape to get back at him. With a legal system primed to address the victim’s claims instead of determining the facts, a man could be punished for little more than having a bad break-up. And similar incidents have occurred.

In addition, compromised standards would lead to slipshod police work. One of the roles of the court is to ensure that the police and the prosecution do their jobs properly, by measuring their performance against those standards. With a legal system primed for revenge, the legal system would be under pressure to find someone guilty and punish that person as heavily as possible, instead of determining what happened. The result is poor work by the police and the prosecution. In Singapore, Ismil Kandar was wrongfully convicted of murder after sloppy police work. If a legal system seeks revenge instead of justice, more innocent people could be hauled up for crimes they didn’t commit, and more guilty ones could walk free.

It seems odd that Norway, a country in which just 2% of the population go to church weekly, has a criminal system with the Biblical goal of overcoming evil with good. As reported in the media, Norway has a rather ‘humane’ prison system, which aims to rehabilitate instead of just punish. Mass murderer Anders Breivik could sentenced to 21 years in jail, with additional indefinite 5-year sentences if ‘preventive detention’ were necessary – which is a far more lenient sentence than what an equivalent murderer in Singapore or America or most anywhere else could expect. The system certainly does not meet standards for revenge.

Does the system mete out justice for all? This is something the world is grappling with. But there is something to consider. A mass murderer is fundamentally an aberration. He attracts a lot of attention because of the scale of his crime, but he is not representative of the criminal population. The truest measure of a justice system lies in the nation’s crime demographics. As the Economist points out, the United States has one of the world’s worst prison systems and among the world’s highest crime rates (5 per 100000), while Norway has one of the world’s most humane prison systems and among the world’s lowest crime rates (0.6 per 100000). The United States focuses on punishing criminal behaviour, while Norway looks at rehabilitating criminals.

It’s time to reconsider notions of justice and vengeance. The purpose of having a justice system is to protect society, prevent and overcome evil, and reform criminals. It looks like the world can learn something from Norway.

Presumption of Innocence

Today I saw my aunt and cousin again, for the first time in a half-dozen years. But not in person. They were framed for public consumption in yesterday’s issue of The New Paper. They were in the news because TNP interviewed them after he was picked up by the police during a sweep at Downtown East.

Looking at his tattoo, I wondered what had become of him. What he had gone through in the years before. What the man he is growing into will become. My mother pointed the tattoo out to me, saying that she had never expected him to turn out this way.

The underlying subtext was that Chia Feng Ji had run afoul of the law. Repeatedly.

There are a lot of things I don’t know about him. I don’t know if he had a criminal record. I don’t know why he wears a tattoo of a crucifix. I don’t know why he is seventeen but in Secondary Three, when the median age of students in that grade is fifteen. I don’t know the company he keeps, I don’t know how he was raised, I don’t know anything of any import about him. All I do know is that he has a tattoo and was detained and questioned during the sweep. And that Downtown East was the scene of two vicious gang attacks in recent memory.

This isn’t enough for a presumption of guilt. This isn’t enough to assume that he had broken the law.

Feng Ji was picked up during the sweep. But it doesn’t mean he was guilty of something. When conducting a sweep, the police look for people who fit specific profiles. This includes race, age, tattoos, behaviour, clothing, known criminal records, behaviour, and other factors. Feng Ji was approached by the police because he happened to fit the profile the police were looking for. That is all I know. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a criminal.

He said, “All they told me was that it was a screening, but I was not worried as I didn’t do anything wrong”. (TNP, pg 6, 10 November 2010) My mother apparently took offence at that statement, saying ‘he never learn his lesson’. It’s possible my mother knows something I don’t. It’s possible that he was lying. But it’s also possible that he has not done anything wrong – and I have no evidence to the contrary. I cannot say he has turned bad.

Feng Ji has a tattoo. I think my mother was shocked by it – and the underlying subtext was that he must have done something illegal, and might have associated with criminals. Maybe she’s right. But I don’t know. Having a tattoo that is not a gang symbol doesn’t make you a miscreant. Sure, he is 17 years old – but Singapore has no minimum age on tattoos. He might have gotten into trouble with his school for having one – or not. I don’t know. And even if he did, it doesn’t mean that he has since embarked on a career in crime, or that he hasn’t repented. I don’t know enough to point any fingers at him.

According to TNP Feng Ji was asked four questions: if he had broken the law before, if he were living with his parents, if he were a gang member, and if he were still schooling. I only have answers to two of those questions: he lives with his parents, and he is still schooling. I know this by inferring from the report. His responses to the other two were not published. I don’t know anything about his legal standing.

There is a lot I don’t know about him. I don’t know anything about him that points to a past or present criminal record. I cannot and will not judge him, nor condemn him, on the basis of what little I know. I can’t say that he is guilty of any wrongdoing – so I will continue to treat him like everybody else. Maybe he has a history of crime, maybe he had committed crimes yet unpunished, but it is not fair to let this possibility colour my judgment. Even if he has a criminal record, I will not let his past misdeeds stain my perceptions if he has redeemed himself. All I can do is extend to him a presumption of innocence, at least until more verifiable facts come to light.

And ask that you do the same.

Citizen X

What makes a person a citizen? What makes a person one of us?

Reading Tan Shao Ken’s letter to The New Paper yesterday, I was struck by these questions. The following is a reproduction of part of his letter:

Yes, these table tennis players had to give up their China nationality to become Singapore citizens and hold our red passport.

But they were not only born in China, they were brought up there as well. They came to our shores only after failing to become first-choice players there.

Singapore took them in and trained them to be champions. But the fact remains that they were China’s second-string players before that. Doesn’t that make them look like China’s B team?

It is difficult to look at them as Singapore’s A team, in the same way one may look at local sports stars like Quah Ting Wen, Remy Ong and Ang Peng Siong, people who truly belong here.

I don’t read the sports pages of the newspapers or consider sports a central part of my life. A cursory search on Google reveals like Quah Ting Wen, Remy Ong and Ang Peng Siong were local-born athletes who have represented Singapore at international sporting events, winning accolades and setting records in their respective fields. The table tennis players in question are Feng Tianwei, Wang Yuegu and Sun Beibei, who won the World Team Table Tennis Championships, winning accolades and setting records — the latter by defeating the Chinese team for the first time in 19 years. These sportswomen were born in China, and became Singapore citizens under the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme.

Quah, Ong and Ang were born in Singapore. Feng, Wang and Sun were not. By the vicissitudes of fate, the former three were born in Singapore, and the latter three in China. As far as science can tell, none of these athletes chose to be born in the time and place of their birth. They did, however, have a choice in deciding where to settle down. Feng, Wang and Sun chose to come to Singapore, for reasons of their own, leaving behind the land of their birth.

Who and what a person was is not who and what a person is now. Matters of national origin here are peripheral. These sportswomen, at the time of the competition, were Singaporean citizens representing Singapore, and the award was dedicated to Singapore. Harping on national origins here is akin to saying that the late S. Rajaratnam is not a true Singaporean because he was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Malaysia — never mind his contributions as one of Singapore’s founding fathers and his five decades of public service.

National origin is beyond a person’s control. Nationality is not. A person cannot choose to be born in a certain country, but can choose to migrate elsewhere. When a country accepts an immigrant, that immigrant becomes a citizen, and is issued with the requisite legal documents that defines and proves citizenship. To treat a person as less than a citizen, on the basis of her national origin, is to denigrate her choice, to disrespect her free will. It is akin to ridiculing someone for choosing apples instead of oranges, writing ‘color’ instead of ‘colour’, speaking English instead of Singlish, spending a vacation in Singapore instead of Shanghai, or studying in a local university instead of a foreign one.

Acceptance is perception. It is a perception that a person belongs to a larger community. Acceptance begins when members of the in-group welcome the newcomer and continue to treat that person as part of the group. After that, the newcomer sees himself as part of the group. This, I believe, is the origin and purpose of hospitality customs: you treat someone outside of your group as your friend, and he becomes your friend and part of your group. Acceptance is a recognition that a person can be part of a larger whole. Refusing to accept a person is a rejection.

Sometimes rejection is necessary. An egotistical troublemaker bent on puffing up his ego and controlling others is the last person you’ll want in a group. A country cannot afford to allow a terrorist into its borders. Rejection reinforces emotional and physical security. At the same time by rejecting that person, the group loses that potential. By rejecting an athlete, the country loses the skills that person can bring.

Prejudice is the series of conditions that trigger rejection instead of acceptance. Prejudice is a perceived notion that someone who possesses some or all of these conditions should be rejected. Someone who is queer, straight, black, white, Chinese, Malay, atheist, Christian, and so on and so forth. Prejudice is also artificial: these are artificial standards that reduce a person’s dignity in another’s eyes. Especially if these standards target things beyond a person’s control, like national origin in this case.

Prejudice treats a person as less than a human. It also backfires on the person with prejudices. People go where they are welcome, stay where they are accepted, and leave where they are rejected. People who are rejected from a group take their skills and talents with them, depriving the group of these resources. It also deprives the group of resources belonging to people with similar backgrounds. And other social groups, noticing the group’s prejudice, may decide to punish that group. Think of legal action against racists, demonstrations against anti-homosexual organisations, and sanctions against dictatorial regimes.

Prejudice is a jail a person locks himself into. It is a set of blinders a person wears to selectively reject certain people. I think the only possible explanation I can find is insecurity. Such people have a preconceived set of notions, also known as prejudices, and have invested their identity in them. By removing these prejudices, they sense that they will have to redefine their identities. So they continue to hold on to their prejudices, add layer after layer of rationalisation and justifications, in order to hang on to their ideas of self when faced with someone else.

Interaction with other humans is a hallmark of civilisation. It is a recognition that cooperation tends to yield better results than conflict, that other people apart from yourself have the right to be treated as fellow humans, that someone who is different from you has the right to be himself and not you. Prejudice, by denying the other and the different, hinders human interaction, and by extension progress towards peace and prosperity. Prejudice allows for Chinese to be treated like third-class citizens in Suharto’s Indonesia, for Wiccans to be persecuted in Christian-majority America, for Muslims to be denied the right to their faith in Europe, for preventing people from being useful and productive members of society. Society cannot afford that. There is no place for prejudice in the world.

All the above, by the way, very neatly avoids the fact that three Singaporeans won the championship. If local-born Singaporeans cannot measure up to foreign-born Singaporeans, not enough to enter the national team, the real question should not be why do we call the latter Singaporeans, but why the former is not good enough. More accurately, why local-born Singaporean table tennis players were not good enough to make it to the national team for that particular championship. But I’m not going to ask that question. I don’t really care about a person’s national origin, and I have little inkling of sports and training for sports. All I do care about here are the two questions I’ve asked above.

What makes a person a citizen? Today, just legal papers that show that a person is a citizen of a country. What makes a person one of us? Perception. Our perception. Our tainted perception.

Going beyond faith and harmony

Religion is belief, and belief is the mental acceptance that something is true. However, it does not necessarily mean that that something is definitely true, as verified by objective standards. The existence of the Christian God, for instance, has not been conclusively proven by science as of the time of writing — and neither has science definitively proven that God does not exist. In the absence of scientific proof, religion is and must be a question of personal choice. That is, only you can choose to believe and/or disbelieve in something, and nobody else can make that decision. Only you can choose whether to continue believing in that something, or to believe in something else, or disbelieve something — and nobody else can make that decision for you. All people can do is influence you towards a particular choice they believe you should take, be it joining a church, leaving a religion, or indeed anything at all.

The case of Pastor Rony Tan and his derogatory comments towards Taoists and Buddhists (and now homosexuals) throws the question of criticising faith into perspective. The Government’s stance is very clear: thou shalt not trivialise nor ridicule nor insult the religion of someone else, or thou shall face the full weight of the law. General opinion says that insulting someone’s religion goes against the principles of religious harmony. It is quite easy to end the debate here by concluding that it is a Bad Thing to insult someone else’s religion — if only because one may be invited for a discreet chat with certain nameless officials.

But I’m not content with that. It does not explain why it is a Bad Thing to insult someone else’s religion. It does not show a clear if any demarcation between insult and criticism of religion. It does not say why religious harmony is so important, and why criticising someone else’s religion is bad. Bringing up the spectre of religious riots in the 1960s, the default argument I was raised on, is no longer a good enough explanation: there were no riots after the discovery of and complaints against Tan’s remarks.

In the absence of other answers, I shall investigate this. Bear in mind this article covers insults only; it does not deal with the topic of hate crime, where actual physical harm is caused. Neither does this article cover criticism of religious practices, the stance of certain religions on issues like homosexuality and abortion, or indeed of the precepts of a religion. An ‘insult’ is a rude remark designed to be offensive; that is focus of this essay.

Going back to the first paragraph, religion is belief. People believe in their respective religions to varying degrees: some are lapsed, some only go through the pro forma rituals and little more, some volunteer at the church/mosque/temple, some are true believers. The greater the strength of belief, the more intertwined that religion is with a person’s identity. The Dalai Lama, for example, is seen and defined as the head religious teacher of the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism. A lapsed Catholic may see himself as something other than a Catholic. When one crosses a threshold of strength of belief, a person’s religion is seen by him as a fundamental aspect of what and who he or she is. At this point, the person’s faith is now a part of his identity, or how he chooses to define himself. If you insult that person’s religion, he sees it as an attack on himself.

But that is not just it. Religion may be a personal choice, but many people prescribe to that same belief and practice it in roughly the same ways. There are approximately 2 billion Christians, about 1.57 billion Muslims, and maybe 364 million Buddhists. By insulting a person’s faith, you are attacking him — and he sees it as an attack on the rest of his fellow believers. By heaping insults upon the teachings of the Koran, you will be seen as attempting to anger every fifth person in the world. Believers will see it as their duty to rise up and condemn the attacks, press for jail sentences and harsh punishment, and perhaps even lead counterattacks on non-believers and perceived threats. The world has seen this during the events proceeding the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

One question: can you insult a belief until it dies?

The Christian Church tried this during the Early Middle Ages. This culminated in the witch-hunts of the 14th to 17th centuries. Witches and sorcerers were painted as fearful, dangerous criminals who sold their souls to the devil for profit and power, and routinely engaged in Satanic ritual parties that included orgies, cannibalism, naked dancing, and cavorting with the devil. Convicted witches were burned to death.

Today, neopagan movements, most notably Wicca, are emerging from obscurity. These religions are the spiritual, if not direct, descendants of the folk religions the Church painted as ‘heresy’, ‘Satanism’, and ‘withcraft’. These religions were constantly derided and insulted and trivialised by the Church, and their believers prosecuted to the full extent of the law, in the days when the Church had power to hold trials, torture suspects legally, and the rights of the accused were next to nil. Yet the pagan religions refused to die. Their practitioners merely went underground until the era it was safe to practice their faith in the open. Even today, fundamentalist Christians and other moralists still insult and deny Wicca and neopagan religions, calling them witchcraft and Satanism — even though they are now recognised religions. Unlike practitioners of mainstream faiths in the modern era, they had no rights and had no notion of people’s power. They did not fight for the right to practice their faith openly, either with arms or words. They did press for the right to be recognised, but only after the concept of freedom of religion was commonplace. They simply went with the flow and practiced in secret — and survived.

That is the first example of an organised attempt to wipe out a religion — not just by insulting it, but by rounding up and executing its followers. It failed. The Soviet Union attempted to enforce atheism and later secularism, decrying religion as the ‘opium of the masses, but the official policy on religion varied over the years, eventually watering down into official freedom of religion in the Constitution. China tried to do the same, most notably during the Cultural Revolution, before relenting and allowing freedom of religion — if and only if one subscribes to acceptable behaviour. Religions in those country may be restricted, but they exist.

So you cannot harm a religion by insulting it. You cannot destroy a religion even if you systematically prosecute its believers, even in a time and place where a particular religion was painted as the embodiment of evil on Earth. In the same way, you cannot kill an idea no matter how many insults you lay on it.

Insulting a religion attacks the body of believers and the individual believer. To the group, you are denying the essence of the group identity, the tenants of the group’s belief, and declare that the group’s strength of belief is unjustified and worthless. To the individual, you deny the person’s character, deny that he is an equal human being, and deny his emotional investment in his faith. This is the essential harm caused by insulting that religion.

Now, replace the word ‘religion’ with ‘political affiliation’, ‘sexual identity’, ‘culture’, ‘sex’, ‘age’, ‘income’, ‘social status’, and ‘hobby’.

What is the essential difference?

Sure, there are plenty of answers. Number of believers, social status of concept, government policy, international opinion, etc. But no matter the target, an insult is an attack on an identity. Your identity, and the group identity of fellow believers.

Really, the only essential difference between a personal insult and an insult aimed at a religion is the number of targets.

The objective of an insult, no matter the target (religion, sexual orientation, person, etc.), is to attack a person’s identity, to make the insulter feel better or superior to the target. That is all.

How do you handle someone insulting your religion, then? The same way you handle someone insulting your weight, height, choice of friends, family members, etc. You handle that person with assertiveness.

Let the person know that that kind of behaviour is neither encouraged nor tolerated. If the person is deliberately spreading misinformation, correct that misinformation and invite that person for a discussion on the topic at hand, be it religion or whatever. If that person continues to insult you, call out his behaviour to everybody else. Ignore him until he realises the error of his ways, or goes away. You do not let his comments affect you, you do not get upset, you do not insult him back. You do not forget that he, like you, is human.

This is also called ‘community moderation’.

As for legal involvement, I am hesitant to argue for judicial punishment. A person who insults someone’s religion has the same objective (not method) as someone who insults some else’s friends: to feel better. The harm done may be different — but by how much? Insulting Anglicanism would mean less to a lapsed Anglican than to an Anglican priest, and their individual reactions might be different. When you insult a religion, you are insulting a group of persons: how do you objectively judge the harm done to over a billion individuals? This is important because the amount of harm done directly influences the punishment; this is the principle of proportionality, which is a pillar of modern day justice. It is far easier to pass a sentence on a terrorist who has killed hundreds of innocents than a man who insulted the group identity of a third of the whole world. A modern-day judiciary will be hard-pressed to interview so many people to determine the impact of a billion bruised egos. And even if harm were done, this harm done tends to be little more than sore egos, and unlike an arm or heart, egos can grow back, with the right support, environment, and time.

Because of a lack of standards to determine harm done, and a relative lack of physical harm done by insult, I think the law is ill-equipped to handle people who insult others. Let the police handle the rapists, the robbers, the murderers — the people can handle someone with a misused tongue.

Let’s look beyond the narrative of religious harmony and protection of faith. An insult is designed to attack his identity and provoke an emotional reaction to make the insulter feel better. Its target, be it religion or sexuality, differs only in the number and type of people caught up in the insult. Insults aimed at religion do not harm the religion. The best way to handle an insult is assertiveness and community moderation, without forgetting that the insulter, too, is human. The courts do not have the ability to accurately assess the harm done by insult, making it difficult for judicial punishment to be fairly meted out. What we need, in the end, is a human response to a human failing whose harm is felt only when interpreted by humans.