Unbearable confusion of youth

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 June, 2006, 12:00am

The recent controversy over the internet poll launched by Commercial Radio - asking listeners to vote for women artists they would most like to indecently assault - deserves serious reflection. The inflammatory survey was stopped by women's groups and the Broadcasting Authority, but some youngsters claimed it was nothing more than a harmless joke.

How could the city's young adults take such a light-hearted attitude towards a matter with such profound implications? For example, pop singer Joey Yung Cho-yee suggested that the poll was meant to be fun, and that the public should not take it too seriously. Another young artist said it was merely a game, which could not possibly have a negative social impact.

Others lashed out at people who took the incident too seriously. On one internet chat room, a 25-year old called female activists 'pseudo-moralists', asking why they didn't try to stop women from baring their legs and posing for seductive pictures on magazine covers.

The media might be the first to blame for such attitudes. Growing up in the media age, our young people are accustomed to viewing everything from an entertainment angle. In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, media critic Neil Postman observed that everything - from war, politics and social debate to culture and religion - had been turned into entertainment in the television age. Our conception of what constitutes life's serious side was degraded, and our sense of right and wrong blurred, he lamented.

But that is not the whole story. What makes the media powerful in setting attitudes is the growing gap between the worlds of 'serious and dull', and 'funny and light', as presented by the media. As they reach puberty, youngsters in Hong Kong are increasingly pulled apart by those two worlds. Representing 'serious and dull' are parents, teachers and officials who lecture them about academic achievements, moral correctness and social responsibility.

Confronted with such tall demands, young people find their escape in the world of 'funny and light'. It is populated by pop singers, movie stars, radio hosts and heroic figures from Japanese comics. There, they can mock all authority and enjoy the lightness of being.

This is the world where youth subculture emerges, where peers bond and identities form. The more demanding the world of 'serious and dull', the more youngsters are labelled underachievers. That spreads a sense of loss; cynicism flowers; and the tendency grows to seek escape in the other world.

It is one thing for activists and authorities to try curbing indecent behaviour against women. But it would also be worthwhile to look into the roots of youth subculture. Parents, teachers and policy-makers can point out the serious social implications of public broadcasting; but they should also recognise the confusion and perplexity confronting young people in this increasingly complex world.

Cynicism and resistance are bound to grow in Hong Kong, where examination results and business success are so strongly emphasised - coupled with shrinking opportunities for young people whenever the economy slows.

The more dominant the mainstream values and lifestyle, the more attractive the youth subculture becomes. Hong Kong society is yet to carve out room for young people, allowing for creative, pluralistic and alternative lifestyles.

Kitty Poon, research fellow at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, is a part-time member of the government's Central Policy Unit