Bad manners

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 January, 2011, 12:00am

Politics probably is, as many say, a dirty business, given the mudslinging in our political sphere. Manners are not our politicians' forte and for some - like the League of Social Democrats - their lack of good conduct is worn as a badge of honour. Once upon a time, members of the world's oldest parliament were said to have carried swords with them into the chamber, where the heated debates inside Westminster Palace were restricted by two parallel red lines, two sword lengths apart, woven into the carpet. Parliamentarians counted on one another to keep their sword-swinging urges in check, thus 'toeing the line'.

But even with the finer traditions of our colonial past, chamber decorum in our legislature vanished the day 'Long Hair' Leung Kwok-hung insisted that a Che Guevara T-shirt was just as good as a shirt and tie. But Leung and his league colleagues broke more than just the dress code.

It was probably fun for them to speak out of turn, throw things at the chief executive, call government officials and fellow lawmakers derogatory names, and get thrown out for uncivil behaviour, since it was the perfect way to excuse themselves from having to listen to what others had to say.

Too little has been said about the return of civility in chamber life last year after the league trio - Leung, Wong Yuk-man and Albert Chan Wai-yip - resigned as part of a plan to hold a de facto referendum on democratisation. In their absence, lawmakers disagreed without being disagreeable, and skirmishes were kept to a minimum. It was like a breath of fresh air.

It is true that manners are not panaceas for our political ills, but at least they can put 'civil' back into 'civil society'. We don't need reminding of how Long Hair ridiculed the late veteran democrat Szeto Wah's illness, though Leung insists, even to this day, that it was not an insult. He claims he was simply asking Szeto a health-related question on whether Szeto's cancer cells had metastasised to his brain. Right, that is exactly the sort of stuff we expect to find in 'Get well soon' greeting cards. That is just legitimising trash talk with more trash-talking.

Leung's venomous verbiage spares no one, not even after Szeto's illness had claimed his life. Leung diagnosed Szeto's lost battle against cancer as being a result of his 'wrongful' objection to the de facto referendum. It is insulting to have to listen to his ignorance in attributing a political cause to cancer. It is painful to see that respect for the dead means nothing to the ill-mannered.

In the book of condolences for Szeto, Leung wrote a line from a poem by Szeto's favourite author, Lu Xun. Yet the words, taken to mean 'brothers through thick and thin, let bygones be bygones', apparently meant nothing to Leung, because he went from the memorial back to trash-talking Szeto's 'errors' near the end of his life.

Civility for citizens, in private or public, is important. Manners are needed for any society to function. Respect and consideration for others, and treating all as equals, are needed from every member of civil society.

But do not take my word for it. Read Edmund Burke, for instance. Burke writes, in Letter on a Regicide Peace, that 'manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us ... According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.'

We cannot outlaw all rudeness and bad taste, and we should not. Manners are there precisely to fill in the gaps for matters we cannot legislate. We legislated against disability discrimination, but legal sanction proved to be ineffective. Leung still screamed right into the camera, broadcasting into our living rooms the ugly and hateful words that vilify a cancer patient for having cancer.

Manners make it socially unacceptable - and not just illegal - to behave badly, offensively and disrespectfully. We should demand, at the very least, those who are in public life, whose salaries come out of the public purse, to learn and practise common courtesy. The lack thereof should be a badge of shame, not honour.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA