Attack on values

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 March, 2011, 12:00am

On a beautiful night in April 1995, I drove through one of the busiest streets near my alma mater, en route to meeting a few friends to celebrate the victory of our men's basketball team in the NCAA championship. The air was explosive. Suddenly, I heard a big thud and, out of instinct, slammed on the brakes. I felt cool liquid running down my shirt. But before I could process what had just happened, my head began to throb. It took me a few seconds to realise that someone, in the heat of the moment, had just thrown a bottle of beer through my passenger window and that the thud I heard was me being whacked on the side of my head. And it hurt. But I was lucky - one man was hit in the face and lost all his teeth.

Was I a victim of a violent - and obnoxious - act? Yes. Was the act itself an accident? Probably, but it does not negate its consequences. It was probably trivial too, considering how that night ended with police making 15 arrests and firing rubber bullets.

Unfortunately, in today's politically charged Hong Kong, we can't seem to find a consensus on anything. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen was hit in the chest during a scuffle last week, and politicians are arguing over what constitutes violence.

The debate - the justification and rationalisation of violence - is as senseless as the act itself. Does whether it is right or wrong depend on its victim? Should the perpetrator be exonerated by who the victim is?

Common sense says no. Other than matters of libel, where public figures are not treated like the rest of us, we are all equal under the law; no one, including the chief executive, can be considered a legitimate target just because of who he is. But while we expect the alleged attacker's comrades to come to his defence, I did not expect other cool-headed people to join the chorus.

Should violence be defined by the damage it has done, like, say, the size of a bruise? The extent of injury should play little part in defining whether the act was right or wrong.

The debate over the justification of violence for political means has gone on for ages. People revolting against oppressive governments, like protesters in the Arab world now, are usually praised. As we watch people rise up against their governments, it is perfectly natural to look inwards and recognise that we, too, have grievances of our own to air. We naturally feel empathy with fellow human beings in difficulty. But it is just as important for us to understand and appreciate the differences in context.

We should not take for granted our right to protest, assemble and speak out without the fear of persecution. And because we do have these rights, throwing things or charging at people in power are not honourable acts of disobedience. Any message originally intended by the protesters has now been lost.

Acting 'in the heat of the moment' has become an easy excuse and defence for those who cannot restrain themselves in civil society. Hate speech due to political differences has been exonerated due to the 'heat of the moment'. Resorting to violent means in the 'heat of the moment' seems, well, perfectly natural.

But it is not. Reckless behaviour and disregard for others' well-being is not a right. The inquests into the Manila hostage tragedy should be a reminder to us all that violence is rarely - if ever - the answer. Rolando Mendoza felt wronged and tried to pursue what he believed to be personal justice; no doubt he was overtaken by the 'heat of the moment'. There is a huge difference between Egyptians fighting for democracy and those, motivated by hatred of the Western world, who beat and sexually assaulted CBS reporter Lara Logan. And if we try to blur that line, as some of our very outspoken citizens have tried to do, then we are also assaulting our conscience for political means.

Hatred begets hatred; violence begets violence. Neither should ever be encouraged, honoured or excused. If we hold dearly our right to protest and voice dissent, we too must not put our sense of right and wrong on the line.

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



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Attack on values

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