Banning the word 'locust' in Hong Kong would be merely treating the symptom

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 August, 2014, 5:16am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 August, 2014, 1:41pm

Is it illegal to say "nigger" in America? Apparently not.

That's not to say we shouldn't bother banning "locust" in Hong Kong - the two racial epithets have very different historical and contemporary contexts - but the American example holds important lessons for us.

"Nigger" is shunned in public use even without formal legislation as years of American legislative and judicial energy were spent on eliminating segregation - the source of this hateful word and all that it stands for.

The lasting impact of desegregation and the accompanying social movement that sensitised public opinion to make it possible are the reasons why "nigger" is not used in polite company any more, not because the word itself is illegal. Only the New York City Council has a symbolic ban in place on "nigger" to check its spread, ironically, through black rappers.

As shorthand for mainlanders, "locust" has the same dehumanising and othering functions as "nigger". But the Equal Opportunities Commission's deliberations on whether to make its use a punishable offence to check racial discrimination are unlikely to excise it from daily usage as the context within which its offensive connotation gains coinage remains unaddressed.

As a responsible shaper of public opinion in Hong Kong, this paper avoids the word. We are doing our bit to prevent its entrenchment. But the government has the obligation and the means to tackle the wider malaise, of which the word is merely the symptom.

Simply outlawing "locust" will neither eliminate the underlying institutional triggers for anti-mainlander rage - inflation, rising rents, exclusion from the property market and increasing competition for everything from milk powder to beach space - nor mitigate the reflexive racism towards mainlanders that this popular anger fans.

From a segregated education system to outrageous stereotyping in textbooks, the commission hasn't been able to alleviate much of the endemic racism towards minorities. Its superficial handling of the "locust" issue will have a similarly marginal impact on the attitude towards mainlanders.