Riot or unrest? An ideological divide over what happened in Mong Kok at Lunar New Year
The sad thing about our highly divisive society is that dialogue has become increasingly difficult and violence increasingly likely
After the Lunar New Year riot/unrest in Mong Kok, there was a lively debate among journalists from various news outlets as to what to call the disturbance. It turned out to be fairly predictable along ideological lines. Those who supported pan-democratic causes thought it was no more than an unrest. Others who were more sympathetic to the mainland’s point of view insisted it was a riot.
Psychologists have long been familiar with this phenomenon. People look at the same things and come up with opposite conclusions. This is especially apparent with high-stake issues that divide society. It is one reason why calls for dialogue are usually futile when dealing with such matters.
A classic experiment was conducted in 1954 when two groups of US college students who were fans of two rival football teams were asked to watch a game. Their perceptions of the game were so different the psychologists who did the experiment wondered if they were describing the same match. Each student group counted twice as many fouls committed by the other team as their own.
An updated experiment asked a group of liberal and conservative students in the US to watch a televised protest that involved physical confrontation.
The group was then randomly split into two. One group was told it was an anti-abortion protest outside an abortion clinic. The other group was told it was an anti-military protest outside a military recruitment centre. Liberal students generally thought the “anti-abortion” protesters were aggressive, while the anti-military protesters were not nearly as aggressive. With conservative students, it was the other way round.
This experiment could have predicted how my media colleagues would interpret the Lunar New Year disturbance. Pro-government politicians blamed the protesters for the “riot”. Pan-democrats have generally been far more lenient in their judgment about those involved in the “unrest”. Some even blamed Beijing and the Leung Chun-ying government for “causing” the unrest.
It’s not just that we see what we want to see. It’s that our biases – and ideologies – already determine what we will see. The sad thing about our highly divisive society is that dialogue has become increasingly difficult and violence increasingly likely.