The power of politics: let’s rein in the rhetoric for the greater good

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 July, 2016, 2:02pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 July, 2016, 4:54pm

Politics is so outrageous these days that very little surprises any more. With the Republican National Convention last week and the Democratic National Convention this week, it’s nasty politics overload for the world, not just for the United States.

For those outside the US, let’s not make watching America a schadenfreudic exercise. There are times when it is so outrageous it’s “funny” – “funny” as in “laughable” – but the United States is not so exceptional as to be the only place where politics has lost its way of advancing society.

‘I am your voice’: Trump accepts nomination with dark warnings of a nation on the brink of disaster

What is most interesting about the controversial speech by presidential nominee Donald Trump’s wife Melania is how those “borrowed” words from First Lady Michelle Obama echo not just “American” values, but also values many of us have been “raised” on (Mrs Obama) and/or “impressed” (Mrs Trump) with. As shamelessly as the party leadership tried to initially brush off accusations of plagiarism, it has been correct in saying that these are “universal” values. My parents told my sister and me to “work hard for what [we] want in life”, that our “word is [our] bond”, and to “treat people with respect”, though not in exactly those words, but that’s something a lot of parents try to instil in their children’s moral code.

Speechwriter takes blame for Melania Trump’s ‘plagiarism’, but says candidate’s wife knew passages came from Michelle Obama

To Mrs Trump’s credit, she did not so liberally use Mrs Obama’s words as to say that these are values she and her husband share. In fact, Mrs Trump made sure that she was talking about herself, in the singular form. Mrs Obama spoke those very similar words eight years ago to describe the “same values” she and her other half shared.

Those who harm – by words or deeds – count on people’s apathy

The focus on plagiarism took away from more important issues raised in Mrs Trump’s speech. There are some outrageous words and claims in it, most notably, “the simple goodness of heart that God gave Donald Trump”. It’s simply very difficult to associate that “simple goodness of heart” with the many words and deeds of Donald Trump, such as when he appeared to make fun of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Serge Kovaleski ,who has anthrogryposis, a congenital condition that limits joint movements. Trump denied he had mimicked the journalist, saying he didn't know what he looked like and then accused Kovaleski of “using his disability to grandstand”.

Trump probably doesn’t shock most people any more, but there is a larger danger of being shock-fatigued, desensitised, and cynical. When we let politicians off the hook, it becomes a passive form of condoning the deliberate spread of misinformation, hate and terror.

Back to square one: the unfinished business as Hong Kong legislature’s term ends amid delays and recriminations

Those who harm – by words or deeds – count on people’s apathy, which raises the risk of cultivating dangerous extremism. When politics is reduced to little more than vitriol, nothing gets done. When we stop demanding that public figures display a basic level of respect and decency, it sends a wrong message to private individuals – it feeds a vicious cycle that reinforces irresponsible and extremist speech and actions.

In Hong Kong, we have had our share of bad politics, and we know all too well how little gets done when there is no mood for compromise. We are all vulnerable to the language of extremism and hate, and no one can be insulated from harm.

We live in dangerous world – we were reminded again recently with the deadly truck incident in Nice and the brutal attack on a German train in which Hongkongers were critically wounded.

History is filled with people assailing humanity in the name of “God”. The universal values of hard work, integrity and mutual respect are often verbalised but they are empty words unless we hold one another to them.

Politics can do good but it can’t unless we strive to work out differences, hold ourselves to high standards of character, and respect humanity enough to accept that no one – regardless of sex, race, colour, creed, and origin – is above another.

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