What Trump and Hong Kong’s Democratic Party can teach us about the risks of instant reaction
Alice Wu says in an age when nuanced responses are hard to come by and politicians are often blinded by biases, accountability is the only route to credibility and trust
As the war of words between the North Korean and US leaders threatened to spin out of control, ordinary people could only watch, as a belligerent pair hell-bent on seeing who was the bigger playground bully nearly put millions of lives at risk.
The world witnessed the leader of the free world unable and unwilling to use the right words, even when the conflict was home-grown, and incapable of seeing the white supremacist insignia that was proudly worn. President Donald Trump continues to inflict wounds with his words because he can’t differentiate reaction from response, or see the facts through his own delusions.
As a general rule, responses should be measured, governed by the constraints of time and information. Thus, we can reasonably expect those holding high office or playing important roles in society to be considerate, and use nuanced words and phrases, having weighed the available facts against the potential risks of harming the common good.
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Reactions, on the other hand, are raw, off-the-cuff, and from the gut, not the head, and that’s territory for dangerous lapses in judgment. Reactions aren’t necessarily “bad” – they are crucial in revealing important details about their owners. But most of us understand that this is not the ideal way to reach conclusions.
In Hong Kong, we have been gripped by the case of alleged abduction and torture of a member of a political party. The claims, along with the immediate reactions and huge leaps to conclusions, and exaggerated political insinuations, were even more incredible.
The fallout from the case will be huge. For the party in question, it could be politically catastrophic. Those who followed up quickly on the initial claims will have to face the music: political rivals will make sure of that.
But, for the rest of us, there are lessons to be learned. Raising doubts is one thing – cracking jokes about the person in question is quite another.
It took almost no time for mocking comments about Democratic Party member Howard Lam Tsz-kin’s physical appearance and “fat-shaming” to infiltrate everyday conversation, social media and, unfortunately, some of the news media.
We all bear a responsibility to separate the irrelevant from the relevant. Being “fat” has no relevance to this case. We should also recognise that when our emotions run high, we need to rein in the urge to jump to conclusions and give unmeasured immediate reactions. We need to shun the urge to reach for easy slogans to make sense of what is happening.
Contributing to the degeneration of public discourse and debate doesn’t serve any cause other than those that prey on our divisions, distrust and prejudices.
Words do matter – that has been made very clear in the past few weeks. When we can’t break away from the vicious cycle of reacting, we become susceptible to being easily misled, blinded by our own unexamined biases. Being critical can easily become being cynical and even hateful.
Being thoughtful in an interconnected world with a 24/7 news cycle is challenging. But it is all the more reason to hold ourselves and our institutions, like law enforcement, the media and politicians, accountable. Only by demanding accountability can a critical level of credibility and trust become possible.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA