Hong Kong’s young democrats need some lessons on democracy
Kerry Kennedy says the uncivil behaviour displayed by students in the row over pro-independence posters on university campuses runs counter to democratic values such as tolerance, fairness and open-mindedness
Many Hong Kong students benefit from 12 years of education, then those who are lucky enough get to go to publicly funded universities. The assumption for those lucky ones is that they have learned a lot in their 12 years and will continue to do so in university.
Yet recent events at several local institutions suggest that, for some young people, their learning has been illusory – perhaps something they can perform well at in an examination room but not something that equips them to be tolerant and caring citizens of the future.
The case of those still unknown Education University students who posted despicable comments about the tragic death of the son of the undersecretary for education stands out as reflecting a lack of tolerance, care and just plain human decency. To make matters worse, such an action was defended by the student union president as “freedom of speech”.
Together, these attitudes reflect a stunning lack of understanding about what it means to be a human being and what democratic theory teaches about freedom. This seems ironic, since the offending material was placed on a “democracy wall”. Yet democracy does not support these students’ actions or views.
For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is underpinned by the notion of a common humanity by which each has a responsibility for the other – that’s what human rights is all about. Have our students in their so-called support for democracy not learned this? John Rawls’ views on political liberalism made it clear that one of the basic freedoms was freedom from psychological oppression. Is Rawls no longer on the reading lists for young democrats?
As offensive as the Education University posts were, activities at Chinese University’s “democracy wall” showed the same lack of understanding about democratic principles. The key issue here is the right to be heard. With the entire democracy wall plastered with pro-independence posters, there was no space for alternative views.
Watch: Chinese University student confronted for taking down posters
Student caught tearing down Hong Kong independence posters called hero in mainland China, vilified in city
Thus one student, who happened to be from the mainland, decided to take down the posters. In so doing, she suffered the wrath of the student union, although also won much support from mainland internet users. She should not have had to do this in the first place, since a “democracy wall” by definition should allow for participation by everyone: a basic democratic proposition that seems not to be known by young democrats at Chinese University. In a democracy, we may not always agree with everyone, but this does not mean that we silence the views with which we disagree.
This view has been immortalised with the sentence, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, that was meant to describe the democratic philosophy of Voltaire, an 18th-century French political theorist. Another text clearly not on the reading list for Hong Kong’s young democrats?
It was Hanna Arendt who came to the conclusion that “evil comes from a failure to think”. What we are witnessing in Hong Kong in these times is “a failure to think”.
Recent research on civic knowledge and civic values supports this view. Studies have shown that when young adolescents have low levels of civic knowledge, they tend to support radical forms of civic engagement, such as graffiti writing, blocking traffic and occupying buildings.
In some instances, there may be valid reasons for adopting these methods and democratic theorists do not rule them out, although usually with caveats. Violence is rarely condoned, intolerance rarely sanctioned and personal vilification rarely a favoured tool. Rather, democrats look to deliberation, discussion, debate and, yes, compromise. Democratic values include tolerance, fairness and justice; but never harassment, hate and fear. Any basic book on democratic political theory will make this case clearly. Such books should be made widely available to Hong Kong’s young democrats.
So when will they learn? Based on some recent research in Hong Kong, real learning may be some time in coming. For the most part, that research has suggested that schools and even families seemed to exert very little influence on students’ civic learning.
While some have claimed that the Diploma of Secondary Education subject, liberal studies, has been responsible for current student radicalism, it is clear from the research that this is not the case.
While some families discuss politics with their children, this is not a common practice, and in any case parents and children do not always agree. What is left are three key influences: persuasive and charismatic opinion leaders, social media, and peers. Social media in particular creates a bubble for students. They listen only to views that are the same as theirs, they form peer groups around social media platforms, thus sealing the bubble even more, and they constantly have their views reinforced.
This behaviour runs contrary to openness, transparency and intellectual inquiry, all of which are needed to form strong democracies. If young democrats are to learn, this bubble needs to be infused with new ideas, multiple ways of thinking and interactions between different points of view.
If, as they claim, they are supporters of democracy, young people need to understand what democracy actually means; then they need to act out its real values in thoughtful and caring ways.
Professor Kerry Kennedy is adviser (academic development) at the Education University of Hong Kong