Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The opinions of others 

Salman Rushdie was introduced into the Singapore blogosphere by Mc Dermott’s blog, and his comments on the right to offend people in the name of a free society was picked up by caustic.soda and From a Singapore Angle as well.

I won’t bother to reproduce Rushdie’s comments. You can find them in the above blogs. Or in the full essay. Suffice to say that he believes that getting offended is part and parcel of a free society.

That seems fair enough. But I would add that getting offended should be incidental to the ultimate aim of free speech, which is to generate ideas and have them contested so that the best ideas prevail. Unfortunately, creating offense can be counterproductive to that goal.

Rushdie’s recommended method of argument:

You never personalise, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks.
This is hyperbole, or at least, it should be treated as such. Taking it at face value raises a few questions.

Firstly: Why should one have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions? Especially if the opinions are well-argued? If you have absolutely no respect for others’ opinions, how do you integrate them into your own views?

In my opinion — and you can choose not to respect it if you wish — while some people may be overly respectful of the opinions of certain authority figures, there are also many who have too little respect for others’ views, have problems seeing issues from others’ perspectives (see “Perspective, please”) and are too quick to dismiss their opinions, especially those that don’t tally with their own. Be mindful of both tendencies.

Secondly: How likely is it that you can savagely attack a person’s idea without the person feeling offended? And if he does feel offended, how is he likely to react? Happily admit that he is wrong and embrace the opposing point of view? Or harness his aroused emotions to put up a more coherent argument? And what do you do with those sensitive souls sitting on the sidelines waiting for a chance to throw in their own ideas, but seeing instead the fate that may befall them? Tell them that if they are so sensitive, their opinions must be useless and they can go fly a kite instead?

Rushdie’s method may work for an academic sitting in an ivory tower mulling over an idea in his own mind or with other academics in a private setting, but it can be inflammatory and counterproductive in a public discourse, as Rushdie should well know.

However, Salman Rushdie is not a leader of men, and probably just as well. A leader would keep the end in mind and not be fixated on the means. But perhaps that’s beside the point; to Rushdie, free speech is apparently an end in itself.

Talking of leadership, Koh Buck Song, leadership guru at The Straits Times, has a commentary today on the importance of communication in society, which seems relevant to the foregoing. The commentary was written in the context of the Singapore government’s call for greater participation by the youth in Singapore. He says:

Rousing the young has its inherent benefits. There is no doubt about the cohesive value of allowing people just to feel they have a place and platform to say their piece.

Beyond that, many will also be looking to see how ideas will be processed, and the best ones implemented.

An abiding challenge is how to tackle scepticism, founded on observations that previous consultation exercises left good suggestions floating but not fulfilled.
Tackling scepticism shouldn’t be the problem. It’s an unfortunate choice of words. In an earlier paragraph, he had used the word “cynicism”, which seems more appropriate.

In fact, scepticism is what Singapore may need more of, and is probably the correct approach to evaluating others’ ideas. Scepticism means to retain doubts on something. It means not to be too quick to believe, but not necessarily to disbelieve. After all, as someone once said, disbelief is belief with a minus sign in front of it.


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