Graphic: spf.pdf for Lausan.

Epidemic panic and the ecosystem of public speech

Diseases do not discriminate based on language, national identity or political stance.

Original: 【疫情恐慌與公共話語生態:一個批判性的觀察】, published by the author on Facebook

Translators: T. Ho, SR, LWH, yehua

If you would like to be involved in our translation work, please get in touch here.

In the wake of the recent novel coronavirus (nCoV) outbreak and the government’s belated and feeble attempt at prevention, civil society has taken it upon itself to aid one another at the community level. At the same time, however, discrimination against “Mainlanders” has also intensified. Some of the more glaring examples include Kwong Wing Catering’s “Mandarin-speaking people (apart from Taiwanese friends) will not be served” notice; and a screenshot of a post telling people to “trick Mainlanders into buying lube instead of hand sanitizer” shared by a pro-democracy Facebook group. I have also encountered many other examples of discrimination against “Mainlanders” and Mandarin-speaking people––one person was reported by neighbors for speaking Mandarin; another took his family and fled to a hotel in Singapore (a country with more confirmed cases of nCoV than Hong Kong) because his neighbor is a “Mainlander.”

A humanitarian crisis in a climate of fear

These reactions might be excusable since they stem from the fear of a life-threatening disease and government incompetence. In fact, Carrie Lam dragging her feet on closing the Hong Kong-China border and her ambiguous approach to the issue in general are the real causes behind the proliferation of such racist sentiments and actions. However, such instincts do little good as we try to protect ourselves against the virus, and may even be counterproductive.

The patrons of Kwong Wing Catering won’t actually be safer just because there are no Mandarin speakers near them. If anything, those who agree with this policy may even let their guard down in a Mainlander-less environment and expose themselves to viral infection all the more easily. If the “Mainlanders” tricked into buying lube instead of alcohol sanitizer became infected because of this, the virus won’t just stay in their bodies. Similarly, flying to a place with more confirmed nCov cases just because one’s neighbors are from the Mainland will only increase one’s chances of catching the virus.

Diseases do not discriminate based on language, national identity or political stance. In a global epidemic, anyone can become a virus carrier. To associate a disease with a group of people and believe that banishing, quarantining and segregating members of this group would be a sound protective measure will only distract us from the real threat. On the other hand, the lived experiences of those who are scorned, feared, driven away and unfairly labeled as “infected” may show us how the climate of fear we have created could in fact cause far more serious damage to society than the epidemic itself.

Threats to the ecosystem of public discourse

Another notable phenomenon is the misinterpretation and hostile dismissal of those who wish to point out the aforementioned problems and engage in critical dialogue about them both on public platforms and in private discussions. Some think these attempts at critical reflection unfairly target common folk, so they vigorously defend them by preaching the people’s cause through a romanticized lens. Some believe such discussions are meaningless and that one should focus on condemning the government instead. Some take to hurling insults like “leftard” (左膠), detached “elitist” (離地) or, better still, lofty, morally righteous “academics” (讀屎片) whose advanced studies only amount to an inability to resist lecturing everyone endlessly… There are multiple variations of such reactions, but what they have in common is that none of them would actually own up to, let alone address, the matter at hand.

This phenomenon is not new; at least in my personal experience, it manifests itself whenever there is a large-scale protest or a pressing public issue. Sometimes this shrinking of space for dialogue and this insistence on the superiority of one’s own stance can even extend toward academic circles—the very people who are supposed to be most capable of defending the integrity of reasoned, nuanced debate.

In times of great crisis, we must be all the more careful when navigating the ecosystem of public discourse, because popular feeling and political polarization often seep into the discursive space of society, ethics, and epidemic prevention. What we may deem “correct”, “meaningful”, or “popular” is often swayed by mob mentality and popular narrative, and this is particularly blatant in the fervent re-imaginations of “the collective fate of Hongkongers” under the current climate of political dogmatism. As a result, problems that would normally be of utmost importance in discussions of morality, ethical values and government policy—personal experiences of injustice, the mockery of those with a different point of view, mischaracterization and discrimination of particular communities—are now being dismissed as “unimportant”, “meaningless”, and “untimely” in an intertwined context of collective feeling and political discourse. One may even be accused of “sleeping with the enemy” or tarnishing the image of the “collective.”

By contrast, well-worn talking points such as the incompetence of the government, the corruption of the CCP, the necessary longevity of the movement, and contempt for Mainlanders are easily accorded the highest attention in reciprocity. Combined with unexamined prejudices and pent-up anger simmering just beneath the surface, such tendencies of politicized bias not only create powerful forces of discursive suppression but may well stifle all discussion that dares to fall out of line. 

Such tendencies of politicized bias not only create powerful forces of discursive suppression but may well stifle all discussion that dares to fall out of line.

A recent article on Hong Kong political writer Leung Man-tao’s retirement (see “Why is Leung Man-tao despicable?”) is a good example of this phenomenon. The article does not discuss Leung’s politics or other related topics; rather, it proceeds to directly invalidate Leung’s voice and his point of view on behalf of a majority of readers (especially younger ones.) These judgments have no concrete basis save for the following reproach: “We do not need” his explanations to our problems; “what we need” are words that spark our imaginations of the future. The article then puts the final nail in Leung’s coffin of relevance by calling him “old”, implying that those, like Leung, who fail to meet the demands of the “marketplace of ideas” or sing to the tune of the “marketplace of feelings” in political society can no longer be heard nor taken seriously in the public sphere—that is, if they are not already mercilessly besieged at all fronts.

An ostensibly loathsome name, an irksome keyword or perspective, rhetoric that does not instantly inspire fireworks—any and all such shortcomings would seem to be sufficient to bury what would have been a rational discussion in the landfill of ideas. The viral popularity of this article (among many others of that ilk) embodies precisely the rhetorical shift that has already begun to shape the right to speech in a discursive ecology hospitable to populist inclinations. 

Repressive episodes like this won’t just befall people like the “insufferable” Leung Man-tao. Rather, they will ultimately engulf every person and spirit them away from their good intentions, their hopes and their dreams. Beyond the two cases I have mentioned in the beginning of my writing, situations like this are most able to hollow out an echo chamber of shared feeling, in which the collective expresses their ire while satiating the appetite of communal opinion in the “marketplace of ideas” with the utmost degree of conformity. At the same time, such situations often happen to be exactly those that threaten public health or downplay hazards hidden in plain sight. Ironically, those who warn of such dangers are precisely those who will never be heard in earnest in such an unhealthy ecology of public discourse, one that sees fit to smother all bearers of bad news. Concealing this crisis of discourse will only weigh on society at large, and those who find themselves at the bottom and at the margins will bear the brunt of the consequences. 

Revealing our true thoughts and feelings against the tidal wave of public opinion requires not only tremendous courage, but also a vigilant self-awareness for reflection and critique. This does not mean to deliberately stand at odds with public opinion, to fault or sermonize, or to hold all other perspectives at arm’s length in order to safeguard our own position. It might be easy to conclude otherwise in the current ecology of discourse, but overturning its enduring logic of assumption and bias demands a committed process of patient “thawing” before it can thrive; after all, Rome wasn’t built in a day. As an educator trained in sociology, I strongly empathize with the popular demands of the movement, many voices and perspectives from which continue to resonate with me deeply. I do not see myself as external to the movement, and it is precisely for this reason that I refuse to merely echo the collective’s emotions or simply stay in concert with the chorus. Instead, I wish to delve further into the arteries of this “collective,” the logics of power in this ecosystem of speech, and the very texture of public discourse. 

This is my first article since the Lunar New Year. I want to share my thoughts and observations with everyone here, and to use whatever power I have to preserve at least a little room for “unimportant” or “unwelcome” ideas.