There is not an ounce of doubt that in any respectable society, freedom of expression ends at the shore of hate speech or incitement of violence. While freedom of expression is a precious resource that, even to this day, is still denied to far too many people around the world, the liberties that it confers upon people should not be exploited in a manner that undermines the very foundations of freedom.
In this light, recent comments posted by netizens calling for the assassination of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and his daughters, as well as Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), deserve full condemnation and should be investigated in full. Decades ago, Taiwan shed its violent past — true, one in which the state visited violence upon its people — and it would be most unfortunate if such practices became the norm once again.
That said, attempts on Monday by Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Chang Hsien-yao (張顯耀) to portray the assassination threats as the result of “perennial ethnic tensions” incited by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) completely miss the mark and negate the context in which the threats were made.
With the possible exception of the mentally ill — and we have no reason to believe that this applies to Plurker “super fans” and a person surnamed “Chen” — rational human beings usually do not espouse such extremes. Furthermore, if those threats were indeed the result of “ethnic hatred” fueled by a “racist” DPP, history (eg, Rwanda, Cambodia and the Balkans) shows us that such a message usually translates into action when the group making the threat is in power. In other words, the “ethnic” group that is the object of alleged hatred would have faced persecution from 2000 to 2008, when the DPP was in power. This, obviously, did not happen, which tells us that “ethnic tensions” provide a poor rationale for last week’s threats.
If not “ethnic” hatred, then what was it that pushed those individuals to make those comments?
One possibility is that the perpetrators had cause to believe, rightly or wrongly, that they had no other choice left. Where political science’s rational actor model fails to explain human behavior is when circumstances push otherwise sane individuals to calculate cost and benefits in a way that departs from the norm of maximizing one’s benefits and minimizing the cost.
Having one’s back against the wall, a heightened sense of powerlessness and isolation, and a belief that the “status quo” is either insupportable or is shifting inexorably in an untenable direction, are all sentiments that can prompt individuals to recalibrate how they weigh cost versus benefit. Some have used this model to explain suicide bombings by Palestinians or the erratic behavior of the leadership in Pyongyang and Tehran.
In Taiwan’s case, a sense of powerlessness has installed itself since Ma came into office and it has grown in recent months as a result of an administration that has paid little, if any, attention to the fears of a polity that feels excluded and whose future is becoming increasingly uncertain.
The reasons for this are manifold: The institutionalized means by which government can be kept in check — opposition parties, the legislature — have failed to force the government to reassess its policies; an initiative to hold a referendum on the proposed economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) between Taiwan and China has been turned down, with no valid reason, by the government, and a new one, initiated by the Taiwan Solidarity Union, will likely suffer a similar fate; the interests of large business and financial institutions appear to be driving policy; and cross-strait negotiations have been conducted far from public scrutiny and by individuals who may have conflicting interests.
There should be no doubt that the death threats against Ma and his daughters occurred when they did because of the imminent signature of an ECFA, which will happen even if the government has not managed to obtain the 60 percent public support it said it needed to make this happen.
The Ma administration has made an ECFA an inevitability; not only has it failed to fully explain what it would imply, it has altogether ignored its detractors while snubbing the many people who question its impact on the nation’s sovereignty — even after Chinese officials like Wen have publicly stated, on more than one occasion, that they see an ECFA as a means to achieve unification.
Context is everything: The observer is bound to reassess how he judges an individual’s seemingly erratic behavior if, by taking a step back, he sees a locomotive charging full speed ahead toward the subject, with no means of escape in sight.
Chang’s explanation for the assassination threats was invidious and unhelpful, in line with attempts by the KMT to portray its opponents as “extremists” and “irrational” (a view that, sadly, often gains traction with the media). What he self-servingly failed to mention is the context in which they were made, the growing sense of helplessness and fear among many Taiwanese, and the lack of outlets through which individuals can vent their anger or influence policy.
If we had a government that was willing to listen to the public and to take their apprehensions into consideration, if we had a legislature that could do its job of monitoring the government, if we had an accountable government that conducted negotiations in an open and honest fashion, and if we had an administration that was prepared to meet the challenge of striking an economic deal that clearly has political ramifications for Taiwan’s sovereignty, then those threats could be deemed irrational, the mere rumbling of lunatics.
But we have no such government and the threats were a scream of despair. Questioned by police, suspect Chen did not mention “ethnic” hatred for Ma or “Han Chinese.” Instead, he said he was dissatisfied with the state of affairs in Taiwan.
Unless the Ma administration takes an honest look at the sense of fear and powerlessness its conduct is giving rise to and acts to remedy that, we can expect more “irrational” behavior by Taiwanese. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
J. Michael Cole is an editor at the Taipei Times.
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