Wang Chao-hung (王超弘), also known as Teacher Wang of Puli (埔里), Nantou County, made news after predicting that a strong earthquake would strike on Wednesday last week. The story is reminiscent of that of David Koresh, the deceased leader of a religious sect in Waco, Texas, called the Branch Davidians, and the gunbattle between his group and US federal agents and subsequent siege that occurred in 1993. The apocalyptic Branch Davidians lived on an isolated ranch northeast of Waco, where Koresh was accused of dissolving marriages and having sex with female followers to propagate the “House of David.”
The Branch Davidians stockpiled arms and ammunition, and when agents from the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives raided their compound, the Davidians opened fire, resulting in the deaths of four agents and six Branch Davidians. The FBI then took over the standoff and after a 51-day siege, the compound’s buildings caught fire — some allege that fires were deliberately set — in a final assault to remove the sect members. Seventy-six of the followers died in the flames, including more than 20 children, two pregnant women and Koresh himself.
The First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech and religion, but a few governors in the southern US, including former US president Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, tried to dissolve fanatically apocalyptic religious cults through both soft and harsh methods, such as moral persuasion and arrests. They perhaps did this because apocalyptic prophecies tend to corrupt people’s minds and endanger the legitimacy of government. In the couple hundred years since the founding of the US, the country has experienced a great deal of racist discourse, apocalyptic prophecies and endless political satire directed at politicians.
Racist discourse and apocalyptic prophecies have plagued the US, causing problems for the targets of discourse and the government. Political satire is protected by free speech laws, therefore most public personalities who try to sue those that parody them fail.
Taiwan’s young democracy is going through the same upheavals. Recently, authors have sued political TV shows in which they were parodied. Moreover, the Fan Lan-chin (范蘭欽) incident, in which former Toronto-based Government Information Office official Kuo Kuan-yin (郭冠英) expressed ethnic prejudice against Taiwanese under a pen name, was reminiscent of the sharp commentary of US political commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. The prediction that Taiwan would be struck by a magnitude 14 earthquake on the morning of May 11 was similar to other doomsday prophecies. What ties all of these together is an issue little discussed in Taiwan, but very important to democratic development — freedom of expression.
How far does freedom of speech extend in pluralistic societies? If the discourse of one individual infringes on the dignity of another or if their religious discourse threatens civic order, a mature society will not only prescribe legal sanctions, but should also be prepared to reflect on the issue at hand.
Modern Taipei, for example, is home to many temples and people who promise to cure cancer, qigong masters and doomsday prophets. I find it difficult to understand how people with doctorates and white-collar professionals often follow these poorly educated “prophets.” It’s as if postcolonial Taiwan has been unable to develop a philosophical maturity. Many Taiwan residents have a good life in material terms, but this is accompanied by a rather impoverished mental life. This is perhaps why people are willing to accept specious and tautological discourses.