Balancing freedom and prejudice

By Tao Yi-Feng 陶儀芬  / 

Tue, Mar 24, 2009 - Page 8

I wonder what would happen if a Japanese official were to talk about “high-class Japanese.” Imagine how offended people in other Asian countries would be.

What if a US government official were exposed by members of Congress as having, over months and years, used a pseudonym to post on the Internet articles full of racial prejudice? Think what an uproar that would cause.

Of course communities that felt insulted would react angrily. It would be quite reasonable for them to call on the government to condemn such prejudice. That is the point. Freedom of speech has its limits. Public indignation and government denunciation of inflammatory language should not be equated with “state repression” or “McCarthyism.”

All people are born equal and should respect one another — these are fundamental values that no culture, political power or ideology today can deny. However, where there are differences, there will be prejudice. French jokes about Germans could fill volumes. New Yorkers look down on people from New Jersey. Shanghainese are disliked by people from all other parts of China.

The faster a society is changing and the more complex and plural it is, the more likely prejudice is to appear. People use prejudice to console themselves when they have trouble adapting to change. Prejudice is the voice of those who feel helpless in the face of overwhelming social forces.

It is no surprise, then, that Taiwan — a society of migrants — should be replete with all kinds of prejudice dividing people along the lines of “us and them.” Terms like “savages,” “Taiwan slackers,” “mainlander pigs” and “Chinese chicks” are witness to the narrow-minded attitudes among us. That those who are targeted by such taunts are able to redefine them with new cultural connotations is, on the other hand, an expression of Taiwanese society’s tolerance and sense of humor.

Why, then, are people making such a fuss about the nasty things diplomat Kuo Kuan-ying (郭冠英), or the pseudonymous Fan Lan-chin (范蘭欽), has written over the years in blog posts about Taiwan and those who advocate independence?

If the author were just any man or woman on the street, there would be little cause for complaint. More prejudiced and more hate-filled postings than these abound, be they from those in favor of or opposed to independence for Taiwan. It is a necessary evil in a democratic and pluralistic society that allows freedom of expression, since it allows people holding all kinds of opinions to see the blind spots in their arguments. No matter which party is in power, the government need not and should not interfere in such activities.

Kuo, however, is a high-ranking civil servant. His case raises two questions on which the government of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) must take a solemn stand. First, civil servants must be loyal to their country, and they must treat all their compatriots equally and without discrimination. If they fail to do so, then one must ask whether they are fit to serve. That is why the Government Information Office transferred Kuo to another post, told him to make a public apology and handed the case over to the Commission on the Disciplinary Sanctions of Functionaries (公懲會) for further investigation.

Second, in a civilized society, a political force that has or may gain control over state organs must uphold the basic values of equality and mutual respect between different social groups. That is why those groups that feel insulted are calling on the Ma government to clearly dissociate itself from prejudice and the politics of hate. If the government fails to take such a stand, it will be unable to allay suspicions that it is willing to tolerate the likes of Fan Lan-chin.

During the eight years in which the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) occupied the presidency, society called on the DPP’s leaders to firmly distance itself from pro-DPP politicians and officials like Lin Chung-mo (林重謨) and Tsai Chi-fang (蔡啟芳) when they used offensive language, and from grass-roots DPP supporters who held placards reading “Chinese pigs” at street demonstrations.

When Chuang Kuo-jung (莊國榮), secretary-general of the Ministry of Education under the DPP administration, used misogynist language and publicly insulted Ma Ying-jeou’s father while speaking off duty at an election meeting, no one in the DPP sought to cover up his shortcomings. The DPP denounced Chuang in no uncertain terms and he resigned from his post that very evening.

Still, the DPP paid a heavy price for Chuang’s irresponsible pronouncements in last year’s presidential election, because a civilized society is wary of letting prejudice and hate creep into the state apparatus.

A democratic society must protect citizens’ freedom of expression — even the freedom to express their prejudices. At the same time, however, it must prevent prejudice from seeping into the machinery of government. That is why since World War II, democratic countries — regardless of whether a liberal or conservative party is in power — do not tolerate officials using hate speech. If any official should do so, the government will be expected to denounce the official concerned and remove him or her from office.

Today in Taiwan the public has the same expectations of the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), just as it had of the DPP when it was in power. Intolerance for prejudice in the corridors of power is not a mark of totalitarianism — on the contrary, it is a rejection of it.

Tao Yi-feng is an associate professor of political science at National Taiwan University.