Unlearning authoritarian values

By Huang Chang-ling and Yeh Hung-ling 黃長玲,葉虹靈  / 

Sat, Jan 25, 2014 - Page 8

A commotion recently broke out over the handling of a student-initiated proposal to name a plaza on the campus of National Cheng Kung University after democracy activist Deng Nan-jung (鄭南榕), who died after setting himself on fire at the office of his magazine, Freedom Era Weekly, in 1989. Last week, a meeting of the university’s school affairs committee passed a temporary motion to cancel the naming of the square, thus suspending the procedure for the time being.

This affair has highlighted a conflict between the new generation on the one hand and Taiwan’s authoritarian legacy on the other, and the war of words over the campus plaza is far from over.

Although more than 20 years have passed since Taiwan became a democracy, this transition was preceded by four decades of authoritarianism. Under the authoritarian system, education was controlled by the party-state apparatus, which used it to instill its monolithic ideology in everybody’s minds. Many people who grew up at that time and were imbued with authoritarian ideas are still in the habit of interpreting political and social phenomena based on how they had been indoctrinated.

This explains why bronze statues and busts of former dictator Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) are still to be found on many school campuses around the country, while many auditoriums, dormitories and other buildings are named after Chiang’s honorific title “Chung Cheng” (中正), and yet this is not generally viewed as being a matter of political interference on campus.

It is rare to hear of anyone invoking the cause of campus impartiality and calling for the removal of Chiang’s statues, which were installed long ago without any kind of campus democratic procedure, or to hear complaints about all the campus buildings and spaces that bear the “Chung Cheng” title.

US feminist Gloria Steinem advocates the idea of “unlearning.” She says that people who have experienced a patriarchal system cannot really adopt the values of gender equality, still less take part in establishing a system of gender equality, unless they discard the viewpoints and values that they formed under a patriarchy. The same can be said of Taiwan’s process of democratization.

Many people appreciate the importance of democratic values, but few think about the significance of discarding authoritarian values, and the former does not necessarily lead to the latter.

It is because of this failure to unlearn that National Taiwan University’s school affairs committee voted down a proposal to erect a tablet in memory of Carnegie Mellon University assistant professor Chen Wen-chen (陳文成), who died after apparently falling from a building on the campus in suspicious circumstances in 1981. It is for the same reason that the National Cheng Kung University school affairs committee rejected the proposal to name an open space on campus after Deng.

It is because of this failure to unlearn that some people who took part in the discussions at the two universities’ committees voiced the opinion that politics should not be brought onto campus. It is because of the failure to unlearn that seemingly irrelevant or even silly arguments were accepted at these committee meetings as legitimate reasons and reasonable analogies.

For instance, one of the ideas put forward in opposition to erecting a memorial to Chen was that students might be scared when they walked past it, and one opponent of the “Nan-jung Plaza” idea compared Deng’s self-immolation to the acts of terrorists.

Even though the government is now structured along the lines of a democratic system, many examples of authoritarian legacy can still be seen in Taiwanese society today. While institutional factors, such as the failure to institute transitional justice, may have some part in this, the fact that many people have never truly bid farewell to authoritarianism or discarded the ideas that it inculcated in them is also an important element.

Deng, Chen and Chiang are all highly political symbols, but their significance is not the same. The Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation has since its inception been concerned about Taiwan’s democratic development and transitional justice, and believes that when a democratic state or academic institution is trying to preserve memories it should encourage members of society to remember those who resisted dictatorship, rather than remembering the dictators.

Unfortunately, what has happened over the course of Taiwan’s democratization is that there has been “transition without justice.” As a result, society has not been able to discuss or overturn these kinds of political memory issues, or establish consensus about them. Many controversies end up with an unhelpful “agreement to disagree,” with each side remembering and describing its own preferred version of events.

“You pay respects to your Deng Nan-jung and I’ll pay respects to my Chiang Kai-shek,” people might say. Few people have thought deeply about what kinds of values are helpful for maintaining public life, or indeed for consolidating and deepening democracy, and therefore are values worthy of being preserved as public resources.

The proposal to name a plaza “Nan-jung Square” (South Banyan Square, 南榕廣場) and the earlier proposal to set up a memorial for Chen Wen-chen were both put forward by students who grew up under a democratic system, and they were both voted down by teachers who were educated under the authoritarian system of years gone by.

This similarity is no coincidence — it is a reflection of the influence that systems can have on people. Both cases involve profound lessons about democracy that are worthy of continued discussion and reflection.

Huang Chang-ling is chairperson of the Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation. Yeh Hung-ling is the association’s executive secretary.

Translated by Julian Clegg