Thursday, 9 February 2017

Defending Taiwan's Democracy: The necessity of answering criticisms, rather than dismissing them and of defending the unadulterated right to freedom of expression. Or alternatively: why "social justice" is pernicious bullshit that Taiwan's democratic order simply cannot afford to indulge.

This will be a difficult post for me to write, and I am reminded of a recent post by a British engineer who previously worked in Russia for some years, in which he defended Vladimir Putin against the erroneous charge of being a "dictator" despite his own strong dislike of the Russian president. I am going to attempt something similarly awkward here, only in this case it is critics of democracy in China and elsewhere that I am going to appear to defend rather than Vladimir Putin, but it is only an appearance. My purpose is to point out that criticism of democracy is necessary in order that it may be answered, and that there is ample reason to think this is more necessary now, in the wake of recent events, than at any time in the past few years.

In a recent post at "Taiwan Sentinel", J.M. Cole remarks on an advertisement for a talk given at the City University of Hong Kong by professor Jiang Yi-Huah, who readers will recall was the Taiwanese premier during the 2014 Sunflower protests. Briefly, Cole puts the case that Jiang's talk on the failings of Taiwanese democracy plays into the Chinese Communist Party's attempt to discredit democracy, and while there may be something to this claim, I also think that Cole puts the case badly, and is in any case one of the least qualified people to do it. Here is the quotation from the ad to Jiang's talk...
"Taiwan is the only democracy in the Chinese world. In the process of democratization, Taiwan successfully realizes [sic] the democratic transition of [sic] an authoritarian regime, fair elections and peaceful change of powers, and the formation of a viable civil society, for which it is highly accredited [sic] by the international community. Nevertheless, Taiwanese democracy is also tainted by a serious divide of national identity, relentless partisan politics, disfunction [sic] of government, disrespect of the law, and notorious manipulation of mass media. The shortcomings of Taiwanese democracy is so appalling that more and more people become suspicious of the desirability of democracy in general, and the feasibility of democracy for the Chinese people in particular."
Irrespective of whether such a talk fits "hand in glove" with Beijing's anti-democratic propaganda, the charges brought by Jiang are to some degree valid and need to be answered, not dismissed. This must begin with reasons as to why the "flaws" Jiang points out are poor grounds for preferring non-democratic alternatives. Arguments can and should also be made as to how these problems might be ameliorated, if not solved. My own view is that these problems are consequences, to one degree or another, of excessively concentrated and centralized political power, from which it follows that they might be tackled through a process of depoliticization and decentralization.

But Cole does not attempt to make this or any other arguments and instead simply dismisses Jiang's criticisms of Taiwanese democracy as a case of a former premier talking out of turn. However, I am now of the view that Cole's position as a Canadian journalist and defender of Taiwan's democracy is somewhat undermined by his publicly stated views on a related matter. First however, here is what Cole says about the blurb for Jiang's talk...
"By agreeing to have his name associated with such language (assuming he has seen it), the former premier not only casts aspersions on the democratic accomplishments of the Taiwanese — who remain overwhelmingly committed to their political system, flaws notwithstanding — he furthermore risks becoming a pawn in Chinese propaganda, a voice arguing against a form of governance that is anathema to the CCP and that should remain an option for the people of Hong Kong and China."
Chinese propaganda is going to continue regardless of what Jiang or anyone else does or does not say, but that being said Cole is somewhat unfair here as Jiang's blurb contained both praise and criticism for Taiwan's democracy, not criticisms only. The talk would only have been propaganda if there was no possibility of answering Jiang's charges. Were answers to Jiang's criticisms permitted and tolerated in a Q & A session after the talk? Perhaps not, but we are not told, possibly because nobody knows. In any case, we are free to answer Jiang here in Taiwan and elsewhere where we are not yet censored. It would be an ironic sign of weakness if criticisms of Taiwan's democracy were discussed openly in the cryptocracy that is the People's Republic of China, whilst dismissed or otherwise shouted down by the supposedly "open" and "tolerant" supporters of democracy in Taiwan itself.

And this is where I part company with Cole. He is an ardent "social justice editor" who has in the past censored criticism of his writers whilst allowing them free reign to slander and denigrate political opponents. I also part company with him in his support for that identity-cluster at the apex of the victimhood hierarchy of political "virtue": the LGBTTQIAXYZ alphabet soup people. In particular, Cole is presumably an advocate of introducing "hate speech" legislation to Taiwan, which is a recent political weapon by which any criticism of anyone or anything related to the Left's victimhood hierarchy can be silenced by calling it "hate speech". Such legislation is a dangerous political weapon because there can be no clear, objective definition of "hate speech" (thus rendering the criterion subjective) and also because the people wielding it too often use hate speech allegations either indiscriminately, or with a selective application which reeks of hypocrisy. A white Christian who questions whether the State should be involved in certifying gay marriages may be charged with hate speech, yet a brown-skinned Muslim who advocates murdering practicing homosexuals may never be charged with hate speech. Hate speech legislation is a violation of the right to free expression, and it is this right - more than any other - which is part of the necessary consensus underpinning a democratic political order.

Democracy is not just about tolerating differences of opinion, but doing so within an underpinning framework of precepts and principles on which there is a consensus, such as those pertaining to the rights of the individual listed in the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Of standout importance here is the right to freedom of expression. A defense of democracy not rooted in such a consensus, and not rooted in free speech in particular is so flawed as to be no defense at all. Where there is no right to free speech, he who would articulate a set of ideas to which a "social justice warrior" may object can perhaps be cowed into silenced by the mere threat of being dragged through the courts. If that is considered unlikely to work, he can instead be marginalized by various online filtering mechansims, such as the deletion of his blog comments, the removal of his Facebook posts, the suspension of his Twitter account, the removal of his blue "check" on Instagram and the demonetization of his Youtube uploads. For people who are supposedly democrats to engage in such lower level suppression of alternative views and, on top of that, to advocate legislation introducing actual legal prior restrictions on freedom of expression is a confluence of two mistakes which together are of singular magnitude in the omnilateral nature of their political implications. I'll say it again: unadulterated freedom of expression is an essential prerequisite for a democratic order. Cole's misguided support for restrictions on freedom of expression places him outside of that basic consensus upon which Taiwanese democracy, and all other democracies, depend.

The U.S. relationship with Taiwan is often said to be based on "shared values", which is a commonly understood reference to democracy and freedom of expression. Yet perhaps these shared values are now on shaky ground. The problem will arise for Taiwan's social justice warriors (and unfortunately, for the rest of us who live here too) when, after having supported restrictions on freedom of speech and after having punished and marginalized the most prominent alleged purveyors of their various "-isms" and "-obias", they then find themselves the victims of ever more aggressive demonstrations of Chinese nationalist ambition. Will they then turn to the U.S. to ask for help and plead the case of "shared values" of democracy and freedom of speech? If things do eventually turn out that way, an impartial observer could be forgiven for seeing why a U.S. President and a U.S. Congress might think twice about what exactly those "shared values" are.

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