Who are we listening to, what views do they have, and how do they express them? Those are the questions at the heart of a recent RICE article, Can There Be A Moderate Middle in Singapore’s Public Discourse?, that called for a “moderate middle in Singapore’s public discourse”.
I agree that we should not be intolerant or disrespectful when engaging in conversation with other people, especially if we disagree with them. That is easier said than done.
When I encounter someone who I disagree with, in person or online, I sometimes feel inclined to dismiss their views as rooted in ignorance or ill will.
It is all too easy for me to reject an opposing perspective if I believe that I am right and can never be wrong, or if I lack the humility to acknowledge that I am fallible.
It can also be instinctive for me to assume that another person is malicious in their disagreement if I do not seek to understand their motivations or the reasoning behind their views.
I know that these are practices that I must disavow because they belittle others and can lead to the creation of echo chambers, which only reinforce the rightness of my views.
However, by not interrogating the limits of moderation, Yong Han’s article might lead us to think that a moderate response is always morally superior. I do not want to fall into that trap.
In choosing to reject intolerance and practice compassion when engaging with others, I must also hold space for anger and outrage as valid and constructive responses in a conversation.
Crucially, I recognise that it is not fair to police the tone of individuals whose views or lived experiences have been repeatedly dismissed or invalidated by others. I know because I too am tired of responding nicely, for instance, to people who support the continued existence of 377A.
I do not manufacture my outrage on that issue, and neither do the countless other individuals who are rightfully upset with their daily encounters with discrimination and marginalisation in Singapore.
When I see outrage, I interpret it as a response to being a target of intolerance, or to the failure of moderate engagement. Then, the outrage becomes an opportunity to build empathy and, perhaps, reframe the conversation.
If I do not share someone’s outrage but I agree with their view, it may be beneficial if I speak up and join the conversation, so that the burden does not fall solely on the outraged to moderate their tone.
I also question if moderate responses would merely serve the interests of the powerful, by shutting out the voices of those who strongly disagree with them.
After all, people who are fiercely supportive of those in power would still have their views represented in public discourse, even if they remain silent themselves. And when those in power believe they are always right in their views, there is no longer any room for respectful disagreement.
“Public discourse” is hardly ever neutral, and I can try to account for the asymmetry by being more generous in listening and giving space to contrarian views.
I know that rejecting intolerance and practising compassion will not make me feel comfortable in all conversations.
In fact, the conversations worth having are all deeply uncomfortable. They will challenge and unsettle our deepest-held beliefs, and we certainly do not like being told that we are wrong or must change our minds.
But we must be humble and acknowledge that our views, no matter how genuine or sincere, may not be right. When we recognise that, we must be willing to learn and grow.
Yong Han, the author of the above-mentioned RICE article, is right: The state now needs to model this humility and tolerance that it calls for. And not just the state, but also every public figure, every celebrity, and every person with power.