Amos Yee, Ashley X and Ashley “Normal”
Amos Yee, Ashley X and Ashley “Normal”
A judge in Wisconsin has freed Amos Yee from detention where he has been held since his arrival in USA last year seeking asylum. The judge said that Amos Yee received unfair treatment in Singapore depriving him of his right to free speech.
Ashley X is an ex-Member of the European Parliament in prison in UK. I know him and his family. At 81 he is serving a prison sentence for paying whistleblowers from his MEP expenses to tell him about corruption in the European Parliament. He wrote a book on it.
“Normal” is an outstanding play by Faith Ng, brilliantly directed by Claire Wong, at Checkpoint Theatre in Singapore. It runs until 16Apr17 and everyone should see it. By a coincidence the lead character in Normal is a girl called Ashley. The irony of the two Ashleys ‘meeting’ in a Daily Paradox is breathtaking.
What do these three events tell us about free speech, civility, honesty and control?
Amos Yee was convicted in Singapore and spent a short time in prison as punishment. Whatever the legal rights and wrongs, he broke a cultural rule of politeness and decent behaviour towards someone whose life had been dedicated to making a society that provided Amos Yee with a very privileged upbringing and background. He was entitled to have a point of view. Society was entitled to expect that it be expressed politely.
Ashley X was, I am sure, well intentioned but misguided. He broke the law according to the courts and I do not dispute that. He is paying a price for it. However strong your case you must operate within the law to make it. Ashley X is appealing against his conviction. The corruption now emerging in the EU may help his case but may not overturn the verdict.
‘Normal’, for those not accustomed to Singapore Education jargon, means students not as bright as those classified as Express or Special. In other words, a bit backward.
Every culture is different but they all have the same purpose – to allow those living in them to have a civilised and peaceful life with no more stress than necessary. ‘Civilised’ is an attempt to promote our better natures and control our baser instincts. Should governments do that?
Obviously not necessarily so. Governments and courts in many parts of the world have been involved in, even promoted, corruption. A government that doesn’t allow you to say what you think in a polite and decent way is repressive and unacceptable. It is ineffective, too, as it cannot control the internet. Opinions will surface whatever the rules. That is why each of us must establish our own standards. We do that by considering others.
It is all about a balance between the individual and society. Individuals should be as free as possible consistent with a cohesive and functioning society. That society will inevitably restrict them to some extent. But imposing rules about anything today is a failed way. The best societies, like the best parents, have very few rules, strictly enforced.
Societies must now grow up to handle the immense technological challenges they face. Society grows up when the individuals who comprise it do so. Standards have to become self-imposed. They must include dealing decently, however critically, with our fellow humans. Amos Yee did not do that. Ashley X, if the judgment is correct, did not do that. But Ashley in “Normal” shows that a society may not do that to the individual, too. How is a society in 2017 to balance the rights of its citizens and its societal needs?
Obviously, every effort must be made to discover what drives individuals. Some bad behaviour is reversible by reason; some is not. When it is not we protect society from it. A culture, too, must be protected from degradation while being allowed to develop its own character and personality. The tussle between these two requirements is a perpetual one.
If there is one word that describes the bad side of our development it is ‘excess’. We have lost our sense of moderation. From Capitalism to Sex, from Food to Leisure, from Education to Armament, we seem unable to stop before we are engulfed by our own excess. That excess has spread to personal abuse, violence and bad behaviour, not universally but enough to make a more civilised society seem to be receding not developing.
Greater violence – and that includes imprisonment – will not stop this Gadarene rush. Only two people can do so; only one method will work.
The people are you and I.
And the method? Example.