I have been trying to withhold judgement on this whole Amos Yee saga and trying to maintain a compassionate position to all parties. Some of you know that I've had my private scruples. But today, I confess that I am absolutely appalled by the whole affair. It's not that I wasn't disturbed before both by the first video that ignited this whole controversy and also by the responses that people had toward that. But Amos Yee's new "prank" on the mainstream media (alleging molest by the youth counsellor who posted bail for him) is on a different scale altogether. And this time, I am no longer able to keep silent.
When a person makes an allegation about sexual offences committed against her such as molest or rape, it is a hard thing to do. A report often means the beginning of a humiliatingly intrusive process of questioning and interrogation … almost as if she was the criminal instead of the victim of a crime. She has to put up with ridiculous amounts of scrutiny of her private and public life. She is often distrusted and asked if she was "mistaken" about what happened or whether she “gave the wrong signals" -- with the subtext being that she deserved to be molested because she led her attacker on. Most of the women I have helped (and the vast majority are women sadly) are positively traumatised by the experience and many walk away without reporting legitimate offences.
What Amos Yee did (in accusing a youth counsellor of molest for the sake of baiting the media) damages and harms every single person who ever tried to call attention to sexual offences committed against them. His “prank” will now be cited as proof that there are people who wantonly "cry rape" and "cry molest" in order to "get people into trouble" or for ulterior personal motives, making it that much harder for women and men to come forward to break their silence about sexual assault. “After all, how do we know they are not doing an 'Amos Yee' and falsely accusing their molester for frivolous reasons?”
I am disgusted by what Amos Yee did. And more importantly, I am disappointed by my liberal friends who support him under the rubric of freedom of speech.
Freedom of speech has always faced (in the original formulation by J.S. Mill) one primary limitation -- and that is the harm principle. For some reason, in the parliamentary systems we have in place, harms are restricted solely to physical harm. I don't see why.
Let us be clear about this. Speech harms. Words harm. They harm the marginalised. They harm the grieving. They harm the dignity of persons when deeply held convictions are rubbished rather than debated and spoken of with respect in the face of disagreement. They have the potential to lead to mental illness, to suicide. They have the potential to fracture entire communities and cause genocide. They can cause death.
Words harm. We do NOT have the freedom to use them wantonly.
If this statement makes me anti-liberal, I've reached the stage where that's acceptable. Because if this is the face of liberalism, I want no part of it. In the same way, as if mouthing off vulgarities are a substitute for sustained critique (which is what freedom of speech was enshrined to ensure), I want no part of it either.
Liberalism is dying. All over much of the Anglo-Saxon world, liberalism is under threat. Is that solely because of the organisational skills of conservative forces? Or the "stupidity" of the masses? Or should we liberals be reflecting on the possibility that maybe people are not voting liberal because liberalism no longer reflects a political ideology that they identify as deserving support? Who wants to vote for a movement that legitimises and defends intellectually flaccid crudity ("fuck you", "fuck", "fuck", "fuck") in place of principled protest, failure to protect an ideal of human dignity in the guise of "freedom of expression", and a refusal to condemn behaviour that demeans and harms others in the name of "critique and satire".
Liberalism is broken folks. That doesn't mean that authoritarianism is the answer. But fobbing off legitimate community concerns by sloganising and picking poor poster-boys for the cause and then spin-doctoring unsavoury aspects of their behavior aren’t good ways of going forward.
What Amos Yee did was not a “prank”. It is beyond satire, beyond the unknowing transgressions of youth. It was a cynical exercise in media manipulation and he did it knowingly. That the media fell for it and devoted time to repeating allegations that it did not first confirm is damning to it. But this article is not about the media. It is about Amos Yee and what it means to have the right to free speech.
When we call something a prank, we regard the act with an attitude of indulgence towards mischief which is inconvenient but not harmful.We have indulged Amos Yee long enough. It is time for this to stop. Because Amos Yee’s behavior is harmful and we need to recognise this. With this publicity stunt, he has concretely harmed the youth counsellor -- an individual who relies on trust in his ability to maintain appropriate boundaries with youth as an essential part of his profession. He has now also confirmed in the minds of many that baseless allegations of molest for personal reasons are easy to make and thereby harmed a whole bunch of women and men who have been victims of sexual assault and who will find it even harder to seek justice.
People say that Amos is just a child and thereby should not be judged harshly because he lacks the appropriate mental and emotional capacities to be fully conscious of the implications of his actions. If that is true, then he also lacks the capacities for principled action required of a political figurehead and cannot be lauded as a conscious political “dissident”, “beacon of freedom” or symbol of liberalism. If we are going to treat him as a child, then let us treat him as a child consistently. Conversely, if he has the capacities to be a freedom fighter or principled dissident, then he has the requisite capacities to stand trial as an adult.
We cannot have our cake and eat it my liberal friends. This is not about social punitiveness. This is about a principle of consistency that makes our words and political platform meaningful. Thoreau and Gandhi who wrote about civil disobedience also wrote about accepting the consequences of the law when they choose to violate it. Sadly, it seems we no longer read our own seminal texts or rather that we are quite happy to receive all the positive benefits and freedoms they speak of but none of the responsibility they call us to.
I am grateful to Amos Yee. I am grateful because he confronts us with a tangible caricature of what we liberals are becoming -- insouciant, insensitive to the grieving and marginalised, deaf to the harms we cause to the dignity of others and also our own. Is this the meaning of liberalism in the 21st century? Is this what we want to hold up as the beacon of freedom or the beacon of a new liberalism?
I didn't sign up for this.
I signed up for a Liberalism that meant the ability to critique power. But in the version I signed up to, the critique of power was not undertaken for its own sake but was a principled exercise undertaken for the sake of building a political commons that cared for all its members and which maintained the inalienable dignity of each person. The cynical manipulation of the press, capitalising on the death of statesmen, insensitivity to the grief of families, falsely accusing an individual who wanted to help you of a criminal offence, entrenching social myths about molestation reporting -- none of these maintain nor extend our dignity, our freedoms or our welfare. This is not liberalism. This is not freedom. And we liberals need to say that this is not what we stand for and that this is not okay.
Liberals, we need to put our own house in order. And that begins when we make some painful decisions about what it means to speak and to be responsible for our words. Words are things of power. And with anything that has power, they have the power to harm. And it’s about time we took some responsibility for articulating what it means to exercise our freedoms with dignity and responsibly. No one is going to take us seriously until we do.
© 15 May 2015 by Alexandra Serrenti. All rights reserved.
Author's Note: This article may not be reproduced in any online or print publications/magazines/blogs without the express permission of the author, Alexandra Serrenti. (alex.serrenti @ gmail.com) You may share this post only in its entirety—that means without any edits whatsoever and with appropriate attribution.