On George Floyd, Freedoms and Ignorance

Instead of exercising freedoms of speech and expression (as what the United States claims to be a paragon of) to have open conversations about race, as well as about law and order, we see police brutality, race issues and protests unfurl across the country.

Years back, I was in the US myself. Showing public displays of dissatisfaction through placards and signboards is quintessentially American. In fact, I was greeted with protest signs and graffiti in many different parts of the US. I think such a freedom of expression in the US will persist simply out of habit.

However, a persitent and disturbing them recently is how voices of reason and voices of synthesis — people who try to bring conflicting parties to the negotiation table, are drowned out. This is no way to iron out any new agreement. Just because all of us have our own inclinations and biases does not mean that we are always correct; all of us have to, from time to time, remove ourselves from our self-created ideological bubbles, and understand what others articulate. Sometimes, from the outside, we may also look at ourselves and realise how our rose-tinted views within our bubbles could have clouded our judgement.

Recently I asked some friends who were more well-versed with the US situation (they live there) if they thought existing tensions in contemporary issues such as police brutality, racism or political standoffs could be managed or defused. None of them were particularly optimistic about it.

They were reasonable in discussing the issues that plague different parts of the United States, such as the rural discontent over how economic restructuring around the rest of the US has left them behind the value curve, and that those who have advanced look towards low-cost centres abroad to do much of the manufacturing that the Rust Belt used to do. Some expressed, too, the increasing level of danger given the increased scrutiny over race-based issues. While it could be statistically convenient to use easy-to-identify characteristics in demographic studies (example a public health research paper can say that a certain race could be at higher risk of a certain disease because said profile tends to have certain cultural habits that could aggravate a medical issue), it is not correct to pin down a certain race to a certain characteristic without proof. How helpful can it be to public discourse when we say, “Blacks are violent?” It brings nothing to the table; what kind of a leap of logic is this?

I am not sure if the Americans will eventually get their act together, but it highlights at least one model of civil society that is not constructive. Just because anyone seems to be allowed to spout what they want to say by law does not necessarily lead to said freedoms being applicable in practice (fear of being shot by another community, or being violated), neither does it lead to a constructive result if conflicting parties simply talk over one another.

Perhaps what we see today is also a symptom of the splits across different groups of people today. This is something Singapore has to watch out for in its populace as we continue to make difficult trade-offs. Few decisions, if any, will receive any sort of universal consensus today; these decisions were probably easy or simply rhetorical. Hence, what is left for us are tough decisions, especially with an unfriendly geopolitical climate. We get questions on whether we are too pro-China or too pro-US. Should we move beyond cheap foreign labour?

Before we head in first with our ideological lens, perhaps we should take a step back first, and do at least a simple study on the topics being discussed, before jumping in. Before trying to claim one power is superior to another, perhaps understand how countries set foreign policy, look at what said foreign policy tries to achieve, before wearing an ideological lens to articulate an issue. Even if we all claim to be more educated than previous generations, I have come to realise all of us still don’t know far more than we know.

Coming from a Physics background, we have an analogy for our ignorance. In the world today, the matter we are all familiar with is only about 5% of the universe, compared to dark matter (approx 27%) and dark energy (approx 68%). And most of our undergraduate course revolves around, well, matter, since we understand it far better than dark matter or dark energy. (I am sure you can carve out such analogies for different areas of expertise, for instance. No one can be an expert in all areas in cybersecurity, or business.) To try to be literate in a different subject matter takes effort, and even after a long while we are quite unlikely to be any expert on it. I am quite sure nobody, for instance, will seek advice from me on horticulture simply because the only seeds I can sow are seeds of doubt and the only food i can grow is food for thought.

I know I have written a long verbose post, but the main point I would like to return to about what’s seen in the US is that we should not gloat over it, since we are so far away from it, neither should we try to take sides assuming we know what is going on (usually we don’t). But we need to understand the dynamics that result in these explosive encounters, because we want to make sure that, in Singapore, we retain what we cherish: a functioning society that, through law and order, has the capability of keeping the peace with our diversity. We are by no means perfect, but I think our consensus for respecting the law has allowed us to discuss controversial issues without the level of fear that currently pervades the US today. It is ironic.

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