Saturday, December 23, 2006

to all men on earth

i was reading this post by zyberzitizen (and left a comment), and suddenly i remembered something i was thinking about a few months back. oddly enough, what set me thinking was this post by whipsers of the heart. back then, i was wondering if us members of the plogosphere suffer from trying so hard to be intellectual that we neglect our emotional faculties. currently, i sorta believe the converse is true =P.

what has this got to do with christmas? well supposedly, christmas is the season where we "ponder upon the meaning and significance of love". i think i saw that in an article in the Straits Times yesterday. singaporeans? yeah right. so this christmas will you be more willing to let people alight from the mrt first before entering? or will you stick to one side of the escalator? or will you be a more generous driver? will you be a more gracious blogger? of course, you can say, love has nothing to do with that. love has got to do with friends and family. fellow singaporeans, they can talk to my elite uncaring face.

Pseudonymity wrote that christmas is the time to think about those less fortunate than you. that is no doubt true, but i'm thinking christmas is the time that we ought to take a deep long look at our personal selves also. as bloggers, we're accustomed to thinking about big issues, thinking about issues which cover and involve millions of people, that we don't spend enough time thinking about issues which involved just one person: your individual self.i think christmas is the time for self-introspection. christmas is the time when you ask yourself, could you have exhibited more peace, goodwill, charity, kindess, compassion, forgiveness, graciousness, love? christmas is the time when you ask yourself, what could you do, on a personal level, to greater exhibit these qualities.

for me, it was realizing that complaining or reacting negatively towards singaporeans who just aren't gracious enough, doesn't make me anymore gracious. no doubt ugly singaporeanism exists, and it is something worth talking about. but when doing so we are thinking about the big issue, the larger picture (the millions-of-singaporeans point of view). yet, exhibiting graciousness is a personal thing. if my own personal reactions to the issue is anything but gracious, then perhaps i am not helping the sovle the problem, but aggravating it.

what you could do need not be something grand or life-changing. it could just be something simple. something like wishing people "merry christmas".

to the KTM, BL and Huichieh, who in my opinion are the coolest folks in the plogosphere: merry christmas! hope you all have an excellent holiday season and much meaningful time spent with your family and loved ones.

to inspir3d (of Intelligent Singaporean) and the folks at Singapore Angle: merry christmas! really appreciate all the work that you do to bring quality and improvement to the singapore plogosphere. hope that this christmas season bring you much joy and laughter.

to those who are teachers such as singaporeteach and piper: merry christmas! thank you for educating our young. hope that you take the holidays to rest and recharge, and when school starts again, may you again help to bring love and joy to your students.

to those who are students, including ben, kitana, aaron, charissa and yanjie: merry christmas! hope this holiday season finds you well, and that you have adequate rest and warmth during this break. all the best for your semesters ahead!

to fellow newbies such as cognitivedissonance and zyberzitizen: merry christmas! hope you find what you are looking for by entering the plogosphere, and may you be spared the self-doubt and insecurity i went through when i was just starting out. and please do spend time with your family and loved ones this christmas season.

to dory, who called me a whinner in this post of kitana's: merry christmas! i hope that you will have much meaningful time spent with your friends, family and loved ones. and that christmas be truly a time of love and warmth for you.

to gundam, who spoke up for me (i think) in the same post: merry christmas to you too!

to the rest of the blogosphere, such as those who had left comments on my blog, those who had the opportunity to have conversations with myself, and those of you who are just readers: merry christmas! some of you have been nothing short of inspiring and influential to me, but to be honest, some of you i personally find very irritating. nevertheless, merry christmas to you all! may this holiday season be special and may you find yourselves in joyful, merry situations this christmas.

to my friends and colleagues: i know you read my blog =). merry christmas!

and lastly, to my dearest da jie: thanks for the japanese dramas! =) i am eternally debted to you. merry christmas!

merry christmas everybody, and peace and goodwill to all men on earth.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

marriage, sex and morality

Currently, in the blogosphere:

Aaron (at Singapore Angle), wrote about premarital sex and argued that Singaporean parents and teachers are likely to be too conservative to teach sex education effectively and hence perhaps sex education should be "outsourced" to professionals.

Ben writes that the "real problem" is not pre-marital sex, but unprotected sex with non-regular sex partners. He also seems to hint that people discussing this issue might confuse between "conceptions of sin" and "real harm".

Kitana writes that marriage, sex and having children are personal and private decisions and issues, and it is not the business of the rest of society (or the government) to indicate what one ought or ought not to do.

I apologized if I have misread or misrepresented any of the three positions above (do correct me if I am wrong). The purpose of this post is not a response to any of the above-mentioned articles, but to explore a theme which all three have in common: what is the role of morality when it comes to issues of marriage and sex? Is such a role desirable? I note that a complete and extensive discussion on this topic would require the length of a book (or more), hence this post is but a brief cursory discussion.

The Institution of Marriage

"Pre-martial sex" means sex before marriage. If we are to talk about the morality of pre-marital sex, we need to talk about what marriage is, and perhaps doing so will reveal some clues about how morality fits into all of this. According to the wikipedia article on marriage, the definition of marriage differed throughout history and across cultures. That should not surprise us. The article also says that the modern definition of marriage would be "a union that is formally recognized by the state", although the article also mentions some might disagree with that definition.

There are two quick lessons we can draw from this. Firstly, marriage is culture-dependent. This will provide some difficulty for views about marriage which are morally absolute (i.e. have no subjectivity at all). Secondly, "being recognized" by the state (or religion, or some authority) appears to be a necessary requirement for a marriage. This provides some difficulty for views which will want to argue that marriage is the business of only the two individuals involved, and no one else.

Consider briefly the issue of gay marriage as an example. There is nothing preventing homosexuals from cohabiting with each other, and nothing effectively preventing them from having consensual homosexual sex with each other. So what difference does it make whether or not they are legally married or not? Perhaps marriage is not just about two individuals living together, but also about the recognition by the government of their union. The government is a third involved party in a marriage, and by extrapolation, it is "society as a whole" that is the third involved party (since the government supposedly represents the interests of society as a whole). This is why I personally believe Singapore will not allow gay marriages at least for the next 50 years or so. Singapore society currently, as a whole, is probably not tolerant to gay unions. Hence the government will not be willing to legalize it, since it (supposedly) represents Singapore society as a whole. If it is indeed so, then gay marriage is not legalized not due to any objective argument that homosexual marriage is immoral (in the absolute sense), but because society as a whole does not accept it (due to whatsoever reasons). [Note that I have refrained from using the word "majority" to describe society as a whole, because it is possible that certain voices within society might be more influential than other voices.]

Religion and Marriage

What perhaps makes talking about marriage messy is the fact that to many, marriage is not just a civil affair, but also a religious one. This becomes messy because religion is loaded with morality, and different religions support a different version of morality. For example, for most people, polygamy is considered to be immoral. Yet, it is something which Islam allows. So, if I ask the question: "So is polygamy immoral or not" is your answer "depends on your religion" or "It is, but the Muslims will disagree with me"? What if one day your son converts to Islam and takes multiple wives. Would you consider him to have done something immoral?

Morality and Pre-marital sex

There is no doubt that there are individuals in Singapore who believe that pre-marital sex is morally permissible. There is also no doubt that individuals who believe that is not morally permissible also exist. The first question is, why is this so? It appears to me that the answer lies in values, beliefs and ideologies. The first group of individuals share certain values and ideologies (liberalism, for e.g.) which the members of the second group does not share, and vice versa. And like all values and ideologies, they are influenced by (but not limited to) religion and culture.

The second question: so is pre-marital sex morally permissible or not? Is your answer to the question "depends on your values or ideologies" or "yes/no, but people with differing values would disagree with me"? If you are (say, a Christian) and you firmly believe pre-marital sex is immoral. What if one day your child (who does your share your beliefs) goes out and has pre-marital sex, would you consider him/her to have done something immoral?

Putting it all together

Pre-marital sex is but one area where there is moral controversy and disagreement due to differing worldviews (abortion, homosexuality are examples of others). It is empirically well known that differing worldviews are not easily resolved by mere argumentation. And hence, as long as there is substantial representation in the relevant differing worldviews, such moral controversies can be expected to remain. This does not make the job easy for the relevant authorities who has to decide what laws and public policies to adopt based on "society as a whole".

Consider a policy such as sex education. The relevant authorities will have to decide if they want to have sex education, and how to carry it out. Aside from (pertinent and important) factors such as social problems and STDs, another factor they will need to consider is societal receptiveness to the policy. If, for example, sex education focused more on abstinence, liberal-minded individuals
might be unhappy because abstinence is nowhere as effective as safe sex in preventing STDs or unwanted pregnancies. Yet, if they focused more on safe sex, conservative-minded individuals might be unhappy because they will feel that such education will promote pre-marital sex, which to them is something immoral. You cannot please everybody. Governance (or so it appears to me) is about balancing all the factors, making a decision, and then you spin the press in an attempt to persuade and pacify those individuals who will be unhappy.

I have a suggestion on how we can best deal with such situations of moral disagreement. We can try to appreciate and understand worldviews different from our own, instead of just arguing for our own views all the time. One vehicle which might be useful for this mutual learning is rational and civil discourse. Perhaps after better understanding what each other's worldviews are, we will be able to say "I disagree with what you are saying, but I respect and appreciate the reasoning behind your views, and that you follow a different set of rules than I" This doesn't make the disagreement go away of course (it probably never will go away), but perhaps this is the right first step to allow us to come together and talk about what laws and which policies will be truly in the best interests of all of us.

That said, I'm not optimistic about my suggestion actually taking place. Empirically, I think it can be shown that generally people have very little interest in appreciating the views of their opponents, and my judgement is that for Singaporeans, this is even less so.

Friday, December 15, 2006

financial ignorance and education

Some of us have been talking about the "middle class squeeze" in the plogosphere recently, and I personally find myself agreeing with Ben and the KTM that perhaps the issue is just poor spending habits (or unrealistic expectations on the quality of living) of the middle class. Identifying the problem is one thing, but addressing it is another. KTM's post had a link to a post by Aaron on financial education, and this reminded me of my own situation several months ago and a conversation I had with a colleague.

My colleague was complaining to me that schools in Singapore teach kids what they do not need for the rest of their life (such as calculus, chemical bonding and the photo-electric effect), but what they do need for the rest of their life, they do not teach. He was talking about financial planning and management. Quietly embarrassed that I know nothing about financial management myself (but without admitting it to my colleague), I went to the library later that week to borrow Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki, the supposed best seller on financial management [the book also has come under much criticism. Such as the personal anecdotes used in the book could have been fictitious]. Finding the book interesting but not informative enough, I borrowed Dollars and Sense by Margaret Allen (2001 Times Editions), which focused more on Singapore financial planning, which I found very informative but perhaps not the most updated with regards to the latest changes in taxes and CPF.

The first question: Is financial planning important? Well yeah, it is. I believe that it is careful financial planning which allows you to realize the importance to moderate your spending habits. It is financial planning which allows you to realize how feasible, how long it will take, and how much you need to save to pursue that dream of 5Cs or an early retirement. It also reduces the probability that you run into debt. On a larger scale, if the middle and lower income groups exercised careful financial planning and management, perhaps some they wouldn't be in their current predicament now.

The second question: If it was so important, why are so many people (including myself) so financially ignorant? Um...because nobody teach? If I were to speculate a guess, it is because "financial education" does not form our traditional sense of education. And also perhaps, some of us carry the mentality "as long as I study hard, get a job, work hard, everything will turn out okay". I don't know, really. I do think however, that Aaron's suggestion that the government deliberately wants us to be financially ignorant because debt is better for the economy, is unlikely. If so, the whole moneySENSE initiative would be difficult to explain.

The third question: so how do we improve the situation? Like Aaron, I believe the most direct solution lies in education. I have no idea how successful the moneySENSE initiative is (perhaps it is too early to tell?), and I am aware that the initiative includes educating the young, although I do have no idea what that is like on the ground (perhaps my readers who are teachers can enlighten me?). My concern is that, if financial education is taught to the young on the fringe (such as in civics and moral education), students won't take it seriously. Did any of you take civics and moral ed in school seriously? I know I didn't. Students are probably too young to realize the practical importance of financial planning, so I think if we are to be really serious in financial education, we ought to dedicate a mandatory school lesson to it, not unlike home economics, music or design & technology (technical).

The fourth question: what would financial education look like? Please note that I am no expert on pedagogy. I'm here only presenting a raw idea on what in my opinion would be the important aspects of financial planning we need to educate the young with and how we may achieve that most effectively.

When should financial education be taught? When I was in primary school, we had some program by POSB to promote saving money. Although that would probably qualify as financial education and is probably a good thing, it is not just learning to save, but learning how to spend. I think learning that requires some maturity and intelligence, so I would think that it would be more effectively taught in JC, or upper secondary. Not everybody goes to JC; in fact, some might say that it is precisely those who don't go to JC that needs financial education the most. So necessity dictates that it be implemented at secondary school. Maybe necessity might also dictate that it be implemented in lower secondary, since upper secondary syllabus might be totally dedicated to preparing for O and N levels. I'm not sure, but personally I would prefer it being taught as late as possible (and hence closer to the time they actually start working and earning an income).

What would the financial education syllabus look like? I think we've got to make it exam based so that students actually bother studying about it. That said, if it is something we want to drill into young students, we must be very careful that we don't co-laterally drill something detrimental into young impressionable minds, such as perhaps, an unhealthy desire for the accumulation of material wealth (i.e., we don't want to end up teaching our students to be greedy). In fact, a good financial education must not just address technical issues such as interest rates, CPF policies, insurance, credit cards, income VS expenditure etc., but also a certain amount of values education, such as perhaps emphasizing that there are some things that money cannot indeed buy (family, friends, passions and dreams) and that also that a blind pursuit of materialism will probably bring more pain than pleasure. Keep in mind, this is just a very raw idea; how exactly do we package this into something which is workable, is something which I cannot supply right now.

The fifth question: what are some possible problems with financial education? I am not sure what ALL the possible problems could be, but I can think of at least two. Firstly, the possibility with encouraging students to be greedy and materialistic, which in the long run might actually worsen the problems of bad financial management. Secondly, parents might not like the idea. Perhaps they would rather their children spend their time in school practising more math problems or something.

Of course, until MOE actually implements something like that, this is just all kopi-tiam talk. The really pertinent issue is this: if you are parent, do you think you need to educate your child in the skills of financial planning to ensure the greater probability of success for your child's future? If so, what and how will you teach your child? And do you know how to impart the necessary financial skills to your child without encouraging greed and materialism?

shhh...i tell you a secret

some of you have replied to my previous post with very kind comments. many of you offered me words of advice along the line that i should not be so emotionally affected by negative comments. although i really appreciate your comments, i was wondering if some of you all have misread what i was trying to say? this post is an attempt to explain the motivations and articulation behind my previous post.

truth is, i was experimenting with different modes of articulation while blogging, and testing how persuasive they can be. i wasn't SERIOUSLY upset with the anonymous dude who left that comment, and i thought i indicated so when i said:

now, i am not saying this dude got me upset because he said stuff which was mean. nor am i saying, i've got a problem with him. actually, i'm not even sure what he meant by that comment.

nevertheless, a good deal of people just assumed that i was upset becoz of this anon dude, and i just reacted and ranted out of that. that wasn't really what really happened. although it was true that i was somewhat upset, i wasn't upset BECAUSE of this anon dude. i was upset because the more i thought about it, the lower the prospects of CRD thriving on the plogsophere.

at the same time, i decided to experiment with a different style of articulation. i always found that many people seem to agree with some other bloggers who adopted a more emotive style of argumentation. hence, i decided to tap into my feelings of upset (about the prospects of CRD in the plogosphere) and write a decidedly emotive post.

however, that wasn't all i wanted to experiment with. i wanted to intentionally provoke a certain kind of thinking by reading my post. which was why i intentionally asked questions such as "is this a rant post?", as well as explicitly soliciting comments on possible motivations for blogging.

the conclusions? my emotive approach probably was not very persuasive. everybody just felt the emotions but did not clearly read what i was saying, hence assuming that i was just reacting to the anon dude. probably this is not the fault of the readers, but the fact that emotive posts are somewhat very open to interpretation in the first place because of the lack of clear presentation of argument.

my attempts to provoke thinking were probably too subtle, or ill-placed. only one blogger responded noting that perhaps i wasn't really ranting, and i was hoping someone would produce the following objections to my post, but nobody really did (except maybe KTM):

- the plogosphere isn't as gloomy as i made it out to be. yes there is unhappiness when there is disagreement, but it is something that we can live with. it isn't necessarily so that there isn't enough space.

- the criticism of the WSM issue was unfair. it was mainly the netizens OUTSIDE the plogosphere (sammyboy forumers for eg) who drove WSM to close her blog, not people within the plogosphere.

- Elia Diodati could be wrong about "collective scrutiny of the blogosphere". The WSM case ought to be taken as a isolated incident because it involved an MP's daughter.

- "survival of the most anti-establishment" would be too unfair a comment about the plogosphere. there are many existing (and perhaps flourishing) blogs which are moderate, or pro-establishment.

i was also secretly hoping somebody would come up and tell me "pls dun stop blogging. we like to continue reading what you write". oh well. =/

i apologize to those of you who think that i was being sneaky and dishonest by having an ulterior motive or a personal agenda for blogging my previous post in such a fashion. it is however, my own blog, so i do think i reserve the right to blog in any manner i wish. but that said, i probably won't blog in such a manner again. i think it was not very fruitful nor productive (although it was somewhat fun and cathartic =P) i also think i've over-blogged in recent weeks on the topic of communication (or lack thereof) in the blogosphere, so i will stop blogging about that, at least for now.

some final food for thought:

- why did i blog THIS post?
- and why is this post tittled "shhh...i tell you a secret?"

Friday, December 08, 2006

not enough space for all of us

this is a rant post.

perhaps by the end of the post you would think that it doesn't quite sound like a rant post. but i still think its a rant post. what is considered a rant and what is considered not a rant? does the fact that i think i'm ranting make it a rant? i will return to these questions at the end of the post.

next, i am a lazy person. i suspect i will be using the term "civil and rational discourse" very often later on in this post, so i shall abbreviate it to become "CRD". i suspect most people who are following the current issue being discussed on the blogosphere knows what CRD is, but for the sake of maybe some sec school kid who happened to stumble unto my blog:

"discourse" refers to a dialogue of some sorts. meaning you are interested in engaging the other party in a conversation. you're not just interested in expressing your own view. "rational" refers to the fact that the dialogue is a supposedly "intellectual" one. that means, you do not just state your views, but support them with arguments. similarly, other parties in the conversation support their views with arguments, and you engage their views by assessing their arguments. and "civil" means, well, all parties involved in the discourse try to be nice, even when they disagree. it means respecting the person, even if you don't agree with the views of that person.

but for now, my rant:

i am feeling sad. upset. maybe even depressed. why do i feel this way? the more i think about it, the more i feel that the singapore blogosphere (or rather, plogosphere, it matters not) is just one big ugly place. how come?

on my previous post, there was this comment by an anonymous dude:

OK, we talked about the rights of bloggers. We talked what to do write and what not to write. We have the great minds here debating the definitions of rights. So, why do you want to blog:

1) to be someone
2) to increase web traffic
3) to read the content yourself
4) to test your minds
5) to test your keyboards
6) to share your own opinions
7) to help others to understand
8) to mug around
9) to do nothing
10) to practise our rights

Do you want to help the rest to understand the complexity of policies, with you being knowledgeable in the higher concepts of things around us? I find that the content is academically "nice". So, are we going to have a space for the higher minds to converse, a different space for the normal minds, and some small space for those rant.

This is Singapore, we have problems. We need ways to make all to know that there are problems. People are different, they will have different views/emotions and people are trying their best to express their problems.

I hope that they still have the rights to rant about the feelings (of course, within the proper limits). We have the choice to accept or not. We can re-write our blog content, but some of us cannot delete our sufferings from our minds.

How about our rights "to be free"?

At the end of the day, why do you want to blog?

now, i am not saying this dude got me upset because he said stuff which was mean. nor am i saying, i've got a problem with him. actually, i'm not even sure what he meant by that comment. was he trying to ask me a question? or was he trying to make a point? if so, what was his point he was trying to make? was he looking for me to engage his point in a discussion, or was he just interested in expressing his point and not requiring of me to respond? was he purposely being inarticulate to display with irony that you don't always need to have a point to comment/blog? i don't know. i can't tell. maybe i'm just not a very good comments reader.

my da jie tells me i should just ignore this comment.she thinks this dude was just ranting his disapproval at my style and choice of content of my blog. i was thinking about this business of "ignoring". the KTM has also previously said that he ignores "online trolls". No doubt, "ignores" here means physically ignore them. don't DO anything to respond to them. treat them as if they never exist. but there is another sense of the word "ignore". that is to emotionally ignore someone. that means, no matter what mean stuff someone says to you, you don't FEEL emotionally affected by it. it is of course very possibly to be very emotionally affected (e.g. feel angry) but choose to not respond (physically ignore).

when the KTM said that bloggers must learn to be more thick skin, he meant that bloggers must learn to not be so emotionally affected by flak. In other words, bloggers must learn to emotionally ignore comments or posts which they find offensive. no doubt words of wisdom, but perhaps of limited applicability. the KTM himself admits that some bloggers are like "a bull charging at you", and that even the cool KTM has a difficult time giving a charitable response, meaning, he was definitely emotionally affected by such comments. your skin can only be so thick.

we humans, bloggers included, are not just thinking individuals. we are thinking AND feeling individuals. we have no on-off switch we can press to switch off our feeling selves (although some say we can easily switch off our thinking lah). negative emotions directed towards you will usually affect you negatively. so even if we INTENDED to ignore people who are offensive, they may affect us so much emotionally, then we are emotionally compelled to do something about it, and we end up shooting back a scathing reply. that's why its so easy for experienced trolls to cause havoc.

why do we get emotionally affected in the first place? it appears to me this happens when something valuable to us becomes threatened, or comes under attack. such as our own views, and our own selves. you know what i find valuable? CRD. i think CRD is both intrinsically valuable (a good thing in itself), as well as instrumentally valuable (in deciding how you should think about issues, or deciding how you want to vote in the elections, for example), and hence i care about CRD. and because i care about CRD, i get emotionally affected and upset when i see CRD just not going to work out.

you are not interested in CRD you say. you are only interested in expressing your own views (or maybe just your angst and gripes), and actually you don't give a hoot what other people say about them. fine. you want to be free to disagree with other people's views and label them "ignorant", "naive", "stupid" etc etc (i could list all the adjectives but that would make my post REALLY long), but hey you're not really that interested to consider if your OWN VIEWS may possibly be mistaken. fine. your views are infallible. anybody who disagrees with you must be chastised for his/her ignorance, stupidity and naivety. fine. you can't prevent me from saying what i want to say. rant what i want to rant. insult who i want to insult. this is my right. fine.

fine, if you are isolated, live as a hermit, and your actions won't affect anyone else, that is. the blogosphere is a COMMUNITY. get used to that fact. that means that whatever we post or comment on the blogosphere, has the potential to affect other bloggers. we are all connected. we read what each other say. if what we read strongly offends us, we cannot emotionally ignore it. And if we become so emotionally affected that we are compelled to respond to it, we usually do so angrily. perhaps some of you will like to do so upon reading this post. it would be good if you can help provide examples, you know.

give me all my rights! responsibility? who needs that?

ah, but that's the beauty of the internet you say. it celebrates diversity. everyone is free to voice their own views. everyone is free to criticize the views of others. dude, remember WSM? was she free to voice her own views (no matter how misguided?) was she free to criticize the views of others (no matter how valid?). then why was she effectively banished from the blogosphere? oh i see. she was free to voice her own views (provided she agreed with your views), and free to criticize the views of others (provided she did not criticize your views).

oh, but you didn't banish her you say. she closed down her blog on her own free will. yeah, you left lots of nasty stuff on her blog, you called her names you would never call your mother, you dug up photos of her in a bikini, and you even commented on her anatomy. but she closed her blog down on her own free will! eh, but then, Elia Diodati says that WSM closed her blog down because she "did not survive the exposure to collective scrutiny" of the blogosphere for very long. this is part of our already in-built "self-regulatory" system of the blogosphere. oh, i see now. there is social darwinism in the blogosphere. survival of the most anti-establishment.

dudes. we will always have disgreements. the fact that someone disagrees with you does not make him stupid, ignorant or naive. your eyes are not his eyes. your ears are not his ears. he may have seen or heard things you haven't. you may have seen or heard things he hasn't. that's why we want to have CRD. so we can share our thoughts, which are going to be different because we all seen and heard different things, and hopefully without ending up like we're trying to kill each other. but you care not. you only care about your views, and your desire to express them.

there is this account by Thomas Hobbes of the state of nature of humans. we humans are self-interested by nature. it is our instinct for survival. we will do anything preserve our own liberty and safety. the presence of other humans threaten our liberty and our safety. maybe my neighbour will steal my food. maybe he will murder me to claim my wife as his own. this leads to the bellum omnium contra omnes, the war of all against all. as a result of this war, human life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short". but us humans, we are smart. we realize hey, if we co-operate with each other. we might actually all live longer, and we can escape this nasty war of all against all. so we become willing to co-operate. but then, we need safety checks to make sure my neighbour doesn't come and stab my back when i co-operate with him. so that's why we produce something called a governement, with laws and power to punish those who try to cheat the system for their own gain. being under the governement means we voluntarily give up some of our rights. we now must bo pian follow the laws, or else kena chop by the government. but we all willingly do so, becoz we want the government to make sure my neighbour never cheat me mah.

now look at the local blogosphere/plogosphere. we are in a state of every blogger for himself. it is like we are in hobbes' dystopian state of nature. the recent talk of having self-regulation is analogous (but only slightly so) of Hobbes' talking of voluntarily submitting yourself to a government. but of course we won't stand for it. we are not willing to have any of our rights removed from us. these are OUR rights! no way we want to give them up. somebody say seditious remarks, kena chop by garmen. their own daichi lah, as long as never happen to me. somebody say throw some insult somewhere and start a damn big flame war. aiyah, this is the blogosphere mah. sure happen one. just don't you dare flame me ah.

that is why this blogosphere (or plogosphere) just does not have enough space for all of us. we do not have enough room for people interested in CRD, AND people interesed only to scold the government, AND people interesed only in themselves and their rights, AND people who only want to express their views AND people who cannot articulate their views clearly enough so they always get misunderstood AND yet at the same time we don't want to be insulted, flamed or kena name-called by anybody else. not enough space, say i.

maybe that anon dude got interesting suggestion. maybe we should partition ourselves. have a separate plogosphere for people interested in CRD, a separate plogosphere for anti-garmen ranting, and a separate plogosphere for "higher minds". so how? you tell me lah. but keep in mind when we do so, we throw diversity out of the window hor. if i'm in the CRD plogosphere, strictly no-name calling allowed hor. if i'm in the anti-garmen plogosphere, no pro-garmen stuff allowed hor. so whatever happens to freedom of speech then?

so do you think this is a rant post? i am more than happy to entertain CRD on any points i've just raised in this post (you are welcome to disagree with my pessimism on the state of the blogosphere, the value of CRD, or anything else for that matter). and i have a point to make, and i did attempt to make some sort of argument with some semblence of coherence. does that make my post NOT a rant post? but i still think it is a rant post. why? because i make no attempt to hide my emotional motivation behind it. there is clearly emotional content here, and not just intellectual content. i should ignore rant posts but not ignore "serious" posts, some tell me. so should you ignore this post or not?

what will you do when you are on a boat which is so crowded with people that it might sink? maybe you would push your neighbour off. dun need to worry, he can swim, and shore is close by. but he has every right to be on that boat as you do. not your daichi. who ask him never push you off first.

me? i will probably jump off.

i would like to solicit YOUR opinion on this. (yes, i am explicitly asking for comments). most, if not all of you, have been here longer than i have. if the blogosphere is indeed too small for all of us, can you provide me with a reason why i should still stay here? perhaps you can share your reason for staying on and maybe i will be inspired or encouraged by you.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

can rights be wrong?

I'm sure many people have been following the debate going on at Singapore Angle between the KTM and several of his detractors, including whybegay, Me and RSE. I won't comment (anymore) about that thread (which is still ongoing, and interesting in its own right), but instead, something which was exchanged during that conversation caught my attention and started me thinking.

The following was taken from a comment by whybegay:

If people wish to discuss about policies, they are free to discuss in a constructive and informative manner but when they don't know much about the issues and people in Singapore and then start to whine and advocate nonsense like taxing the Rich more and kidnap and swindle their money by listing nonsensical math and economics terms to perform their frauds, they are no different from regressed criminals who are out to misinform people. No one nor the government would take such uncivilised people seriously.

In the reply to that, KTM responded by saying:

Whoa. It turns out that there is some semblance of democracy on the blogosphere and even if people have NO CLUE what they are talking about, it is THEIR RIGHT to say what they want in WHATEVER manner they wish to say it, including "whining and advocating nonsense" (and the KTM will glad defend their right to do so). Have you been appointed moral police of the blogosphere?

Two paragraphs down, the KTM also said:

Hate to say this, but name calling (think "lowly", "uncivilized" and "regressed criminals") is not particularly constructive to say the least. Chill. State the facts and build your arguments on them. THAT would be constructive.

whybegay later referred to the above two quotes by KTM, and said:

Does anyone beside me recognise a direct contradiction? What happened to the so-called "THEIR RIGHT to say what they want in WHATEVER manner they wish to say it"? And lowly, uncivilised and regressed criminals are not name-calling, it is simply stating the behavioural appearances of people and stating the facts is the first thing to being constructive unlike assuming that one knows everything when one doesn't and then sugar-coating opinions that others have clearly recognised to be fictitious.

The purpose of this post is neither to defend the views of either KTM or whybegay, nor to talk about the language used in this conversation (although spicy a discussion that may be). I would like to talk about something which appears to be a conundrum of sorts (note, I am not attributing either one of the following views to KTM, this is just a discussion):

[1] We have a right to hold on to any view, and articulate that view in anyway we want.

[2] To have civil and rational discourse, we should not articulate our views in a way which is insulting, uncivil, name calling, etc etc.

Is this a contradiction? This is important to figure out, since the plogosphere is currently talking about self-regulation (read Dharmendra Yadav, BL and Aaron). Does pushing for civil and rational discourse somehow compromises freedom of speech? To be honest, I personally believe that "freedom of speech" is overrated, and I was actually quite surprised to hear KTM say something in the vicinity of [1]. That said, I do believe in some freedom of expression, and think it necessary to figure out if there is indeed a conundrum of sorts involved here.

I attempt to do so by thinking about the concept of "rights". What do we mean when we say "I have a right to do this?" To say the truth, I'm not very sure. It seems like this term is more often used in the legal context and not in academic philosophy. Let me propose that it is an abstract objectification of collective moral statements. In other words, "I have a right to live" just means "It is not morally permissible [for a moral agent] to prevent my living", "It is not morally permissible [for a moral agent] to end my life" or a collection of similar statements.

Let us test this definition. A anti-euthanasia argument might go like this:

[A]: Euthanasia is wrong, because the patient has a right to live.

According to my definition of "right", that statement would translate to something like

[A']: Euthanasia is wrong because it is not morally permissible [for any moral agent] to end the patient's life.

Does [A] and [A'] mean the same thing? I'm not very sure, but I think so. If indeed they mean the same thing, then my definition of what is a "right" passes the test. So now, lets go back to take a look at freedom of speech, and civil discourse. Recall:

[1]: We have a right to hold on to any view, and to articulate that view in any way we want.

So transcribed, it becomes something like:

[1']: It is not morally permissible [for any moral agent] to prevent us from holding on to any view, or to articulate that view in anyway we want.

Now, contrast this with

To have civil and rational discourse, we should not articulate our views in a way which is insulting, uncivil, name calling, etc etc.

It looks like there is definitely some contradiction here. If we were to take [1] seriously, then [2] seems to be a not morally permissible stand. There are two quick ways out of this. The first way is to redefine [1] into a weaker version, such as

[1R]: We have a right to hold on to any view, and to articulate that view in any way we want, so long as it is articulated responsibly.

I believe most people take a stand like this when talking about the tension between freedom of speech and civil and rational discourse. However, "responsibly" is going to be something incredibly subjective to define. How would we know where to draw the line on responsible behaviour or not? I believe this to be a problem (food for thought for future blog self-regulators?).

The second way out is to deny that [2] is making an ethical statement, but merely a normative one. Consider the statement "You should not leave milk out in the open overnight". This statement is normative, meaning it suggests that you should do something, yet, it is not a moral or ethical statement. There is no implication that you are morally obliged to not leave the milk, nor are you morally guilty if you do indeed leave the milk out. Is [2] really a statement which is only normative, but not moral? I personally think not. We seem to think (or at least I do) that there is at least some context of moral failure, when we talk about being insulting, uncivil, name calling, etc. The word "civil" seems to imply moral obligation, just as being called "uncivilised" seems to be a moral accusation.

Let me suggest a third way out. To do so we need to understand the difference between a deontological and a consequentialist theory of ethics. (I also wrote a previous post on this). Consequentialism is the theory that the morally right action is the action which produces the best consequences, whereas Deontology generally purports that the ends do not justify the means; the morally right action is the the action which most fits a certain type of action (as contrasted to consequences).

It appears to me that freedom of speech is primarily a doctrine based on deontological values. We do not think suppressing freedom of speech is immoral because of the consequences of such suppression. We think it is immoral because the supression itself is the type of action which is immoral. The moral obligation for civil dialogue however, is a doctrine primarily based on consequentialist values. The main reason why we think we ought to be civil and polite to each other (or so it appears to me) is because, if we don't, we will have very nasty consequences, such as flaming wars and conflicts which could have been easily avoided.

So how does that solve the contradiction between [1] and [2]? This is actually the simplest way to resolve the contradiction. You reject one of them. In order words, if you are a consequentialist, you ought to reject freedom of speech (and end up like a paternalistic government), but if you are a deontologist, you reject the moral obligation for civil dialogue (and end up like some activists), which I suspect many bloggers have already rejected.

Please note that I am not insisting that we must all pick one of the two sides, or that even my formulation of the "conundrum" is indeed accurate. I just wanted to show how it is possible to reject the doctrine of freedom of speech (i.e. the right to free speech is wrong) in a coherent and defensible way, since it appears to me that arguing about "rights" is often very confusing.

[Addendum: Do read the comments of this post, especially those by Huichieh, on counter-arguments and important clarifications to this post. Also, Elia Diodati has submitted an article on self-regulation on Singapore Angle.]

Sunday, December 03, 2006

perspective, rational discourse, or lack thereof

I was reading the comments of this post by KTM on Singapore Angle. Lots of angry bloggers and negative emotions flying about, and I can't help but feel sad. I feel even sadder because I wonder if I was somewhat morally responsible, by starting the ball rolling on the issue of communication on the plogosphere. And I feel even even sadder, because by the end of this post, I suspect I will end up disagreeing with my two favorite bloggers in the plogosphere, KTM and BL.

But first, I will want to discuss something which I have been drafting for a few weeks already, and it would probably have just remained a draft for some weeks more, if did it not appear pertinent to discuss it now. I want to talk about perspective. I believe there are two problems with perspective [actually, the more I think about it, the two problems seem to merge into one. Even so I will present them as two separate problems for now].

The first problem has to do with what we call "objectivity". In the layman usage of the term "objectivity", we just mean "free from bias". When talking about journalism, we talk of objectivity when we talk about whether or not the journalist reports the news "as it is", or plays with words, places special emphasis on certain things, or by omission, perpetuates some agenda, or presents a version of the news in a way which is supportive of the journalist's own personal opinions and views (i.e. "slanted").

"Objectivity" in the blogosphere, or in an argument on the blogosphere, has to mean around the same thing. An objective view, or an objective argument, has to be one which presents facts and arguments "as it is", without distortion of wording, or placing undue emphasis on certain things, or without omissions of important counter facts. An objective conclusion, would then be the conclusion drawn from an argument such presented. In other words, there is reality, and there is perception. An objective view is one who's perception is identical to reality.

To be honest, I have not seen any bloggers say "you are not being objective enough", "your view is too myopic, you are not looking at the big picture", but such insinuations are implicated throughout many of the arguments which are present. Here is what I think the problem is. All humans (including bloggers) fail to be truly objective. Sure, we may learn thinking strategies to help us to be more objective, but we can never truly be 100% objective. Not by a long shot. This is why I think so: we all fail, horribly, to see 100% of "reality". All we can "see" is what we see with our own eyes and heard from our own ears. Then we draw our own conclusions from there.

Let me phrase it another way. Let's say you are someone who grew up in a poor family, and surrounded by people who have a lot of angst towards the establishment. It is more likely that your own views be anti-establishment because of what has influenced you as you grew up in the environment, even if you have a genius IQ and later make it on to become rich and successful. Now how about if you are someone who is a high ranking public official, and who was heavily involved in the decision making of policy. Because you had greater and clearer access to the arguments and reasons behind the implementation of the policy, you views might be more likely to be supportive of that policy, even if it was a controversial one.

What you see and what you hear as a result of your specific individual circumstances do place an influence on your views. I do not believe such "bias" is bad (and hence we might want to refrain from calling it "bias"). But it is certainly not objective (as we currently understand it to be). You tend to identity more with what you see and hear with your own eyes and ears, and identity less with what you do not. I believe this is true for even the most well-trained thinkers among us. Let me remind everybody again that professional philosophers, who are probably the most well trained people in the world at being objective, fail to agree on almost everything. If objectivity is an indicator on how well our perspectives map reality, then we must agree that our perceptions are not all that close to reality. (Caveat: I am assuming that we live in an objective reality, ie, there really exist a reality independent of our perceptions of it)

The second problem of perspective, is what I call the problem of "embodiment". That is, we are all not "floating minds". We all have a human body (and human psychology), and experience life (and thinking), as part of that human body. This means, our default perspective is that of one individual, not a collection of individuals, and not a collective whole of all the citizens of Singapore. Imagine, instead, your mind is not connected to your body. You are a "pure intellect" without a human psychology; you have no concerns about living or dying, you have no needs or desires to fulfill, you just think (maybe like an artificially intelligent computer). My guess is, you will have an incredible amount of difficulty imagining that. Being part of a human individual (and with that, a human body and a human psychology), comes with desires, emotions, and also, that combined with some rationalization, values and morals, all of which affect our decision making, and our formulation about our views on issues.

For example, when we discuss political or social issues, we rarely are interested in how the issue relates to an individual. We could, if we want to, discuss, how the GST hike is good/not good for me (the individual). But we are more interested in how the GST hike is good/not good for the poor, the middle income, the whole of Singapore. A collection of many individuals. Which is not our natural perspective. Now, how accurate is our perspective on something which is not our natural perspective? Of course, we have experts (economists) who are trained to do just that, and compared to non-experts such as myself, I'm sure that they are more reliable sources of information. Yet, like philosophers, I believe economists disagree over lots of issues as well.

One last point about emotion. We have a tendency to get defensive when our views are criticized. Why is this so? Perhaps because we are embodied beings, when our views are criticized, on some level, (because we feel so confident about our own views), many of us feel that we are being personally attacked (you cannot personally attack a "floating mind", there is nothing to attack). When we get attacked, this usually provokes an emotional response. Maybe we hide in a corner of our rooms and cry. Or maybe we get angry. But whatever the case, it takes someone with much training or conditioning, to not have any emotional response when attacked.

Most of the time, when we get defensive, we become more concerned with defending ourselves than thinking about the issue. It becomes personal. It becomes an emotional affair. Allow me to be more radical in my views. I think we have an emotional stake in all our views, whether or not we are attacked. I think such is a matter of being a human (with a human psychology) that in holding views, we care about the views we hold. Of course, we emotionally invest more in views whom we believe more strongly in, but I find it very unlikely that we hold to some view which we don't care a single bit about. Again, although this (close relationship between emotions and beliefs) may prove to be counter-productive in many ways, I don't see this as a bad thing. Martin Luther King was able to influence and change beliefs (for the better, I believe) partly because he was able to emotionally inspire. Nevertheless, there is a worry that if we allow ourselves to be too easily influenced by our emotions, so much so that we do not exercise some critical thinking, we may make some very serious mistakes indeed.

What was my purpose in talking about the problems of perspective? To explain why we hold different views, and why it is unlikely that we will change our views by arguing with each other. Why then should we even bother with rational discourse then? That, to me, has to be answered on a personal (individual), not on a blogosphere (collection of individuals) level. Our individual reasons may vary from "trying to figure out my own view by discussing with others", "sharpening my debating and persuasion skills", "I'm bored", "I just enjoy doing so", or dunno what other reasons lah. If you engage in debate on the blogosphere because you think that will lead you closer to "the truth", then I must say that is not very likely to happen. Firstly due to the fact that the blogosphere will unlikely unanimously agree on anything, and secondly it is my opinion that the blogosphere need not necessarily be a reliable source of what "reality" is. (Of course, many would just say, still better than Straits Times lah.)

Now, about KTM. I think we have a problem when we try to call something "rhetoric" and "non-rhetoric". It is not that I disagree with your classification, I agree actually, but the problem is those who espouse the "rhetoric" views don't (and won't be able to) see themselves as doing so, and instead, they find your label of "rhetoric" to be a personal attack, and we are setting ourselves up for a flaming war. I suspect that the KTM gets rather ticked off (I probably would be too) at some of the mean stuff which is said to him, and his main grouse is that people are not thinking (as clearly as he is). I would like to implore KTM to be kind and charitable (and he has proven himself to be so on many occasions) to his detractors no matter how "unthinking", "rhetorical" or irritating they may be. To show them that you are ticked off, no matter how justified you are for feeling so, would probably just add more fuel to the fire. Hence the importance of anger management. I also think we should be more careful about saying "the way I see things is reality, yours is not", because technically, we can't really see reality. We can only talk about how close we are to actual reality. But maybe to you this is just semantics? =P

And about BL, I have just reread your article and realized I do not really disagree with you after all. I am a big believer in compassion. In fact, those who know me personally would know that I have a major grouse against the "blame culture" that we have. But I do not share your optimism in that we will successfully learn to manage differences in our views. Or not in the blogosphere at least. Why I say so is that it is probably easier to convince Singaporeans to stick to one side of the escalator or to give way to alighting passengers first, than to convince Singaporeans to be gracious to their detractors on the blogosphere. The culture that we exist in, including the blogosphere, is one where individuals rarely give a hoot about anybody else other than themselves (and their views). That said, I don't think you have blogged in vain. Perhaps you would have convinced an individual blogger or two (or ten, or twenty) the importance of compassion, and made them reconsider they way they blog or argue. That, in my opinion, is a fruitful consequence enough, even if you cannot move the entire plogosphere. Incidentally, I disagree with Xenoboy (who I also am a big fan of), that the next natural stage of development for Singapore is to enter an age of action. I think, unless the government does something so unbelievably stupid that everyone unanimously agrees was a screw-up (perhaps something like a corruption scandal), I highly doubt the status quo to change.

[For those who doubt that KTM and BL are really my favourite bloggers in the plogosphere, read this and this old post. Both of them have been extremely influential and inspirational to me and the way I blog. Any disagreements I have with either of them will not remove my utmost admiration for both these gentlemen]

[Incidentally, I have been blogging and thinking hard for the past 4 hours (wanted to publish this post as soon as possible mah), resulting in a headache =(. I gladly welcome comments and criticisms (especially since I'm not so sure about everthing I blogged about in the last 1 hour, when my headache started), but please be nice can? =)]

Saturday, December 02, 2006

black and white (not the computer game)

The singaporean blogosphere is hardly an appropriate place to discuss academic philosophical questions, yet one can't help but feel that a good deal of the philosophy (sufficiently simplified and well-articulated) might be able to help bloggers think better about their own views, and perhaps help them to think better about the decisions they make in everyday life. (Or perhaps this is just wishful thinking). It is for this purpose that I will briefly discuss some ethical and meta-ethical questions in this post. And since this is not really an academic post (a "popular philosophy" post, if you will), I will sacrifice some precision and clarity (such as not forming clean definitions) for a more informal style, which is hopefully more accessible and intuitive to my intended audience.

Most of us are familiar with the term "Ethics". In philosophy, it is basically the branch of philosophy which talks about morality. These include concepts such as "right", "wrong", "good", "evil", "responsibility" and "justice". Normative Ethics, or the study of "how do we determine what is right or wrong?", was mainly what moral philosophers were interested about since the time of Aristotle up early 20th century. There are primarily three schools of normative ethics: Consequentialism, Deontological and Virtue Ethics.

Consequentialism is basically the view that what makes an action right or wrong, is the consequences of that action. The most well known version of consequentialism is Utilitarianism, which basically is the view that the right action is basically the action which promotes the most overall happiness and minimizes the most harm.

Deontological ethics contrasts with consequentialism in the sense that it places more importance on the type of action more than the consequences of the action. In order words, Deontologists generally believe that ends do not justify the means. The means are more important.

Virtue Ethics contrasts from Deontology in that it is not primarily concerned about "what is the right action" but "what makes a good person". Virtue Ethicists place importance on the character and the motivations of the moral agent, instead of the particular action of the moral agent, or it consequences it produces.

I've recently watched the movie Swordfish when it was shown on TV. In that movie, John Travolta plays a rogue agent who needs to commit a series of crimes (including rob a bank, and hacking) to gain funds to supply his war against terrorism. A consequentialist might say, John Travolta was doing the right thing, because at the end of the day, preventing and stopping terrorists leads a greater happiness for the overall good, even if you had to rob a bank or kill an innocent. A Deontologist might say, John Travolta was doing the wrong thing, because it is not just about whether or not you defeat terrorism, but what you do to fight terrorism. A virtue ethicist might say, the question lies in John Travolta's character and motivations. Was he trying to be a virtuous person?

During the early 20th century, there was a boom in development in the area of Formal and Mathematical logic. This prompted some philosophers (such as A.J.Ayer) to try and apply some of these rules of logic into ethical statements and notions. This resulted in a "new wave" of moral philosophy called Logical Positivism, which generally debunks all talk about morality on the basis that it cannot be "proven", unlike the sciences and mathematics. The argument between logical positivists and their detractors would form the historical basis of what we now call "meta-ethics".

Meta-ethics, is the debate on whether or not there is such as thing as a "real" morality. There are two broad categories of views: those who say "yes there is" and those who say "no, there really isn't, there only exist illusions". Meta-ethical views are much more complicated and hence difficult to explain as compared to ethical views. [I had previously blogged a short post explaining the difference between moral realism and relativism.] Generally, if you hold any of the 3 views explained above (consequentialism, deontology or virtue ethics) you are probably a moral realist. If you hold a view such as "there is no such thing as a fixed right or wrong. It all depends on the individual or the culture in question", then chances are you are a moral anti-realist, in particular, a moral relativist. Due to post-modernist influences, moral relativism (or other forms of moral anti-realism) have been popular culturally, and remains so till today, or so it appears to me.

We probably have heard the saying that some decisions of right and wrong are "not black and white" but have "shades of grey". This could mean several different things. This could be said by the consequentialist criticizing a deontologist, indicating that sometimes one needs to do compromise some "morals" to produce what is in the greatest good. This could also be said by the ethical relativist, indicating how ethics is general is so full of disagreements, claiming that therefore these exist no such thing as a "fixed" morality. Or it could be said by a consequentialist, to indicate that even though "true morality" does exist, most of the time, individuals lack sufficient information about the consequences of their actions and hence have no clear cut decision.

Now where does the singaporean blogosphere fit into all of this? Say for example, blogger A criticizes the government for being immoral based on deontological grounds (perhaps, criminalizing gay sex is wrong because it is marginalizing homosexuals, hence it is wrong), then (hypothetical) blogger B responds by saying that criminalizing gay sex still provides the best consequences (for example, homosexuals are not persecuted, stable and reliable government enjoys approval of the conservative majority and remains in power resulting in the betterment of everybody, hence it is right), How does blogger A engage in a moral argument with blogger B? If blogger A keeps repeating his deontolgical point, and blogger B keeps reiterating his consequentialist point, then the argument would just remain stationary, and perhaps they end up flaming each other.

My point is this, if your detractor subscribes to a different system of morality than you subscribe to, just asserting your own argument is perhaps not a very useful. Two more useful argumentative strategies would be to 1) for the purpose of argument, adopt your opponent's system of morality and show that it still doesn't work, or 2) argue why your system of morality is more appropriate (perhaps for the specific circumstances) than your opponent's system of morality. In order to do this of course, you would first need to identify and understand, both your own and your detractor's systems of morality.

In practise, I suspect most of us haven't thought deeply enough about our own ethical views to know which specific theory of ethics we subscribe to. Chances are, we are moved by all three (or more) different schools on what makes something right or wrong. Which is fine, until we end up disagreeing with each other, and realize some of these schools of morality conflict with each other some specific issue or another. What then do we do?

I suggest we try to understand ourselves first. Try to figure out why you believe in your current views, what are the values that influenced you, and how you would defend those values. I am probably overly optimistic for thinking so, but I do think the blogosphere can be a much more fruitful medium if we all do a little introspection now and then.