Tuesday, October 16, 2007

a quiet contemplation

I've been inactive for a while, mainly because I have been (and currently still am) very busy. I haven't been able to read most of the stuff that's going on, but there have been two clear issues which seem to dominate the plogosphere recently. The first is Myanmar. I currently can't make up my mind about Myanmar, and thus I won't blog about it. The second is the call for repeal of 377A. This issue has always been around, but recently there have been more calls for repeal than ever with celebrities making a stand, and a petition being prepared to be presented in Parliament. I hesitate to write anything about homosexual issues, party because I doubt I can bring anything new to the table, and partly because I am wary of participating in a discussion where people are passionate and refusing to budge on both sides (or in the case of the plogosphere, one side much more than the other). I'm not here to be critical of anybody (although those more sensitive might disagree with that), but instead I would like to invite my readers follow me on a short contemplative journey as I try to take a different approach to think about this issue.

We start by talking about racism, and the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Whenever we talk about any form of discrimination or oppression, our vocabulary, our mindsets and our beliefs are all strongly influenced by this movement and the lessons we learned from it. In this political-correctness-conscious day and age, it is quite hard to envision what an overt racist was like. We have some glimpses of it still (according to Wikipedia, White Supremacist groups still exist today), but we are quick to dismiss them as aberrations of the human species, people so obviously wrong and downright crazy (not unlike the members of The Flat Earth Society).

Yet in the 1950s and 60s (not that long ago if you think about it), quite a lot of people were overt racists and white supremacists. In some places (such as in the South), the vast majority of white people were brought up in the tradition and sincerely believed that white people were superior to blacks. It is easy to react in disgust and vehemence when presented with such attitudes, but let us try to put aside our reactions and think for a while: What is it like to be a racist? How does such a person think? I found my answer, quite unexpectedly, in the book Soul Survivor by Philip Yancey (in the chapter on Martin Luther King Jr). Yancey himself was brought up a racist and a white supremacist, and this was what he recalled of that era:

The historians presented these names [Selma, Montgomery, Albany, Atlanta, Birmingham, St Augustine, Jackson], and I too now viewed them, as the battlefields of a courageous moral struggle. When I grew up in the South of the 1960s, however, they represented a geography of siege. Troublemakers from the North, carpetbagging students, rabbis and ministers protected by federal agents, were invading our territory. And the person leading the march in each of those cities was one number one public enemy, a native of my own Atlanta, whom the Atlanta Journal regularly accused of "inciting riot in the name of justice". Folks in my church had their own name for him: Martin Lucifer Coon.

King's appropriation of the Christian gospel galled us most. He was, after all, an ordained minister...We had our ways of resolving that cognitive dissonance, of course. We said that...King was a card-carrying Communist, a Marxist agent who posed as a minister...the liberal Crozer Seminary up north had polluted his mind. He followed the social gospel, if any gospel at all. And when the rumours about King's sexual dalliances surfaced, the case against him was closed. Martin Luther King Jr was a fraud, a poseur, not a true Christian...

There [in church] I learned the theological basis for racism. The pastor taught that the Hebrew word Ham meant 'burnt black', making Noah's son Ham the father of the Negro races, and that in a curse Noah had consigned him to life as a lowly servant (Genesis 9). That is when I heard my pastor explain why black people make such good waiters and household servants...'The colored waiter is good at that job because that's the job God destined him for in the curse of Ham,' he said. No one bothered to point out that the curse was actually pronouced on Noah's grandson Canaan, not Ham.

Around that same time, Mississippi's Baptist Record published an article arguing that God meant whites to rule over blacks because 'a race whose mentality averages on borderline idiocy' is obviously 'bereft of any divine blessing'. If anyone questioned such racist doctrine, pastors pulled out the trump card of miscegenation, or mixing of the races, which some speculated was the sin that had prompted God to destroy the world in Noah's day. A single question, ' Do you want your daughter bringing home a black boyfriend?' silenced all arguments about race.

[For the record, historical evidence did support the accusation that King was involved in extramarital affairs up until the eve of his death (the FBI bugged and taped King's hotel rooms), and also plagiarism in his graduate school thesis. Such however, should not diminish his contributions towards civil rights and indeed all humankind, but should instead serve as a reminder that even the most honored and deified heroes are but human and make human mistakes.]

With the privilege of retrospect, we may call such attitudes and beliefs deeply misguided and self-deluded. But we may not, in the strict sense of the word, call them crazy. Bring the aforementioned theological arguments to any contemporary Christian, and they will feel embarrassed that such views can even be considered to be true. But 50 years ago, they were indeed the norm in the South. Those who dare suggest that God made blacks and whites to be equal (as most Christians believe now) were considered heretics.

What if we are without the privilege of retrospect? What if we were born in that day and age, brought up with the same upbringing and teachings that Yancey had? What if all our lives we were brought up to believe that the blacks were an inferior race, and that "inalienable human rights", "equality for all races" and "tolerance for diversity" are concepts which are completely alien to you? Never heard of them before, and even if you had, you would dismiss them with disgust and couldn't possibly consider them to be true. What would you turn out to be?


Let's return to talk about homosexuality for a while. In some ways, this is a more complicated topic than racism. There are arguments about nature vs nurture; those who believe that the whole debate hinges on this distinction, and those who don't. There is a very vocal religious voice, and the question on how much religion ought to be allowed in the public arena and policy formulation. There is the question of "the conservative majority", it's existence (or lack thereof) and the justification of it's tyranny. And there is a question about the significance (or lack thereof), of a cosmetic and never enforced law.

I beg to differ when people say this is just a "simple case of equality". There are many intellectual issues to be argued out here, but it is not surprising that these arguments lead to no consensus or conclusions. In the 1950s, theologians and academics no doubt argue about rights and civil liberties for blacks, but is the other side ever convinced?


How was racism overturned in the 1960s? Certainly not by arguments. Partly by legislation perhaps, but the main force was the change in attitudes and mindsets of the majority of the whites. How was it done? According to historians, the turning point was when people watched on TV as white policemen beat up black protesters who were unarmed and did not fight back. No intellectual arguments could be as effective as the moral outrage in observing such an appalling scene. Martin Luther King Jr, quite possibly was only effective because he stubbornly stuck to the principle of "non-violent resistance". He didn't have to do so. Night in and night out, King and his supporters were beaten and cattle prodded by policemen without any apparent signs of progress. Many blacks and students grew impatient with his approach, often labeling King as soft, and gravitated towards the Black Power rhetoric and armed revolts. In Chicago, King was actually booed off the stage by Black Power advocates.

With the benefit of retrospect, we applaud King's moral courage in traveling city to city, bearing abuse from authorities yet at the same time trying to cool the tempers of the protesters. In Birmingham, a white man rushed on the platform and assaulted King with his fists. King's supporters surrounded the white man, but King cried out "Don't touch him! We have to pray for him."

But what if we do not have the benefit of retrospect? What if you were King, and then you decided enough is enough? If the whites don't get it when we ask them nicely, then we'll take the hard approach to make them understand. What would have happened then? Do you think the white supremacists would have buckled without fighting back? Would this have ended in any other way than a civil war, countless more deaths and a great tragedy?


"Civil disobedience", or the lack of it, is something often spoken about in the plogosphere. As Singaporeans, what is our mental image of "civil disobedience"? Dr Chee denouncing the government in some public protest? As I read stories of Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi, "civil disobedience" seemed to be a totally different creature. Here are some instructions Gandhi had for his followers (source Wikipedia):

1. A civil resister will harbor no anger.

2. He will suffer the anger of the opponent.

3. In so doing he will put up with assaults from the opponent, never retaliate; but he will not submit, out of fear of punishment or the like, to any order given in anger.

4. When any person in authority seeks to arrest a civil resister, he will voluntarily submit to the arrest, and he will not resist the attachment or removal of his own property, if any, when it is sought to be confiscated by authorities.

5. Retaliation includes swearing and cursing.

6. Therefore a civil resister will never insult his opponent, and therefore also not take part in many of the newly coined cries which are contrary to the spirit of ahimsa.

7. In the course of the struggle if anyone insults an official or commits an assault upon him, a civil resister will protect such official or officials from the insult or attack even at the risk of his life.

Compare this to Singapore's versions of "civil disobedience", like this recent protest/petition for Myanmar.

We seem to take the understanding of "civil disobedience" and "non-violent resistance" quite literally. As long as we are not (physically) violent, we are being civilly disobedient, and that puts us in the same category as the protesters who marched alongside Martin Luther King. But the spirit of civil disobedience, at least what seems to be intended by Gandhi and King, goes beyond merely "no physical violence". It's about protesting without getting angry. It's about willingly accepting insults, blows and arrests without providing any insults or blows in return. King was deeply concerned that the response to hate must not be hate in return, but love. Such was the only way to "save the Negro from seeking to substitute one tyranny from another."


What is our approach towards homosexual issues? What is our own approach towards our opponents in the homosexuality debate? Do you really think Christian-bashing will further your cause or actually cause your opponent to harden their stance? Do you think that since none of us are engaging in any physical violence, any and everything we say, we type and we blog is fair game? Do you think this issue will be solved by arguments, or even online petitions? Do you think the intolerance of the intolerant is in itself not guilty of intolerance?

It is totally reasonable and natural to be frustrated and to be angry if you feel that your cause is right, but others just don't get it. It was also totally reasonable and natural for Martin Luther King to be frustrated and to be angry. And he probably was too. But we're all glad that he didn't succumb and act out of that frustration and anger.

The repeal of 377A is a battle about legislation. I don't have anything against that, but as far as I am concerned, the far more important battle is the one over people's hearts and minds. And such a battle is not won over arguments, over petitions, or even over legislation. A question to ask is: in fighting so aggressively and passionately for legislation, are you actually losing the battle over hearts and minds?

I just watched on TV an episode of Life Story, featuring the life of Paddy Chew, the first person in Singapore to publicly declare he has AIDS, and a declared bisexual. I wasn't too impressed with the production of the episode, but it's point was clear: Paddy Chew was a human, just like you and me. A human who perhaps might not be so "normal", but still has dreams and aspiration like any other human. A human who upon realizing that his days are numbered, struggled with shock, rage, grief and the acceptance of his condition. A human who, knowing that he has made mistakes and are paying for them, decides to make the best of the life he has life. A human who needs care, concern and love from the people around them. Just like you and me.

I don't know how many Singaporeans watched that episode of Life Story. I don't know if there are Singaporeans who after watching this show, question, challenge and de-construct their own views, assumptions and beliefs about HIV patients and people with different sexual orientations. But my guess is, a show like this (
tacky production notwithstanding) challenges and changes the mindsets of more people than the most passionate and aggressive arguments.


cognitivedissonance said...

Also in the spirit of quiet contemplation, please let me know what "Christian-bashing" you have encountered over this issue.

Teh Si said...

And please explain how there was "intolerance" of the "intolerant"?

Fearfully Opinionated said...

Dear all,

I am too busy to reply to comments. Or rather I am too busy to think about replies to comments. Writing this post has already pushed my schedule behind by a few hours, so most unfortunately I do not have the time to engage and respond to any of you. You are of course free to engage with each other, but I somehow doubt you will do that.

Fearfully Opinionated said...


The "intolerance of intolerance" is not an original concept. You can google it and see that many have spoken of it before. I recall reading from a Singaporean blog a proud declaration "I am intolerant of intolerance!" with further substantiations, so I don't think this is foreign to the Singaporean plogosphere either. Unfortunately, I do not recall where I read that, so I can't point you to it.

I suspect you want me to discuss at depth what I consider to be "tolerance" and "intolerance". I am unfortunately not prepared to, nor inclined to, have such a discussion at this point in time.

I think it matters little to the point I was trying to make. I am not interested (in this post at least) in the truth-value of propositions used in arguments for or against the repeal of 377a, but the emotive effects these propositions have on their opponents.


Firstly, I'm not very sure if you understand what is the "spirit of contemplation" I am suggesting.

Secondly, I'm quite sure I've encountered some Christian bashing in several sites (the comments in Mr Wang's blog and TOC come to mind). I actually find it rather surprising that you seem to assert that there are NO instances of Christian-bashing anywhere in the Singaporean plogosphere. Perhaps you would like me to discuss at depth what I personally classify as "Christian bashing". Unfortunately, I am not inclined to engage in such a conversation right now.

Lastly, my friend Ned Stark says some readers may read my post as equating "all who fight for repeal" to be "Christian-bashers". I personally thought that such an equation is so ridiculous it would be obvious to all my readers that that could not possibly be my intension. But apparently it was not so obvious, and in case you were wondering if I am calling you a Christian-basher, no I'm not.

cognitivedissonance said...

Erm. No lah, I never thought that.

Let's kick this down a little.

1 - I know what the spirit of quiet contemplation is. It's when one has gotten enough sleep, enough sustenance of the heart, a healthy family who are managing their own lives well, and a nice chewy problem to work on. ;-) Or so I remember from the last time I had that, feels like I've been running nonstop for years.

2 - Okay.

3 - Okay. Bashing of any kind by anybody is rude, anyway. I think we agreed on that since a long time ago. :)

And I should get more sleep.

YCK said...

An informative post on civil disobedience. I enjoyed reading it. A pity you are busy.

The successes of Gandhi and King has been explained by what psychologist Robert Altemyer calls the "Ghandi trap" based on his RWA personality construct. He explained them in terms of how the witholding of retaliation in the face of severe oppression causes a backlash in public sentiments lowering RWA.

Likewise, Altemyer identified what he calls the "Nixon trap" as how social instability and fear of toppling of the government can reinforce RWA leading to the support of an authoritarian regime.

These are interesting ideas that I have been toying with to explain the behaviours of people, their political ideas etc. after reading his books. The behaviours of the pro-repeal and anti-repeal camps may be explicable using this framework. However, I am aware that I might be way off on this matter outside my expertise.

But in case if you think that this is an interesting perspective worth examining, he published a book available FOC online. Hope you will have more free time to do what you like when your busy period passes. I look forward to reading your future posts. Take care :)