story | Winnie Li, Guest Writer
photo | Winnie Li
Author’s note: The arguments made in this article are specific to the Yale-NUS context. Please do not assume or speculate the author’s political stance based on this article.
Anyone who is familiar with the Chinese language will notice that before the Lennon Wall was taken down by the organizers, Aaron Pang ’18 and Wing Yan Yip ’19, on September 4th, it was jammed with bitter disagreements about the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. Hostility toward the Hong Kong protesters and their supporters was prevalent: one post-it note read, “[To] Hong Kong people: Shut Up,” and another regarded the protestors as “losers” and “mobsters”. Even though Taiwanese independence was not the subject of the Wall, Taiwanese students were implicated because a few of them sent supportive messages to the Hong Kong protestors. One note regarded them as “green maggots,” a derogatory term to describe people who endorse Taiwanese independence from mainland China.
Tensions between those who were supportive of the Hong Kong protesters and those who were critical towards them also manifested in the removal of notes from the Wall, with some notes in support of Beijing taken down. A note that said “One Country, Two System[s]; Unification of Taiwan” was torn down, crumpled, and re-stuck to the Wall. On multiple occasions, I have also overheard mainland Chinese students who were not from Yale-NUS College proudly sharing with their friends how they took down notes that were sympathetic to the protesters in Hong Kong.
In light of this disheartening outcome, the school administration advised the organizers to remove the Wall from Cafe Agora. According to members of the Advisory Committee on Expression on Campus (ACEC), the primary reasons for the decision were that the organizers had failed to apply through Institutional Affairs when they were setting up the Wall, and that no current students were responsible for the curation of the project. If the Wall was only a vessel for the organizers to achieve educational goals, the ACEC suggested that they should consider other methods, such as public forums, that are more effective in facilitating knowledge generation in regards to the protests and promoting mutual understanding within the community.
While I do not object that the Wall should be removed on the basis that it was not set up in accordance with the rules and regulations on campus, I cannot comfortably accept the committee’s evaluation of the Wall’s educational values and the fact that there is no public explanation provided to participants of the Wall on why it has been taken down. In the following section, I strive to show that the Wall cannot be easily substituted by public forums as (1) the Wall is capable of forcing individuals who are reluctant to attend public forums to interact with their opponents, and (2) it can cause behavioral changes among the individuals who engage in hate speech and those who violate others’ rights to free speech more effectively than public forums.
Those of us who have experience organizing political conversations will know that the attendants are normally individuals who possess relatively moderate views or at least are open-minded enough to recognize the epistemological value of dialogues so as to attend it. People with more extreme views, particularly conservatives, are unlikely to join such conversation despite zealous invitations from organizers. Normally, these reluctant individuals will cite two reasons: either they believe that political discussion is fundamentally useless, or that centrists and liberals are simply not worthy of their time. Regardless of where they are coming from, their absence during public forums points to the form’s weakness: when participation in public forums are left to an individual’s discretion, some of them will gladly refuse to be exposed to opposing views, regardless of how valuable those opinions could be. Consequently, the educational effects of public forums are largely confined within a limited group of individuals.
While we cannot force anyone to participate in a public forum, the Lennon Wall can compel individuals to join the conversation on the Wall. Those who would have otherwise never attended any public forums cannot unsee messages left by their opponents every time they pass by Agora. If they find any views expressed on the Wall discomforting or offensive, they must engage with it in some way: respond with a note, start a new thread, or simply tear the notes down. In fact, this process had already begun before the Wall’s removal. Although the manner in which the interactions took place was not necessarily a peaceful exchange of ideas, it does not negate the reality that the Wall was more successful in engaging certain groups of people that public forums on average have failed to appeal to. Hence, even if the educational effects of the Wall are more latent compared to public forums, the former influences a wider range of individuals than the latter.
In addition to impacting more people than public forums, the Wall also has a greater potential to induce behavioral changes among the individuals who use hate speech and those who violate others’ rights to free expression through tearing down the latter’s notes. If the Wall had been left up, the organizers could have used the following strategies to instill changes among the two types of individuals mentioned above. Although my following arguments are inspired by the Lennon Wall, they can be applied to many kinds and forms of discussion online or in real life. When coming across hate speech, the best strategy for those of us who value both civility and free expression is to ignore them while continuing to engage in a civil, peaceful exchange of ideas with each other. This is to nudge the individuals who use hate speech into playing by our rules: one’s opinion will only be recognized as such if and only if one quits one’s old habits of hateful talk and develops new habits of communicating with respect. Otherwise, anyone’s “opinion” should be viewed as nothing more than a combination of words that do not deserve our time or attention.
As for individuals who have torn down the notes, the organizers could have simply responded by informing other participants, especially those whose notes were taken down, to replicate their original notes and put those up as replacements. These steps should be repeated until the tearers stop. In this way, they would (hopefully) come to realize that the physical removal of the notes does not stop others from possessing opposing views. The only possible way to change rivals into allies, as John Stuart Mill argued 150 years ago, is to persuade them with sound reasoning. I recognize these new habits of engaging in a civil discussion with political opponents may take a long time to develop, and my strategies require much effort from the organizers as well as from those who were expressing their views properly. Nevertheless, I believe, the Wall is more effective in inducing these changes than public forums that try to talk to people who do not value reasoning in the first place (assuming these people will even show up to the forum). The resultant personal and social benefits rendered by the behavioral changes among the original users of hate speech and people who sabotage free speech in the long-run will justify the patience and effort that are put in today.
Lastly, I find it regretful that the organizers did not provide any explanations as to why the Wall was removed to the participants of the Wall, especially to those who expressed their views properly. I am afraid that this lack of communication may leave those who used hate speech a false impression that, if they ever encounter a discussion thread they find uncomfortable or offensive, they can easily put an end to it by replying with disturbing messages. If left unchecked, individuals with this mindset will continue to engage in toxic discourse that will not only cause psychological harm to others but also prevent themselves from developing civic virtues. Hence, if possible, the most important step for the organizers to take henceforward is to provide a detailed explanation at Agora, clarifying that the Wall was taken down because of the organizers’ failure to comply with the rules and regulations of the College. It would be ideal if the school administration could also add a note at the end of the explanation that reaffirms its mission in defending free speech on campus and its stance against any form of hate speech or violations of others’ rights to free speech. Only in this way will the spirit of civil, respectful speech be recognised and exhorted while that of hateful speech be discouraged.
I want to clarify that my goal here is not to blame the ACEC for advising the removal the Wall or to ask it to rescind its decision. Instead, I want to encourage our community to remember the Wall as more than a contested space filled with hostile language among members of the Greater China region. It is a civic education project that never got to realize its full potential in and beyond Yale-NUS. I thank this Wall for prompting me to think about hate speech, free speech, and much more during its limited lifespan of less than three weeks.