Amos Yee: Challenge Accepted

practicing punchability

Now, perhaps my old-man memory is failing me, but I cannot remember the last time someone attracted as much gleeful hatred as Amos Yee has, let alone seemed to enjoy it quite as much.

I’m not going to address any of his complaints directly, because I don’t think that any of his valid points are particularly unique, insightful, or well-crafted, and his invalid points are pathetically-transparent attempts at attention-grabbing. Rather, I’d like to dwell a little on what I see are the challenges his behaviour and the subsequent public reaction place before us as citizens and critics.

Yee’s behaviour and the subsequent backlash against it challenge our commitment to open-mindedness, liberal discourse, and the public expression of dissent. By choosing to represent his discontent in a vulgar and disrespectful manner, he’s attracted widespread condemnation, and because of his anti-establishmentarianism, legitimate and better-articulated expressions of dissent are at risk of being discredited by association.

I work with young people, and it’s hard enough to get them to be active and aware, let alone vocal and critical. While the ones I’ve spoken to are overwhelmingly against Yee, I’m pretty sure that’s just because he’s obnoxious and unlikable, and not because of any particular principle; I’m also worried that some of them are just going to see a young person being tarred and feathered for speaking out, which might lead to them getting the wrong message. I’m worried that if responses to  Yee aren’t pointed enough, if they default to in-principle defences of free speech or in-principle condemnation of dissidents, they ignore the particular ways in which Yee has attracted such intense condemnation as the result, not of his act of speaking out, but the way in which he has chosen to do it. I’m worried that young people will, instead of learning to craft criticism carefully, instead just give up, and that’s a pretty dismal thought.

Personally, I find myself very much challenged. While my heart predisposes me to hate the arrogant little snot, my head tells me that he’s being treated in a manner that, if understandable, is still unfair. I find that I’m being challenged to place my principles before my preferences: after all, I’ve always been an advocate of speaking openly, and I’m sure friends and colleagues will remember me brushing off complaints with the saw that people should get thicker skins if they don’t want to be offended. If I side with Yee’s detractors (and abusers, and assailants), surely I will be making myself a hypocrite for taking the side of the thin-skinned, and so I must champion, at least in principle, the right to publicly dissent.

On the other hand, I am very much offended by those who have framed Yee’s predicament as the result of Singapore’s draconian laws, small-minded population, and how difficult it is to express unpopular opinions here. He’s been lauded as a satire in the mould of Voltaire by the foreign press, and that I cannot abide. A satirist is an artist who champions controversy by crafting for it a fitting vehicle by which it can more effectively infiltrate the sensibilities of society. Satirists like Swift and Voltaire attribute their success to a talent for making the establishment look ridiculous, identifying follies and foibles and then attacking them with wit, panache, and style. A satirist makes expressing dissent easier by giving people something to resonate with.

Instead, what Yee has done is made expressing dissent harder by damning all dissenters by association, and trivialising the care with which some people advance unpopular causes in a manner that seduces rather than sensationalises. I mean, the people behind Pink Dot and other such movements also promote causes which aren’t popular by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re not being jerks about it. Yee, instead of ridiculing the establishment, has made of himself an object of ridicule through his poorly thought-out and obnoxious public disregard for civil society, for the institutions of law, and even for the kindness of others including his would-be benefactor and bail-poster.

Yee is not neck-deep in shit because he’s an artist or a critic, but because he is a shit. His opinions are reviled not because he had the temerity to express himself but because he’s committed the artistic sin of doing so badly. By repeatedly demonstrating utter disregard for the rule of law, Yee has made himself the centre of a media circus that has not succeeded in promoting thought so much as it has provoked outrage, and has, after strutting like a bantam on camera inviting PM Lee to “bring it on”, declaring his readiness to “dance”, tried to frame himself as a victim. Accusing your dad of abusing you doesn’t excuse you for flouting the terms of your bail, kid, and isn’t likely to get you much sympathy.

I think the only way of making my way through the gauntlet of having to support principles of free speech while at the same time being critical of this particular exercise of free speech is to consider Yee’s behaviour and his manner separately from his message. Whenever I read anything of his, I’m being challenged to separate whatever vitriol and vulgarity and venal desire for attention from actual criticism of local attitudes and stuff like the education system. I have to acknowledge that endorsing greater liberty includes giving people the freedom to be awful people.

Yee’s entire public image, in its flip-flopping between fearless champion and abused victim, is an insult to everyone’s intelligence. At the same time, smacking him in the face only further diminishes the dignity of the proceedings, and, while vindictively satisfying, only allows society to one-up Yee in the race to the bottom.

Maybe it’s my Catholicism acting up. We’re taught to hate the sin, love the sinner; I suppose that also means it’s not entirely inconsistent to defend a principle of promoting speech and discourse while also feeling a kind of gleeful schadenfreude when someone gets hit in their stupid mouth. Human frailty, as a friend of mine mentioned.

I suppose I’m being personally challenged to rise above the vindictive satisfaction of watching someone get hit in the face, to look at the bigger picture and the principle of the matter. Challenge accepted, I said; it’s proving harder than I thought.

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