The latest news is that NUS law professor, Dr Thio Li-Ann, has cancelled her visit to New York University.
While there may be other academic ambassadors of Singapore to represent the country in other universities, I feel a little bit sad for Thio.
For a while now, she has received flak over news that she would be a visiting professor at NYU, teaching Human Rights in Asia.
Her appointment was met with a petition protest, and along with other online discussions and the obligatory flaming, it was a sign that someone whose track record of irrational homophobia would probably have difficulty teaching at a university like NYU.
There are two possible ways at looking at this.
On the one hand, it is said we should be confronting words and logic, instead of the speaker – a clear separation of rhetoric and personality.
On the other hand, there is the perspective that rhetoric and personality (or personhood rather) are intertwined.
In the case of Thio, we discard Voltaire’s statement (although Evelyn Beatrice Hall actually wrote it; we’ll never know) “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” and base our criticism of Thio on the belief that the personal cannot be separated from the political.
We disapprove of Thio’s words and Thio herself, to the point her career (or a part of it) is affected.
It is quite interesting to observe how some of us select specific perspectives or frameworks to make sense of certain scenarios – we either choose to separate words from the person, or choose to link words to the person.
If a person holds a political view (everyone does so any way), should he/she be penalised for it? I’m not talking about Potong Pasir and Hougang residents.
Aside from the irony of a homophobic person teaching human rights, I think she is more than qualified to teach it. Her beliefs are personal to her, and she has every right to put them out in public, in exchange for opposing views that target not her personality but her views, of course.
The perspectival flipflop shows that in certain domains, certain scenarios, how we selectively create rules of engagement to suit certain causes and agenda. For less ideologically challenging situations, we will defend a person’s right to say things. For other scenarios, we have a different set of rules of engagement.
The two possible reasons why some folks want to “make life difficult” for Thio are:
1) Prevent Thio from being in a greater position of authority to spread her divisive views
2) To an extent, let Thio know what it feels like to be ‘discriminated’ for what you are and what you believe in.
We have to acknowledge that Thio has the intellect, paid her academic dues and of course the critical thinking abilities of a professor. But is her brand of critical thinking insufficient and less critical for some of our liking?
We may want to outshout (metaphorically) and probably silence people like Thio, perhaps in the pursuit of political correctness. But in doing so, do we ourselves threaten the foundations of diversity that underpin their existence and their perspectives?
The presence of Thio and the likes of the legend George Lim Heng Chye, serve to remind us to the troubles we have in society, the troubles we have with (divisive) opinion, and not necessarily their personal troubles. Their seemingly legitimate ‘concerns’ with specific issues speak not only of the issues they seek to address, but also the overall picture of how fucked up our society is.
Their concerns serve a function too – to remind us how we can improve on how we see things and how we think. For instance, the concern about sexual morality in the context of growing acceptance of homosexuality serves to remind us not only about the problems with homosexuality (from the speaker’s perspective) but also about homophobia itself (about the speaker’s position).
When you talk about a problem, you raise 2 problems:
1) The problem you are talking about, and
2) Your mindset, which caused you to create, identify and discuss the problem in the first place.
The more the homophobic speak, the more they remind society that homophobia exists. It is then up to individuals to choose whether to address the contents of the speech or the homophobia buttressing the speech.
It is very much similar to religion itself. A devil is identified as a problem, but the devil’s identification speaks of the manner in which the god is justified as the solution or the right thing.
Most of us are already capable of understanding this. For instance, we know the problem with the PAP suing political opposition members bankrupt as not merely a problem with defamation, but also a problem with political strategy and leadership.
In my opinion, essentially, when individuals get together to become people, to become affiliated with culture, ideology, rituals, we become meaner, we start politicising similarities and differences and create more problems for one another.