Friday, 29 September 2023

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Banning the Conversation

By Aloysius Chia

Recently, there were 2 high profile cases that attracted the State’s attention that resulted in outright bans. The first was the Ashley Madison website that was said to ‘promote extramarital affairs’, and the second was a verse of the National Service song ‘Purple Light’, both of which were seen to intrude and threaten public morality.

At some point, it seemed like the bans were the right thing to do, garnering much popular support from those who felt the same way. The Ashley Madison website was seen as a provocative threat to the institution of marriage; while the National Service verse was seen as an insult to the dignity of women, highlighted by the women’s rights group AWARE. Each issue garnered its fair share of advocates and detractors, and those who felt strongly what the right thing was to do.

The state’s decision to take action however, seemed more than a tad too premature. Just when the conversation was starting to gain traction did it come in with the decision at different intervals to ban the website and verse of the song. Both were made expediently, and done almost as soon as people were beginning to talk about it in a more deeper and serious manner. The decision to ban almost had the effect of shutting down the developing conversation, or at least send a signal that the conversation should end.

What were these important conversations?

Other than the merits and demerits of deleting a specific verse or shutting down a website, these are more subtle than the initial emotive voice seem to contain. What the most important aspects of the conversation that grew out of these two contentious issues are, (1) the size and role the government should play in governing public morality and (2), how the compromise between contentious issues should turn out to be.

Although it may seem almost certain and definitive about what the answer should be, that yes, the government should step in and the issue sorted out by what the majority thinks, it is far from obvious if these issues had been sufficiently debated at all.

On the one hand there is the issue of banning any so-called undesirable activity as a means to maintaining the morality of society. The problem here is not with banning anything per se, for there are such things as drugs and public nudity that are banned (or outlawed) without much controversy. The issue here is the process in which the ban was enacted, and the way the controversial issues were let to sort out on a higher level.

What this means is that difficult social issues are made easy by the enactment of solutions such as bans, rather than the harsh but useful importance of public debate and rational conversation. By intervening so early, the government is in effect telling everyone that there is no need to talk about difficult issues, because they can be pretended not to be. Such are issues that similarly govern race, religion and identity in being debated on a higher, rational, and just manner.

The platform that is given, and which the state is an important player, is reduced so that there is the expectation that it should be the entity that should decide in all cases, even though it may be the result (given all the difficult issues) that its actions to ban or not ban may be a bad decision. That is, it may be wrong or premature to ban something that arises which has no semblance to social reality.

For instance, rising divorce rates could be a combination of the weakening hold of traditional morality; the demands of work; stress levels; weakening social ties and other factors which the state is an indirect contributor of, due to some unfriendly family policies of which it is its own cause. Let’s just assume that this is an example.

By taking itself as the major decision maker in issues of morality or conflict, it is claiming full responsibility over what may be a delay of debate and discussion. For these difficult issues do not arise simply because they are there; they are there because of previous policies and history. By being the moral bearer of difficult issues, it should not be any surprise if it faces any backlash or blame in the future for what it has taken, if it does not go well with future social expectations.

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