By now, it would be completely understandable to find Amos Yee's antics tiresome. Even the strongest advocates for free speech has to admit that banging your head against a brick wall a second time, when the first has already given you a nasty bruise, is really not the smartest thing to do.
Amos's latest romp saw him uploading the same video that won him his sedition charge to his blog, in a bid to raise funds for his legal fees. This was in flagrant violation of court orders for him not to upload anything. And to cap it, he arrives in court eating a banana.
He has since updated his blog with a new fund-raiser notification, sans said video. The sensible, or wish-he-was-sensible, might ask, was it that difficult for him to do so in the first place?
Did Amos cared that he violated court orders? Perhaps at his age he does not know the implications of his actions. Perhaps he did not have good advise, particularly the legal advise that he clearly and desperately needs. Perhaps we can excuse him for being a child. But none of it takes away the pain and fear of his parents, who would likely be vexed at the slippery slope he is on. No amount of bravado chest-thumping, of declaring Amos’s innocence, takes away the desire for his parents to make the safer choice for him, even if that choice is not agreeable with our good senses or desires.
But it is clear that Amos has become a pawn in a struggle for political values. His innocence – or his desire for attention, as some prefer to think – in uploading his video berating former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has been completely misrepresented by those who seek from him vengeance, as much as those who seek to put him on a pedestal.
His initial action, and now his defiance of the court's gag orders, was seized – and would continue to be played up – by anti-free speech advocates as evidence of why freedom of expression should not be allowed in Singapore: It breeds insensitivity, crass and disrespectfulness. It destroys our youths by encouraging lawlessness and defiance of order. We are so much better holding our communal manners in high regard, and holding our tongues as a consequence. Amos Yee is a disgrace, free speech be damned, social harmony rules (so shut up and just listen to the good stuff).
And on the other side, we have free speech advocates who insist that Amos's case is symptomatic of an unfair system that is politically bent in favour of the incumbent: He is just a boy speaking his mind. He represents the new generation of Singaporeans who will now feel silenced. A lot more nasty things have been said by pro-establishment types, so why hasn't similar legal action been taken against them? We are pandering to the fear propagated by the political right. Stand up for Amos, donate to his cause.
Both positions have fundamental flaws. Let us be clear that Amos's actions thus far in no way represents free speech. Yes, he has a fundamental right to make and post that fateful video, but his actions thus far suggests that he values this right insofar as it allows him to do as he pleases.
If we have some sense of the many who tread the line each day, risking life and livelihood to fight for free speech, we would be less eager to label the cynical rant of a potty-mouth teenager along the same lines. There is a difference between exercising your freedom to speak, and taking advantage of it. Amos has evidently crossed that line.
That is not to say that the anti-free speech advocates have their day. In fact, far from it. The hypocrisy of those who wish to silence him have only gotten bolder with their attacks as the days go by. Recently, it has degenerated into verbal abuse and threats to his safety. In their own perverse way, these anti-free speech advocates are, ironically, abusing that same freedom of speech to try and cow him into silence.
Free speech advocates, however, are caught in a bind. To take these abusers to task using the law would be to advocate the same violence on them. But not doing so simply perpetuates the clamping down of the space we have for civil discussion, online or offline.
Meanwhile, the reality is that Amos, goaded by the new-found fame that he gets from both sides of the struggle, is hardly a shining example of free speech himself. He appears to enjoy the limelight more than his parents could tolerate. History will remember Amos Yee as the one who messed up a hornet’s nest, but did little to help rebuild it.
For his legal woes, nobody can help him now, except for his parents and whatever legal aid they seek help from. It is not even clear if he is interested in helping himself, so this task necessarily falls on his parents. It is perhaps time to take a step back, stop trying to see Amos as a defender of free speech, and instead focus on doing the job ourselves.
We need to back to the fundamentals of the Amos Yee saga – that as a society we are too eager to use laws on disagreements that should have been resolved by discourse. Debate reinstates the right to free speech in every one of us, empowering us beyond what the state apparatus can do.
Playwright Alfian Sa’at offered that those who sought to silence Amos are “acting out of fear and frustration – at your inability to enter a debate as a well-informed citizen who can stand by his or her opinions. So instead of engaging with the substance of someone else’s arguments, what you do instead is tone-policing. You mask your intellectual poverty and laziness with demands that the other person ‘show gratitude’ or ‘be respectful’. I worry because you will be confronted with other Amos Yees in your lifetime, and instead of meeting the person as an equal what you will do is run to a superior, forfeiting your right to participate in democratic discourse.”
Indeed, the only two tools we now persistently use to counter speech we do not like seems to be either abusing the perceived offender, or appealing to the authorities. There is no attempt to “put across our arguments in a civil and rational way” and “debate rationally”, as the Media Literacy Council had professed. We hit out with the law, and if that is not enough, we then drown it out with spite, might and vengeance.
As a society, we conveniently assume that anything that is put up on the Internet will have far-reaching, earth shattering consequences. We apply our own beliefs to such content – the unjust insult of a national sage, or the innocent but accurate observations of a teenager – and then push that as the only narrative that should really be. When others disagree with us, we retort with abuse (as if legal action is not enough), or by declaring the offender is innocent/ignorant.
We lost the ability to sit down, take a proper look at what has been said, pick out precisely what is right and wrong, and have an honest conversation about it. If we have done so, we would find that we need not have called in the big guns of the law, and we might have learnt that there is some truth in the position of the other point of view.
What we should have gone after is not the person voicing out, but the content of what has been voiced out. We can grudgingly accept that it contains nuggets of truth, as much as we can accept that it was offensive and made in bad faith. No position that arises from such discourse necessitates putting someone in jail, but allows us to justify why we support or condemn such content, and achieve mutual respect.
That should be how we progress as a society. We are, unfortunately, not doing so and the conundrum that Amos and his antics have presented us with is not getting us anywhere closer either. That is the problem that a teenager has presented us: Not whether he should go to jail or have the right to free speech, but how we can properly exercise our right to free speech to advance society.