How do we sustain a watchful vigilance over political and social developments but at the same time avoid being drawn into partisan opinion and behaviour that must always justify one particular viewpoint at the expense of the other? How do we maintain a strong and rigorous critique in the middle ground that can resist the hostility that tries to force people to one side or another?
In his mini-handbook “On Tyranny,” Timothy Snyder draws out 20 lessons from the 20th century that help to both detects the trends and developments of political and social actions which can lead to situations of tyranny and show how to stay strong and resist the tide of opinion which would sweep us along into its mindset. Tyranny, which he describes as “the usurpation of power by a single individual or group, or the circumvention of laws by rulers for their own benefit” is a strong word, and he demonstrates it by drawing examples from history which, with the benefit of hindsight, we can clearly identify as being tyrannical.
What is helpful, however, is the drawing out of trends, movements, processes and attitudes involved in the development of these extreme positions which would not be recognised at the time as being significant or dangerous or as trends leading towards situations of tyranny.
The present unrest that has so severely affected all aspects of politics, business, economics and society in Hong Kong has seemed to reach an uneasy stalemate that many commentators suggest will remain for some time. It is characterised by an unwillingness to seek compromise and a failure on the part of both sides of the dispute to articulate a vision or plan for moving forward.
This has resulted, on the one hand, in an escalation of violence by the protesters who are silently supported by a sizeable section of the population and, on the other hand, in a refusal to make concessions by a government that is vigorously sustained by Beijing.
When Snyder talks about tyranny, it is in the context of developing authoritarianism by the state. However, many of the attitudes and trends he describes are not in themselves the exclusive domain of major state actors. The rise of Nazism in 1930’s Germany was not a sudden revolution that overturned the state, but gradual development of political and social ideals on the part of one particular political party that gained ground by the largely passive acceptance of society allowing it to become the authoritarian government which we now identify as Nazism.
What is interesting in Hong Kong’s context is that both the protesters and the government demonstrate attitudes and behaviour that Snyder would consider to have tyrannical tendencies. The use of force to maintain legitimacy; the labelling of businesses to publicise and coerce support; the use of catchphrase words and expressions to denigrate the opposition; the development of skewed narratives that tell only one story; the intimidation of businesses to enforce compliance; the use of the law to legitimise actions. All of these have potentially dangerous consequences if they are left unchallenged.
Snyder offers a number of suggestions for personal strategies to resist the rising trend towards tyranny such as, not “mentally signing on” for a particular political viewpoint no matter where it might lead; defending independent civil institutions; believing in truth; not being afraid to stand out from the crowd; investigating the facts before making opinions; maintaining professional ethics; and challenging the status quo, amongst others.
The problem that we have in the context of Hong Kong is that many of the high profile challenges that are being made are from partisan voices and motives that seek mainly to discredit the opposing voices and bolster their own narrative. This weakens their value as rational, unbiased assessments that can be treated with respect and credibility because they are seeking only one particular outcome and not open to compromise. The few voices of reason that would seek for a fair and just resolution are simply crushed between the two combatants, rejected as traitors by one side or the other, or simply ignored as being of no consequence to the real issues.
What is desperately needed are those who are prepared to work in the middle ground and develop a strong case for a settlement that will enable Hong Kong to come to terms with its differences and progress to a new structure that will reflect both Hongkongers aspirations and respect China’s sovereignty.
This is not about resetting the political button to some previous uneasy scenario, or about achieving peace at any cost, which ignores the damage and injustices that have already been inflicted. It’s about creating a space for reason, dialogue and reality to replace the dangerous political narratives that are presently dominating social media. It’s a difficult space in which to operate because of the hostility and political mischief that others will want to place on it. It’s a space for those who are bold enough to challenge both narratives and not be intimidated by attacks from those whose highest motivation is making political capital rather than finding a resolution.
Now that there is an apparent decrease in the number of violent confrontations on the streets, perhaps it is time for some of our civic and political leaders to be courageous and start speaking into the middle ground and develop the politics of compromise rather than the politics of conflict. Perhaps it’s time for the government to be courageous and initiate a commission of inquiry, or for the protest movement to find new ways of engaging with the government. Perhaps its time to create this space in the middle of the conflict in which reason and reasonableness can take centre stage and generate new initiatives and ideas.
Tony Read read writes mainly on issues of religion and social justice in Hong Kong