It’s one thing to say that you respect the freedom of others to speak their minds. But in real life, this can be quite a difficult thing to do. Even in the context of intellectual debate, where discussion of different ideas is routine, things can sometimes descend to argument and get really nasty, even coming to blows. On the internet, this kind of mud-slinging is extremely common, discussion often sliding directly into fighting, name calling and cursing.
Of course, curses, abuse and slander are intolerable, and once one side has gone to this extreme, the other is justified in cutting off the exchange altogether, or in severe cases taking the matter to court. This sort of behavior, after all, runs afoul of the law in some instances, and trespasses the basic mores of human discourse.
But if neither side is willing to budge in a two-sided exchange, this is often because the smell of gunpowder is already too thick and things are bound to explode. This happens because neither side believes there is any basic merit in the other’s argument. More than that, they find the argument totally unpalatable and preposterous, stepping over the line of all acceptability. This line isn’t a moral one. Rather, it’s about the way many people have a fixed notion of political correctness — and if someone steps over this line they’re immediately all in a froth, worked instantly into a fury. And from that point on there’s no turning back.
Some old men with a surplus of enthusiasm care greatly about the public good, and about helping others. But as soon as they find something “incorrect” in the newspaper, something that doesn’t accord with their own [political] tastes, they immediately phone the editor’s desk or notify relevant government departments, elevating the issue to the point of accusations, demanding the writer or editor be punished.
If they find that a certain book “plays up” some idea that they think is [politically] erroneous they’ll act the same way, insisting the book be banned outright. Even some who describe themselves as open-minded are in the habit of behaving like this, having little tolerance at all for language they consider to be [politically] “incorrect.”
Even when they find articles they think are incorrect in publications they enjoy they’ll take the step of accusing the editors directly. If as they’re going over student papers they find points they object to, they’ll respond with anger and decide not to give them passing marks.
Of course, these impulses aren’t limited to old curmudgeons. We see them among the young and the middle-aged too. We can talk about it. We can argue it out. But we cannot tolerate the absurd. [NOTE: Here the word “absurd” or “preposterous” (荒谬) refers to ideas that are politically incorrect in a Chinese context, by which Zhang Ming means intellectual assumptions that are reinforced by political norms.]
By absurd here we’re talking about things that go against pre-drawn lines of political correctness that are emblazoned on their hearts and minds. In their eyes, so-called freedom of expression and debate applies only within the parameters of their bottom-line. Once that line is breached, you are a public enemy, someone to be denounced by the whole Party, an enemy of the nation. You must be shoved to the ground and then trampled on.
All of us, both those who lived through China’s past and those who did not, are touched to differing degrees by this defect. The persecuted are infected with the persecutor’s complex (迫害病症). Actually, people who behave like this are, like everyone else, unhappy at being kept down by domineering power. They too desire a space allowing for free debate. But as soon as you touch the wrong nerve, they cry out for the intrusion of domineering power. And if domineering power does not intervene, they will vent their displeasure.
Hu Shi (胡适) once said that tolerance is more important than freedom. If we cannot learn to have tolerance, if we cannot stomach that which we find absurd, then freedom will never come to stay.
This is a translated and edited version of an essay appearing in today’s Southern Metropolis Daily.