Me Talk Pretty One Day: The Ethics of Public Debate

In an article dated 7 November 2012 on 1510, the independent online news website and journal that we feature in the Key Articles of Thinking China on this site, a blogger by the name of ‘Duyuan Jushi’ 独园居士 (literally, ‘the lay Buddhist of the Solitary Garden’) assembled essays by three prominent women writers and social critics: Rose Luqiu Luwei, Chai Jing and Cui Weiping. These writers have all observed that in China today that there is a predilection among writers and media commentators to pass damning moral judgements on people with whom they disagree. Arguing from different perspectives all three offer the view that a writer, regardless of whether they are a journalist or a public intellectual, should avoid taking the moral high-ground when presenting or interpreting another person’s position in respect to a particular issue. They say that moral grandstanding, itself something of a default mode in intellectual contestation, is detrimental to meaningful debate and exchange in China today. Each calls for greater impartiality and fairness.

Emotive rhetorical one-upmanship and moralising often mars public contention, be it on the Internet or the mainstream media. Some writers claim that this ‘moral determinism’ is a relic of the Maoist era, the demonisation of enemies being one of the staples of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist politics. For a recent example, see David Bandurski’s essay on cyber-Maoism and what he calls online ‘micro-struggle sessions’ published on 25 November by the China Media Project at Hong Kong University.

In reality, the roots of such black-and-white disputation reach back further into modern and pre-modern Chinese polemical behaviour and long-term habits of intellectual posturing. The commonplace injunctions that one should not ‘reject a person because of what they say’ 不以言废人 or ‘reject a person’s ideas just because of who they are’ 不以人废言 are a sure indication that these are long-standing concerns in Chinese culture. Indeed, this sentiment finds an early and clear articulation in the Confucian Analects: ‘君子不以言举人,不以人废言’ (see 《论语·卫灵公》).

Moralising and quick judgement is aided by the rich vocabulary of vituperation that is available to Chinese writers. There is, for example, a veritable bestiary of terms that has frequently been employed to decry rhetorical enemies as non-human or beyond the pale of humanity. Writers in the Qing dynasty, the Republic and the People’s Republic have repeatedly used such metaphorical terminology, and its ‘moral evaluative’ vocabulary to caricature opponents or to pre-judge any particular intellectual position (for an overview of this ‘discursive terrain’ see, for example, the Lexicon entry on New China Newspeak on this site). Such long-standing intellectual and linguistic habits have been reinforced by years of polarised political debate and ideological contestation. The ‘linguistic tic’ is reinforced both by political authoritarianism and intellectual autocracy. Despite the best efforts of these three writers, the absence of a level playing field in the Chinese public realm – including in the new spaces allowed by the Internet – tends to entrench intellectual positions and encourage the escalation of rhetorical violence.

The essays introduced and excerpted below by Joel Martinsen and Julien Leyre are grimly reminiscent of the exchange between the essayist, editor and humorist Lin Yutang and the May Fourth literary paragon Lu Xun in 1925 over ‘fair play’ 费厄泼赖. See Lin’s December 1925 call for ‘fair play’ 《插论语丝的文体 — 稳健、骂人、及费厄泼赖》and Lu Xun’s acerbic response, 《论费厄泼赖应该缓行》, in which he famously urges people to ‘beat the drowning dog’ 打落水狗, an injunction that has helped animate acrimonious public debate ever since. Of course, not only Chinese intellectuals and journalists fall prey to this spirit. It also informs some the attitudes and rhetoric of some modern-day foreign ‘political pilgrims‘ to that country’s shores.—Geremie R. Barmé

[Editor’s Note: Me Talk Pretty One Day is the title of a collection of comic stories by David Sedaris published in 2000.]


Sticking to the Topic 就事论事

Rose Luqiu Luwei 闾丘露薇 is one of China’s leading journalists. She is the executive news director of Hong-Kong based Phoenix TV and the founder of the blog platform 1510. She also writes a regular column for the Guangzhou Yancheng Evening News, in which she offers personal reflections on various ethical issues. It is there that she recently published ‘Sticking to the Topic’ 就事论事 (a common idiom that roughly means ‘discussing matters in their own right’). In that essay she reflects on the tendency among writers, commentators and intellectuals to reject people’s arguments on the basis of hasty moral judgments.

My childhood education gave me the habit of tying everything to the moral character of an individual, and a tendency to lead off by trying to guess a person’s [hidden] motives. Later, an older friend told me this joke: During the Cultural Revolution, there was someone for whom no actual proof of guilt was found, so during an interrogation, he was asked, ‘Why did you choose to go out at this particular time? Why did you choose to shop for vegetables at this particular moment? You must have had some covert agenda.’ The person being interrogated had no way to explain, and in any event the interrogators didn’t care about the explanation, because they thought they’d found proof. I had to laugh, hearing this, but reflecting on it, hadn’t I unconsciously made the same mistake?

Source: 闾丘露薇, ‘就事论事‘, Yangcheng Evening News 羊城晚报, 11 November 2012.


Interviewing As Arrival 采访是一场抵达

Chai Jing 柴静 is a Beijing-based investigative journalist who, more recently, has appeared as a moderator on the CCTV network. Selections of a lecture she gave at the School of Journalism of Tsinghua University on 9 October 2012 drew a large response on microblog platforms. The following week, The Beijing News printed a more extensive transcript.

Chai stresses that interviewers should be particularly careful not to approach their interviewee with prejudice, or use the interview to pass judgement on them. This is particularly important for young journalists who are often animated by a desire to make the world a better place. As she has developed in the profession, Chai Jing says that she came to realise that an overwhelming desire to change society can blind the interviewer and get in the way of objective reporting.

Thought is rooted in unease, a kind of turmoil, and when a person is in turmoil, new thoughts have already begun to germinate, and then what’s needed is for the dirt to be brushed away from the shoots to give them the chance to emerge.

When I was younger and did interviews, I’d sometimes like to get the subject in a corner and attack them. It’s not like you’re armed, and you’re going to fall to the ground, and it reads better. But as I grew older, I felt like a needed a sort of tolerance. This tolerance is not hypocritical; it’s just an awareness that a person’s mind and spirit are in flux, and you can’t just dam up a person’s heart and stop them from going in or out. People can flow.

Affection and antipathy are the most harmful mindsets you can take to an interview. If, before interviewing someone, you have affection for or antipathy towards them, you have no way of engaging with them honestly and objectively.

Source: 柴静, 采访是一场抵达, The Beijing News 新京报, 13 October 2012.


Sharing Moral Ground 以平等的道德身份

In this piece, part of a series on ethics and knowledge, the noted film critic and public intellectual Cui Weiping 崔卫平 explores the reasons why we tend to demonize those whose views and position differ from our own. Cui Weiping cites the case of the Peking University professor Kong Qingdong 孔庆东 calling Hong-Kongers ‘dogs’ and Hong-Kongers calling mainlanders ‘locusts’ in response, for details, see the information window on ‘Hong Kong Dogs (Xiangang gou 香港狗) versus Mainland Locusts (Dalu huangchong 大陆蝗虫)’ in China Story Yearbook 2012, Chapter 2.

A society ought to limit and possibly even severely restrict discriminatory insults. This is not contradictory to free expression. Hearing things one doesn’t like is a completely different matter from overt discrimination and insults. In that regard, it is meaningful to look back on the methods of the Cultural Revolution and other eras of cruelty. Why, because of different opinions and family backgrounds, were people tortured to death? How could they have gotten their throats ripped out before being sent to the execution ground, and what sort of person could have done that? [Ed. This is a reference to the execution of Zhang Zhixin 张志新 in 1975.] It is because a conclusion had already been formed saying that these victims did not have human characteristics, that they were ‘non-humans’. Cancelling their membership in the human race eliminated them as subjects of morality.

Source: 崔卫平, 以平等的道德身份, Economic Observer Online 经济观察网, 10 February 2012.