The Problem is not Intolerance, it is Injustice

Malaysia is suffering from a culture of political correctness which disregards the objective wrongdoings in society.

A buddy of mine treated me to a stand-up comedy show in May. It was my birthday. The show featured four highly-acclaimed comedians and all of them were funny. What were we laughing at? Mostly jokes about sex, and very oddly, about ourselves. About our silliness and stupidity. One of the acts even had a female member of the audience come up the stage to spell “laughs” with her derriere. She was a big woman, quite clumsy I must say, but very sporting. The comedian kept making fun of the poor lady. And as can be expected, her antics caused roars of laughter from the audience.

Now place your finger here, while I digress a bit.

The Tolerant Society

It used to be that we could not talk about race. The N-word must not be spoken. Here in Malaysia, the M-word could not be spoken. It is sensitive.

And then we were told we also could not talk about religion – we may offend the followers of a particular religion and they may become violent against us. It is sensitive.

So, instead of having laws to stop criminals like we used to, now we have laws to stop us from provoking would-be criminals. We've got laws which prevent us from commenting about race and religion. I don't know – it’s almost analogous to the idea of legislating how women should dress up so as to not “invite” being raped.

Then it came to a point where we could not call one another “stupid”. We could not ridicule or question someone else's politics, for example. Look at all the “righteous” social media posts telling us, even scolding us, not to call anyone stupid after the Sarawak state election. (Note: I disagree that “stupid” voters were the reason why BN won the election, but that’s another issue.)

Because it is sensitive. It’s as if our brain is now a big phallus ever-reacting to the slightest of stimulation. Perhaps one day not too far in the future we will all not be allowed to call each other ugly or fat, since these are sensitive words too. (I am already bound by higher laws against saying “ugly” or “fat” at home.)

We are not allowed to make each other angry anymore.

Come think of it, we actually have an Act of Parliament against making people angry! Section 3(1)(e) of the Sedition Act defines “seditious tendency” as promoting “feelings of ill will, hostility and hatred between different races or classes of the population of Malaysia”, and the 2015 amendment, Section 3(1)(ea) stretches the offence to include the promotion of “feelings of ill will, hostility and hatred between persons or groups of persons on the ground of religion…”

What have we become? A nation legislated against making each other angry! Whatever happened to equanimity, forbearance, moderation, restraint, reticence, self-control and sobriety?

It is easy to imagine the logical conclusion to this: I cannot comment on who you are, what you do, how you think and vice versa; finally I, we, cannot say anything at all.

Because we are told we need to respect the other person.

As if respect now means “shut up.”

There are at least two kinds of “respect”, by the way:

The first kind is like when the White Men came (sorry, did I make anyone angry with that label?), they said to each other, “let us respect the natives...even though they are stupid. Even though they bury their daughters alive. Even though they burn their widows along with the deceased husbands. Even though they bind up a woman's feet so small she can barely walk.”

And then there is the other kind of respect, where I assume that you are more or less at the same level as me and that you possess a certain degree of similarity to me in strength and in wit. When you fall short, I call you stupid.

Maybe I'm rude – but which one is respect, and which one is patronising?

When Comedians Enter Politics

Now, let’s go back to the stand-up comedy.

Oddly enough, someone told me, now the only way you can make jokes about people and their stupidity and not get yourself into trouble is quit politics and become a comedian!

I find the thought quite enlightening, to be honest. We watch stand-ups quite a bit, and boy how they hentam our stupidity as individuals and as a society. And we all laugh and laugh, gladly paying good money for being denigrated by the comedians.

But what's scarier?

One day, just one fine day, imagine if one of these comedians decided to run for office.

Donald Trump: Nominee for president of the US, or comedian extraordinaire?

He will tell us bluntly “the truth”. He will say it to our faces, “This or that fellow is stupid; we should block him.” He will tell us he is here to protect us from stupidity. He will tell us he has a great plan to build a huge wall, to segregate between us and the stupids. (For the uninitiated, Google “Trump AND wall”.)

We, who are used to being “rational” – or are we? – will then be shocked that many many people are impressed by that comedian and want to hand over power to him!

The bar to be a hero suddenly drops so low: one just needs to be brave enough to call another person stupid to his face. And this is because by then, no one is allowed to call anyone stupid or to say anything at all due to everything being “sensitive”. Everyone has to shut up on the pretext of being tolerant. The guy who finally says, “Hey, stupid” is now the courageous leader who dares speak the truth. What is happening here is that the pent-up emotions of a society stopped from making one another angry finally leads to the rise of what can be identified as fascism.

We Need Intolerance, Not Tolerance

The unfortunate thing is, we have substituted being political with being politically correct. The political problem of inequality now becomes the cultural problem of intolerance.

Because of the general disregard for politics, the problem of economic and political inequality inevitably becomes the problem of race and culture. One is rich or poor, or powerful or weak, not because of some systemic injustice but because of one’s race or religion. The solution then, we are told, is to understand and tolerate one another: we may think another race is greedier, lazier, smarter, more scheming, less materialistic or savvier, but let’s try to live with one another peacefully. The classic example here is national slogans encouraging us to see ourselves as one country, one nation, one people – 1Malaysia.

We are then misled to think that solving the world’s problems is not through political action, not through the institutionalisation of good governance and justice, but rather through tolerance of those who are different from us, especially if they are easily offended. Hence, the oft-quoted reminder to “jaga sensitiviti”.

How then should we move forward?

I think the first step is to realise that our main problem is not intolerance, but injustice. Do not fall for this tolerance nonsense. It is about politics, not political correctness. We need to move from subjective multicultural tolerance to an objective universal intolerance against human suffering and oppression.

The Bersih 4.0 rally last year. Malaysians of all races, religions and ages took to the streets.

Recall the big woman who had to spell “laughs” with her derriere at the beginning of this essay. It was so painful and yet hilarious, watching her. The audience was clapping their hands, falling off their seats at her clumsy act. But she eventually won a prize for her comedy: a large screen TV. And then she did the unexpected: grabbing the emcee’s microphone, she said: “I’m gonna give this to an orphanage in Kulim.” The hall erupted into huge applause, this time without laughter but with no less happiness. There was no mistake there – no one was confused and no one failed to understand what was happening: we were united by our antagonism against human suffering. It was a universal thing.

And we have seen this at work many times, often on a larger scale.

My favourite living philosopher Slavoj Zizek provided an anecdotal example of this sort of solidarity. Speaking on the 2011 protest at Tahrir Square in Egypt, he observed:

“Here we have a direct proof that freedom is universal and proof against that cynical idea that somehow Muslim crowds prefer some kind of religious fundamentalist dictatorship....The moment we fight tyranny, we are solidary. No clash of civilisations. We all know what we mean. No miscommunication here.”

We largely share the same antagonism towards human suffering and oppression and the same anger against the stupidity which supports these things. There is no mistake about it, there are no two ways about it – there's nothing subjective about it. There is nothing to respect when people continue to support corruption and tyranny whether under duress or not.

Think about it. Here is Malaysia, think about Bersih demonstrations. Malaysians of all races and religions, male and female, of all ages, went to the streets. And for those who could not attend Bersih in the national capital, especially from Sabah and Sarawak, they organised their own local Bersih gatherings. Once again, there was no miscommunication. There was solidarity among Malaysians, and even across the South China Sea divide, to demand for free and fair elections. We shared the same antagonism, we were united not by some subjective tolerance of each other but by our objective intolerance against corruption and injustice.

This is what we really need.

Let us not make our society one where no one is allowed by law to make another person angry because of some tolerance nonsense we mistake for real respect. The long-term consequences of such a move are scary to contemplate; it is the kind of material used for novels about dystopian societies.

There is no universal right to not be angered. You have the right to call me stupid, and I, too, have that same right. Because at times, being humans, we do stupid things and must be chastised for that.

This article was first published in Malaysiakini (https://www.malaysiakini. com/news/341811) under the title “We need to be political, not politically correct”.

Steven Sim is the Member of Parliament for Bukit Mertajam.

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