24 April 2018
Those who shout down speakers with whose views they disagree betray the very freedoms that they claim to represent. Photo: Reuters
Those who shout down speakers with whose views they disagree betray the very freedoms that they claim to represent. Photo: Reuters

Whose freedom of expression?

“Democracy” has to be the most misunderstood and misused word in modern parlance.

As the Jesuits rightly insist, before discussing any topic, first define what it is that you are talking about.

The word democracy is derived from a combination of two Greek words: demos, referring to the ordinary people of a city state, and kratos, meaning power.

We understand it to mean that the power to govern rests with the people within a community.

The popular understanding is that every adult in a community has the power to elect those who govern it, summarised as “one man, one vote”.

To a limited extent this is accurate.

But in reality, what I will term the raw concept will not suffice to give a community what western philosophy recognises as the characteristics of a “democratic” status.

A quick historical check illustrates that the raw concept gave Germany Hitler and Italy Mussolini, demonstrating that “one man, one vote” cannot prevent the emergence of a dictator.

Far too many current exemplars spring to mind of leaders who, once elected under the principle of universal suffrage, abuse their power to enable them to rule in dictatorial fashion.

Even a political party elected to govern by universal suffrage is empowered to govern in a dictatorial manner that may be unjust toward those who do not subscribe to that party’s ideas and beliefs.

Consequently, universal suffrage is not by itself a recipe for what objectively constitutes an equitable society.

Though I qualify it as an objective perception, in reality it is relatively subjective.

So, we are back to basics again. What do we mean by “an equitable society”?

I would argue that the prime requirement for an equitable society has to be equality before the law.

In the criminal and civil justice context, only where the very least member of a community, whether judged by wealth or status or condition, is accorded treatment equal to that of the wealthiest or most powerful, can one say that it meets the most basic requirement of a just society.

Beyond this base line, the essential characteristics of an equitable society are those that recognize and maintain the inherent dignity of mankind.

Ordinarily, we subscribe to a set of fundamental freedoms that guarantee this dignity.

However, in the context of Hong Kong’s present political vortex, I confine myself to the freedom to elect one’s rulers and freedom of expression.

In Hong Kong’s current political orientation, the composition of the Legislative Council is weighted in favour of the establishment by way of direct government nominees and constituencies largely comprised of representatives of major vested interests.

This bias is reflected in the composition of the nominating committee for candidates for the post of chief executive.

I do not subscribe to the validity of the current Hong Kong system, which, theoretically, could be recast in a far less discriminatory form.

Notwithstanding which, one only has to look at the political systems in place in England and America to appreciate that the selection of candidates for prime minister and president, respectively, is also far removed from the raw concept that enabled the citizens of ancient Greece to elect their leaders directly.

Multiple layers of committees of political activists sieve (I cannot bring myself to use the word “refine” in this context, vide Trump) the candidates so that the populace has to choose between candidates from whose selection, individually, they are distantly removed.

My point is that there is no ideal model of an equitable political system for selecting our leaders.

These systems evolve over time and reflect the history and characteristics of the inhabitants of each jurisdiction.

Hong Kong was handed a system that reflected the political philosophy of the Chinese Communist Party, tempered by Deng Xiaoping and partially in response to concerns articulated by the British.

It is not perfect and will not satisfy anyone completely, but that is the nature of politics.

Probably Deng thought that Hong Kong’s pragmatists would find a way to forge an evolutionary model that would more closely reflect the western philosophy that largely informed the pre-handover period.

The fact that it has not is the result of the obdurate refusal by hidebound proponents at each end of the political spectrum to compromise.

Both groups are equally to blame, and, regrettably, no visionary leader has come forward to act as an honest broker.

For most of my professional life, I have fought for the individual against institutional arrogance and abuse of power, but I subscribe wholeheartedly to Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s declaration: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Those who shout down speakers with whose views they disagree betray the very freedoms that they claim to represent.

Supporters of any political color that would drown out their opponents’ words are the enemies of freedom of expression.

Equally, the rude mobs who scream insults at magistrates for a verdict with which they disagree are attacking the core instrument designed to protect their freedoms.

Those politicians, especially the legally qualified, who lend support to such uncivilized conduct by their very visible presence, and fail to use their undoubted influence to temper such behavior, disgrace themselves.

In a world in which individual freedoms compete for expression, it behooves us to heed the old adage that one man’s freedom ends where another’s nose begins.

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Queen's Counsel

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