The case against ‘posturism’

October 20, 2021 10:25
Photo: Reuters

It goes without saying that Hong Kong is a city in dire need of reform.

From socioeconomic inequalities and housing (usable land) shortages, to excessive bureaucratism and legal restrictions inhibiting systemic and structural reforms, to a government disconnected from a disenchanted public, to deeply rooted anxieties and concerns revolving around the city’s relationship with its own country, China – there are many problems that require our attention and fixing.

A question that is oft-put then, is as such: where do we begin?

The answers have been plentiful. Some say, the fault rests with the civil service and administrators – their tendency to prioritise systemic stability and bureaucratic accountability, over efficacy and radical reforms. Others posit, ‘tis to do with the land developers and tycoons, those whose amassing of wealth and influence has come at the expense of those at the bottom of the rungs, at the end of the pecking order. Still, some would point their fingers at the establishment and (former) democratic politicians – and accuse them of orchestrating and inadvertently colluding in engendering the inefficiencies and intransigence that have captured Hong Kong’s governance over the past decades.

I hereby offer a slightly different take – I think the problem rests with what I’d term, via a neologism, “Posturism”. Posturism denotes the tendency of individuals – politicians and powerbrokers alike – to prioritise posturing, performative speech, and expressive gestures and actions over getting things done. Posturers view politics as a means to scoring personal gains and courting favours with the powerful and privileged. To posture would offer one a straightforward path to brown-nosing one’s way up to the top – whether it be through pandering to the masses during the 2019 protests, or, indeed, to the powers that be and patrons on all sides of the spectrum over the past two decades. Posturing is easy and cheap – after all, all that is required, is cheap-shots, grand-standing, and half-truths construed as absolute truths.

Sycophancy. Flattery. Sucking-up to those who wield financial, political, rhetoric, and symbolic influence. These are classic tactics embraced by those starved of ideas and dying for power, as a primary means to an end – climbing the well-oiled, greasy pole. Posturism values saying the right things over doing the right things – it encourages individuals to opt for telling twisted, distorted versions of the truth, in lieu of constructive critique and advocating what truly matters. It also trades off pragmatic reform and solutions in favour of self-serving speech-acts demonstrating one’s ostensible allegiance to a cause.

What’s wrong with posturism, one may ask? And one would be forgiven in thinking that it is part and parcel of politics – indeed, to swear and pledge loyalty, could well be a prerequisite in one’s seeking to access and obtain power; if so, so be it.

Three problems remain, when it comes to posturism. The first is that posturism only exacerbates polarisation – individuals are less likely to compromise and more prone to obstinate resistance (towards compromise and one another), if they are incentivised to perform exaggerated, radical versions of their actual stances. One of the most expedient means to accrue brownie points, is via loudly protesting, demonising, and hounding the other side. We’ve seen this with Brexit; we’ve seen this with the Yellow Vests protests in France, and – of course – we’re now seeing this with the anti-vaxx and pro-science movements in the US: whilst those who advocate vaccinations certainly are right when it comes to the science behind the jab, they sure aren’t doing a particularly effective job at convincing vaccine skeptics in trying out basic science. Likewise, anti-vaxxers spend more time preaching to their own choir than offering substantive arguments – if any – against vaccinations. It is clear that neither population succeeds in convincing the other, yet both are nudged to feel good about their indignant protests towards the other. For it is only through such performative one-upping, that one is rewarded and recognised with heightened status within one’s echo chamber and political tribe.

The second, of course, is that posturism ends up crowding out those who in fact want to contribute towards public service. What’s the point of doing politics – if all that entails, is that one must spend at least 30-40% of one’s time seeking to prove one’s credentials and fend one’s proposals from those who accuse one of being allegedly disloyal or insubordinate? Yes – respecting baselines and adhering to political realities are of the utmost importance; yet politics is, ultimately, about combating and resolving concerns confronting members of the public – it’s not about scoring easy points and quibbling over trivialities, such as the number of times one includes flattering expressions and disingenuous compliments in one’s speeches. Posturing kills off practical progress – it also stifles innovation and real political discourse.

Finally, posturism leaves the public none too pleased about those who are their ostensible representatives. One would think that politicians would be better off spending time with their electorate and constituents – to the extent that they matter – than engaging in mindless, vindictive attacks and quarrels. Well, one might have to think better and harder, for that sure ain’t the case in certain quarters.

2021 is a time for change, for reform, for genuine progress in Hong Kong. The first step in our march towards progress, would be doing away with posturing. Only then, can we talk.

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HKEJ contributor