Should we give up on our youth?-No, No, No!

September 17, 2020 06:00
Photo: Reuters

For the lack of a better word, we’re in a bit of a quagmire here.

The past year of events – including the civil unrest, the largely peaceful protests, the escalating new Cold War, and the significant transformations to our city’s political scene – has, to say the least, changed Hong Kong rather irrevocably. An underlying catalyst of this metamorphosis, and this is a point that perhaps is, poignantly, the sole point on which left, right, and centre could come to agree, is our city’s youth.

I’ve been speaking to a number of senior friends lately, and the gist I get from many of them, is one of resigned frustration. Whenever I bring up the topic of our youth, they would profess that they view our youth as deluded, impetuous, even insolent and blinded by their rage. Some of my friends are skeptical of the youth’s ability to ever constructively engage in political debate, or steer our city towards a better future. Still, others – particularly those whose businesses have been affected by the past year of events – are adamant that the teenagers embroiled in last year’s events must be sanctioned, such that they could “learn their lessons”. Echoing the words of the daughter of an established business magnate in the city, they have decidedly “given up” on our youth – and are unabashedly open about their disappointment.

To the question, “Should we give up on our youth?”, my answer would be – as Maggie put it in her swift put-down to the European Union – a resounding “No. No. And No!”

To start off, it’s well worth noting that not all of our youth are “beyond salvaging”. The assertion that a vast number of them were or are violent is both meretricious and pernicious. Meretricious, in that the number of violent protesters is exaggerated far beyond proportion and reality; pernicious, in that this subconsciously inculcates in us the mistaken and counterproductive belief, that only harsh and draconian punishment could “rehabilitate” our youth. Many of the youth embroiled in the judiciary process were not arrested or incarcerated for violence – some were caught up in the stampede and chaos; others were arrested for breaking the law, but not for violent crimes. None of this is to say that genuinely and truly illegal behaviours – established beyond reasonable doubt – ought not be punished. Yet it is to say that given the predominant share of peaceful protesters amongst the movement last year, it would be silly to write off a significant majority of our future generation as “violent vandals” who are beyond repair and could not be saved.

It would be equally silly to posit that all “yellow” youths – including those who champion democracy and liberty – are paid shrills or mindless zealots. It is chic and “politically correct” to insist that youth of only one colour (blue or yellow) are “worth listening to” – yet any reasonable government should recognise that healthy and authentic dissent is in, as opposed to against its interests. Of course, there should be zero tolerance for individuals who incite violence, terror, and sedition; yet this does not and should not mean that all dissenting voices are hounded down and silenced, for doing so would be to the city’s detriment.

What of those who committed violent crimes? Here we must draw a line. If such violence had been committed with minimal regard for the safety and wellbeing of others; if violence from all sides were judiciously and fairly prosecuted without bias; if vigilante violence were indeed reprobated by all parties, standing firm on the premise that no extrajudicial violence, or harassment, or property destruction could ever be justified – then I would indeed be very much convinced that we ought to condemn the violent wrongdoers. Yet if the above conditions do not hold; if violence is only selectively and partially prosecuted, we must and can do better in enacting and upholding justice comprehensively – justice delayed is justice denied.

Moreover, the answer to violence could never be consigning the violent to a downward and never-ending spiral. Murderers can be released early on parole, should they exhibit promising signs of rehabilitation. Young criminals may be offered amnesty, on grounds that doing so better enable their re-integration into society. To condemn young delinquents and offenders to “careers” of crimes, to leave them to the hands of the underworld within overcrowding prisons, isn’t something that an astute or responsible government would ever do. Indeed, to deprive many families of their economic pillars, and to rid aspiring minds of bright futures that they deserve – out of spite, vengeance… such primordial, persecutorial prerogatives! – would be a dereliction of the government’s duty. The state is responsible for upholding law and order – but the law must be applied equally to all, the order achieved without undermining the fundamental fabric of society: the belief that the state is and will be acting in good faith.

I am a firm believer in second chances. Not only because I think it’s only fair that wrongdoers are given the opportunity to prove their critics wrong, or to positively restitute victims of their wrongs – but also because it’s the maximally effective way of healing a broken society. Individuals who are incarcerated and estranged from life chances upon their release are likely to remain persistently vindictive. More perniciously, their mistrust of the political system would percolate through to their associates, family, and peers – fundamentally undermining the credibility of the state in future enforcement of the law. Finally, incarceration deprives our economy of valuable human capital, who could well contribute towards our city’s growth over the decades to come.

None of this, of course, suggests that we should release all prisoners after arresting them – and all would be Kumbaya. That is both an absurd and uncharitable reductio ad absurdum of my position. My position is that retributivist and desert-based considerations are obviously important, but they cannot be the sole salient features that steer our decision-making as policymakers. From institutions such as bind-over to the Police Superintendent’s Discretion Scheme, there exist plentiful, non-punishment-centered mechanisms where young offenders are processed with both punishment and rehabilitation in mind. Indeed, punishment and rehabilitation need not be mutually exclusive at their core – for convicted criminals, punishment’s communicative and educative functions are instrumental in repurposing them for future integration; rehabilitative processes also deepen convicts’ reflections upon their errs, and enable them to repent with both thoughtfulness and newfound judiciousness. Yet an excessive emphasis upon retribution would blind us to all of the above – and unjustifiably close off an alternative and plausibly better approach to criminal justice.

Our youth are our city’s future. Teach them the notions of right and wrong – but let us not conflate teaching with endless, fruitless punitivism. Penal populism is indubitably tempting, but it cannot be the answer.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review