Speaking of Race, and Violence

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Two days ago, Singapore’s mainstream paper, The Straits Times published a commentary on race, titled “Racial stereotyping may seem harmless but it is a form of violence.” In it, the author recounts a conversation with a friend who said “she would know her child is in trouble if she finds herself in a class full of a certain race.” Such stereotypes, argue the author, are “a form of violence.”

Violence, by definition, requires physical force. Speech can incite violence, but it cannot be violence. Equating speech to violence is problematic in at least three ways.

First, if words can be violence, this downplays actual violence that people may face. Saying a racial slur is bad, but it’s in no way as harmful as hitting someone for racial reasons.

Second, equating speech to violence will lead to violence. If racial stereotypes are violence, then saying it justifies a violent response. This line of thought may ironically justify violence; those who use physical force against “violent” speech, can claim “self-defence”.

Third, calling racial stereotypes “violence,” without more, is a practice that can be abused. Once someone is accused of “violence,” which would typically be wrong, he is silenced. There is no conversation to speak of, and no need to deal with the force of any valid arguments. It could potentially be used to shut down ideological opponents, by discrediting and intimidating them.

These problems escalate tensions and make race even harder to talk about.

We suggest a different way. Let’s call racial stereotypes exactly what they are – stereotypes. This means it’s general, and not always correct. Stereotyping is natural in a community made up of vastly different groups, each with their own defining characteristics. A good conversation should unpack stereotypes, and challenge them respectfully. How true is it? Why was it said – to degrade and demean, or to state a problem that needs to be solved?

All these matter, and should be aired. Calling racial stereotypes “violence,” prevents this and will not further our conversations on race.

Rejecting the notion that speech is violence is not to say that speech cannot be harmful. Speech can harm, especially if it encourages violence. This is especially true for faultlines in society – race, religion, and politics. Hence, every regime has its own forms of censorship. In Singapore we have laws against speech that incites violence or threatens death.

The idea of speech as violence is an American import. It’s caught on through the idea of “microaggression,” which includes words that aren’t seemingly driven by malice, but are nonetheless violent. That, along with “silence is violence,” were popularised in the Black Lives Matter movement that swept America up in days of protests and violence. They were standing against racism and police brutality, though not everyone was on board.

Singapore is different from America. Both countries are multicultural and multiracial, but that’s where similarities end. There are two distinct differences – in concepts of race and speech.

Our racial makeup is different. We are of different heritages from the whites, blacks, indigenous or people of colour in America. America had a long history of slavery, and the deep divide is a continuation of the fallout following emancipation. Singapore doesn’t share this long-running, fractured past between two distinct groups.

Their expansive definition of free speech doesn’t exist here. There are clear laws to curtail speech that threatens racial and religious harmony. People have been prosecuted for racist comments.

This has led to a unique approach to racial conflict. The government is proactive on issues of race, and they make sure that people are aware of it. There’s also strong messaging to keep the peace, through education and civic discourse. Call it “securitisation,” or a “paternalistic” approach – the substance of it is that the state sees racism as an existential threat, and strives to contain it.

Our context must be considered in any further conversations about race.

To import American discourse wholesale, and use American measures to deal with racism in Singapore would harm our social fabric. The idea of casual racism as “violence” can easily lead to existing laws against speech being weaponised in tense situations. Groups may take turns to make police reports against members of another faction, reminiscent of what happened during the recent General Elections. Supporters of different political parties took turns to file police reports against members of the other factions.

The same idea of casual racism as violence is also dangerous if individuals or a single group can define and enforce it. Such boundaries should, as far as possible, be decided by a large portion of society, represented by the state. These limits to speech should also be enforced as charitably and fairly as possible.

We must work out our own ways of negotiating conversations on race, and not rely on what’s worked elsewhere. Singaporeans are special, and there will be a solution that works for us.

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