Try a Little Unkindness

This is may be unpopular. It may be unkind.

Trigger warning: This article may even be an Opinion.

By the time you read this the MC Elections may already have ended, and we would have our candidate-elects for this academic year. After a rather bruising (or bland, depending on how old you are) Q&A session, we have some sense of what this candidate-elects are like, and how they would do under some public pressure and scrutiny. Some bumbled, some were coherent, some were composed and confident; all were driven by some personal conviction to stand for office.

 “Try a Little Kindness”

I write partly in response to an op-ed published in the Cinnamon Roll, titled “Try a Little Kindness”. If I read the article correctly, its writer, Samantha Nah, was rather repulsed by the “bloodsport” that has come to characterise the way in which the USP community views these annual affairs. In particular, she remarked how “students, especially senior students” appeared to her like spectators in a Roman Colosseum, watching gladiators wrestle lions. In this extended metaphor the gladiators are the MC candidates, and the lions are the controversial issues that candidates have to grapple with. The audience members represent the USP community, which she castigates as largely passive and unnecessarily critical. She calls for the USP community to remember that these “gladiators” are ultimately human beings. There is no need to make it personal; it is unconstructive to attack candidates by being dismissive of them through one’s “harsh tone of voice… dismissiveness, your cynicism”. Samantha makes a call for compassion – to remember that while these candidates are brave souls for putting themselves out like that, they are also human. Try a little kindness, because you would like to be treated nicely too if you were up there.

I don’t dispute this at all. I have stood for office before, and it is never pleasant to have to field difficult questions, let alone difficult questions sheathed in sarcasm and aggression. As a relative dinosaur, I have furthermore been witness to the kind of useless, snide hostility that used to stalk USP Life!, sniffing for blood (girlfriend duties, anyone? Or how about some victim-blamed posters? ). On an online platform, or in a large community, it’s easy to be a devastating critic. It’s easier to get the likes and laughs this way.

Fine Lines

But I say that this kindness cannot come at the expense of our critical faculties as a community of intellectuals. [And yes, I did just reify the USP community]. Moods and texts being subjective, it is potentially a difficult line to draw: between being kind, civil and thoughtful and disagreeing: being critical and calling a person out for their problematic assumptions and wordings. While I don’t think that being kind and critical of someone’s opinions are mutually exclusive, I think it is more tricky to delineate who is being “too” “cynical, dismissive and abrasive” – although we could come to some approximate, common understandings on these things.

Indeed, as intellectuals of one form or another, as so-called “scholars” – if only for this brief period in our lives-  one must learn to disagree politely, even while deploying the most robust arguments to prosecute a perspective. Whack the issues, not whack the person. I don’t disagree with Samantha on this at all.

I only extend her impassioned plea a little further in time, with the tiny benefit of a few more semesters, and a few more perspectives from peers and seniors before me.

I ask: where does the kindness end?

The Most Difficult Questions

Sure, we should be civil in our arguments. Name-calling is poor form, and unsportsmanlike. But just as we worry if the questioning veers dangerously into a passive bloodsport, I worry if we may swing too far to the other end of the pendulum’s orbit: passive gratitude. We acknowledge that the candidates are brave enough to run for office, and then conclude that since we would not even dare to stand for elections, we should simply sit down and shut up. Ask some questions which poke them gently, and then, even if the answers are unsatisfactory, we give room for others to ask their questions. I find this unhealthy, and as unproductive as its bloodthirsty opposite. Critics, while irritating, are necessary.

Samantha used the imagery of the Colosseum as a way to attack the seemingly callous way in which the USP community (“especially senior students”) revels in pointing out flaws and fallacies in the policies of the MC candidates. The connotations are supposed to be negative – we (“especially senior students”) are unfeeling, savage audiences only looking for a good show.

Indeed, a good show is exactly what I am after. But I don’t see why this is particularly problematic. Any MC candidate worth his/her salt needs to be able to articulate themselves well, especially at one of the few (if not the only) event in which the entire USP community gets a chance to really see and listen to candidates. Being able to field questions confidently, being able to react and think on one’s feet, being able to project a particular persona and elaborate a consistent policy and narrative – these are skills any individual crazy, ambitious or passionate enough to stand for MC elections should be able to do reasonably well. Moreover, if you are going to be a member of the MC in the USP, I would think grammar and good spelling are also crucial elements of your magic box of tricks.

Are these high standards? Perhaps. But then Samantha also characterised these candidates as “gladiators”. My rusty knowledge of Roman history tells me that gladiators were tough warriors, perhaps the most savage and ferocious by dint of their vocation. Let’s not forget that gladiators were usually (but not always) slaves who had no choice but to fight. So the metaphor can only go so far. We don’t expect our student leaders and representatives to be violent savages – well, at least not as savage as some seniors in the USP – but I would hold them to some standards. If you want my vote, if you want the position, I don’t think it’s asking too much to answer some difficult questions, even if they occasionally get personal. In the space of a week the USP community is expected to vote for candidates who make an astounding variety of claims – that they care, that they want to cohere, that they want to include, that they want Rag – how will we know their mettle? How will we know that when push comes to shove; when dinner becomes deadline; when WCT becomes ‘Wah Cannot Tank’; when supper becomes siao liao, they will be able to answer the most difficult questions- difficult questions like “should I carry on, or give up”?

By the strength of their witty campaign slogans?

 

Curiosity Wanted

I have tried to accord Samantha’s arguments some fair space and weight. But the middle ground can be highly elusive and subjective. Focus on the issues, she argues. No need to make it personal, she implores, they are doing something you would never dare to. All valid points worth considering. But it is also precisely because they are doing things we would never dare to that we must hold them to higher standards. Tricky questions are what we expect our leaders to be able to answer.

It is a foolishly brave thing to run for office. Even when think you have it all settled, even when you borrow the backing of some senior, people come in and make a mess of your plans with their difficult questions and their unfriendly glares, They unsettle you with their capricious applause, catcalls and hoots. And we must give credit to these courageous souls.

But courage and effort does not equate to substance. We cannot stop at lauding individuals for simply trying. We cannot simply thank them for their efforts. Sometimes you can put in six weeks’ worth of study and still fail your exams. Sometimes you can pour in six months of effort and your Freshman Orientation Camp can still be flush with questionable sexual games. I worry how we have sometimes become a Carebear community, overflowing in gratitude but silent on problematic representations and issues within our own USP community. If we speak of “growing together” as a USP community then we should also confront together issues that we would rather ignore.

Indeed, these candidates are clumsy, inexperienced, vulnerable human beings. Some of them have never been exposed to such critical, public scrutiny before. But they are also running for office. And I would rather a leader who can wrestle the dangerous questions – even the personal, even the aggressive ones, even the unkind ones – calmly and honestly.

Samantha speaks of gladiators, but she says, be nice to them. This is a rather incongruous image and historically clumsy metaphor if you read about who gladiators actually were, and what they did.

Try a little unkindness instead. Don’t go easy. Don’t give thanks. Not yet. Ask the questions. Even the cynical and challenging ones. After all, has this not always been part of our heritage, our taglines, and our identity – the willingness and courage to ask the questions no one else would, or dared to, or wanted to? I heard somewhere that curiosity is still wanted.

Ask the difficult questions.

 

This opinion piece was originally written for the Cinnamon Roll, an internal USP publication which you can follow via their Facebook page. The original published article can be found here

 

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