By Augustine Low
Singapore netizens have the dubious honour of having a string of labels attached to them – Wild Wild West, lunatic fringe, rumour mongers, purveyors of untruths and half-truths, and most recently, unhappy people. That these labels are dished out by the government shows its undisguised contempt for the online community.
Sociologists will say that labelling is deviant behaviour. It is casting aspersions that are targeted at diminishing, demeaning and demonising others.
For sure, there’s power to be gained through labelling. When you label someone or a group, you are in effect telling them you can see through what they represent. You put yourself at the throne of superiority and assume the position of deciding someone else’s identity.
But why do those who are already in power need to still gain the upper hand by cutting down others to size? It could boil down to protection of turf, to preservation of status quo. It is also a way to dumb down discussion and debate, as in: It is beneath me to engage you because you are not worthy enough.
It cannot be denied that there are overzealous netizens, not just here but anywhere in the world. That’s the new reality. We live in a plural society where people hold opposing views and beliefs, sometimes too vociferously, sometimes agreeing to disagree.
There are those in the online community who are uncivil, but there are also many who are well-meaning and conscience-driven. But to put them all in one basket and equate them to bad apples and troublemakers is clearly unhelpful and unwarranted.
Carl Jung, the celebrated psychological theorist, advocated the value of looking inwards for answers rather than lashing out as a solution: “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to a better understanding of ourselves.”
Labelling, taken to extremes, becomes a form of rejection and even ostracism which can be divisive to society.
There is also this prevailing notion of the vocal minority and the silent majority, often echoed by the government and the mainstream media. So the vocal minority are supposedly anti-Establishment netizens who are up to no good, while the silent majority are pro-Establishment folks who go about quietly minding their own business.
What about those who are vocal on mainstream media? Under the norms, they are certainly not considered vocal minority and they cannot be the silent majority since they are airing their views. Perhaps they are now the happy vocal minority?
It just doesn’t add up. The thing is, there are so many ifs and in-betweens, so many complexities, that we cannot pigeon-hole people into neat categories.
In any case, to be dubbed silent majority isn’t that encouraging either. It suggests these people are inarticulate/inexpressive/couldn’t be bothered/don’t have an opinion/don’t want to get hands wet. Our society would be in dire straits if such people form the majority of the population. What’s more, in the 19th century, the term silent majority was used to refer to the dead – the reason being that the dead outnumber the living and hence form the silent majority.
I know, times change and so do the meaning of words. And that’s precisely it – times change and citizens cannot be expected to remain compliant as before, no questions asked, no voices of disagreement.
For a government to pin labels on its own citizens, and to put them into contrasting categories is to demean and divide, and create an untenable Them vs Us mentality.
Augustine Low is a communications strategist.