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Tuesday August 9, 2011

Keep abuse out in commenting

WONG Chun Wai’s call for moderation (“Let’s fight to keep Malaysia moderate” – Sunday Star, Aug 7) is most timely and I, for one, can relate to his recent column on “angry Malaysians”. To extend his discussion, the anger calculus in fact sheds light on why the opposition is not averse to stoking public rancour.

They incite anger on an almost daily basis because they’ve calculated that the angrier they make the electorate, the more votes the ruling party will lose. One cannot fail but notice how after an airing of the “angry” laundry list, the oppositionists inevitably shift into electioneering mode. Their opportunistic script goes: “Let’s all together now kick BN out”.

King Solomon’s wisdom tested two mothers who both made overlapping custody claims on a newborn infant. The genuine mother is revealed as the one willing to relinquish the baby to the other woman in order to spare its life.

Applying Solomon’s wisdom here, if Malaysians really cared for the well-being of the country, they would tamp down the escalating anger.

If they had ever cared for unity, they would have supported 1Malaysia instead of constantly attacking it. Success for the 1Malaysia idea would have been good for the country but bad for the opposition. The hoots of derision greeting the concept at every turn tell us how detractors of the Prime Minister’s effort will likely fare in the Solomon test.

Wong is not the only mainstream editor to observe how far good sense and manners have gone south. In the aftermath of Bersih 2.0, Chok Suat Ling wrote that Facebook is “most in danger of imploding with hatred and vitriol”.

I understand the frustration of my ex-colleagues. Whereas a degree of restraint is still practised in the newsroom, the alternative media shows no inhibition at all in encouraging “the ‘us’ or ‘them’ syndrome”, to borrow a phrase from Wong.

There are no more boundaries remaining, what with the latest digital networking that interconnects the various communication technologies. The “lots of venom and animosity” (Chok’s description) and the “distasteful round of name calling and personal attacks” (Wong’s) are more often than not set in motion by the new media.

In the old days, professional courtesy would have dictated that “the right of reply” was kept within the relevant print publication itself.

Journalism evolving in the 21st century has apparently reached a stage where gutter language against personalities perceived to be pro-establishment is permissible.

As a seasoned journalist, Wong would have received his fair share of brickbats as well as bouquets. For a new media reader to relish the idea of Wong’s son meeting the same fate that befell Teoh Beng Hock is terrible, but what is really beyond the pale is the comment being seen fit to be published.

The news portal in which the comment appeared is one that is fully moderated. This means any reader’s comment has to be approved before it becomes visible on the page for public viewing.

It’s not surprising either that readers of that news portal failed to find the comment offensive, for if they had, they would have called for it to be removed. They’re actually a self-selecting online community, i.e. like-minded people gravitating to websites partisan to their own political positions.

Their manufactured consensus leads to group affirmation, which then validates mob prejudices. This insularity is further aggravated when the agenda-setting new media owners as well as the opposition ranks predominant on the Internet allow no room for contrary thought.

It is not only those in the traditional media who have noticed the bellicosity. Shortly after, Johor Sultanah Raja Zarith Sofia voiced her concern over how the “responses of readers of blogs and news portals have become worryingly provocative”.

Similarly worrying is that while those within the establishment are calling for a middle ground, belligerent political operatives are holding to ransom the silent majority.

Toxic political junkies do nothing but poison the environment when, as “Anonymous” online commentators, they run the mill of the echo chambers. In cyberspace, under the cloak of anonymity, packs of anonymice are emboldened to be feral.

New media, in encouraging the stampeding herd instinct, must be held responsible for the subversion of civility. In the real world, people have to at least try to be polite in agreeing to disagree, and not call the other person “prostitute” or “lapdog” as an argument clincher.

When Wong mentioned how, on top of the derogatory labels, there is also cursing of the victim’s next three generations, I suspect he might be referring to prominent writers and critics at the receiving end of such treatment (if it so happens they dare question Pakatan’s motives).

Actually Wong quoting “three generations” is rather mild. Someone leaving his/her comment at my blog laid a curse on my next seven generations.

The present cyber climate is one where vocal segments of public opinion are antagonistic to the old media, while the new media, in deliberately shutting out differing perspectives, are only driving dissenting readers to congregate in camps where biases are solidified.

Without a diversity of views, the reader will be hard pressed to conduct an internal moral audit with some objectivity.

Thus the moderates in our society must not simply wring their hands over the increasing lack of tolerance in public discourse. Rather, they must reassert themselves in the public sphere to keep the excesses of the fanatical fringe in check.

Wong, a veteran on the beat, would surely have been able to sniff the air of the hostile mood when so many Malaysians were apparently hyped up over Bersih. Yet he had gumption enough to enter the fray and take the bull by the horns.

His writing on “angry Malaysians” necessarily urges us to take stock and recalibrate.

HELEN ANG,

Petaling Jaya.

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