The deities of analytics have spoken and a particular set of essay questions has led student visitors (parents? teachers?) to this humble site. They include the following:
- How far in your society should unpopular views be open to discussion?
- To what extent is it possible to make the punishment fit the crime?
- Education should only be concerned with what is useful in life. Discuss.
- How far is it acceptable for technology to be used for financial benefit?
- The key criterion for good government is how well the economy is managed. How far do you agree?
For today’s post, we’ll focus on the most popular one…
The Question: How far in your society should unpopular views be open to discussion?
And to break this essay down and give you some ideas to get started, we”ll be using our trusty framework (and then some) of:
- Overall impressions / Question dissection
- Obvious YES
- Obvious NO
- Key ideas / examples
- Possible stands
Just a note that this one ended up being quite long. We’ll rework the formatting, but the range of ideas covered should be useful in helping you think about the question.
- There’s an implicit assumption in the wording of this question that unpopular views should NOT be open to discussion. What’s the case there? Hurt feelings? Destabilized societies? Slippery slopes? Extremism?
- Can we also flip it around and consider the benefits of discussing unpopular views? What if the views are unpopular but not wrong, and can serve as early warning systems for society? Unpopular is also not the same as unpleasant or nasty. It’s perhaps closer to “not widely accepted” or “not held or liked by a majority”.
- We need to deal with the idea of popularity. How do we tell if something is unpopular?For some things, there are polls… Or follower counts… or opinions that draw harsh criticism…
- Do we go by gut feeling?
- Are media reports representative? After all, media bias and (sadly) fake news are certainly realities.
- Is popularity subjective depending on which social circle you belong to? Opinions may vary widely.
- More generally, is what is popular always right? Historically, mob rule has had mixed outcomes to put it mildly. Read up about the idea of the tyranny of the majority
- Consider how views are actually discussed in the modern world. How far can we actually control the expression and spreading of unpopular views? There are lots of online channels. There are Virtual Private Networks (VPN). What do we do then?
- What would happen if we didn’t permit discussions? Censorship? Self-censorship? Any potential problems there?
- And of course, we need to deal with the “your society” bit. We’ll focus on Singapore in this case, with a few relevant international examples thrown in as parallels.
Obvious YES… meaning there should only be limited discussion of unpopular views…
Some unpopular views are so radical that they could lead to social instability or at the very least extreme unpleasantness. If a society aims to progress, have fair and balanced discussions, and treat its members with civility, then it should consider avoiding some unpopular views, censoring them or managing the discussion of such views very carefully.
Note: The obvious challenge here is that while this all sounds good… what kinds of views might actually fall under this category? Hmm… Eugenics? Deep-seated prejudices (which is probably where this question falls under your teacher’s categorization, at least in some cases)? Extreme views relating to… Religion? Diet? Politics?
Obvious NO… meaning we should be fairly open about many unpopular views…
On closer examination, several problems emerge. What if views are unpopular with one group but very popular with another? What if some claim there is a silent majority that supports their view, but it’s hard to verify the claim? What if we suppress unpopular views, but they turn out to be early warning systems about social, economic and environmental problems that we ought to deal with rather than kicking the can down the road?
What kinds of unpopular views could be worth discussing in Singapore?
I’d venture that there are some common unpopular views that many societies deal with, not just our own (see the note in the “Obvious YES” section above). Yet, to do well on this question, we need to dive deeper into Singapore-specific issues. What might some of these include, and what ideas do we need to be aware of to make for a richer discussion?
Let’s use the Political-Social-Economic framework to organize our thoughts and see if we’re missing anything
It might be useful to split the discussion of political opinions and issues into the internal and external ones. The former is by far the more sensitive (to folks who live within the country). Here we can think about issues like substantiated versus unsubstantiated criticisms of politicians, but we should also think of more sensitive stuff where society has indeed had some rigorous discussions. Some of this may surround thoughts on causes of the Little India Riots of 2013, or earlier thoughts on ministerial pay, that (some claim) prompted reductions after the 2011 elections. There are also established feedback channels for citizens to comment on some policies.
More recently, worries about fake news (which may be popular or unpopular but dangerous in either case) have led to the passage of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) legislation.
Read up about the history of OB markers (“out of bounds marker”) in Singapore’s social and political discourse. This is a paradigm for describing how we have traditionally gone about things.
Remember too that there are laws against libel, slander and defamation in many countries. So there have to be limits and avenues to recourse if people (whoever they may be) feel they have been wronged. We can’t have zero regulations and completely free airing of unpopular opinions, especially if they’re not true.
You’d probably be most familiar with the social side of things. We might want to place limits on unpopular, inflammatory opinions for social stability and harmony. Society at large has reacted and been supported by the powers that be in cases such as the Anton Casey and Sun Xu incidents. All this comes as parts of a balancing act society has to perform as it opens up to new immigrants who view things differently. And at the school level, teachers and pastoral care staff might intervene if they think sharing of unpopular opinions about members of the school constitutes bullying.
And yet, once again, we can find useful discussions of unpopular opinions in Singapore. There is the debate over decriminalizing homosexuality and repealing Section 377A of the penal code, and Pink Dot events related to this. Whatever your views on the issue, it’s a conversation worth having. We probably also need to have uncomfortable discussions about things like resource scarcity and the implications for the environment, as well as how to allocate funding for different generations (young vs old). At any rate, Vigorous discussion of all kinds of issues (some of them extremely trivial) takes place daily on social media sites like the Hardware Zone Forum and various Telegram groups.
Are there unpopular economic opinions that don’t intersect politics and society? Hmm. Certainly there are again challenges of an economic nature and divisive opinions on how to resolve them. Globalization and offshoring of industries and the ever-changing nature of work leaves groups of people with much economic insecurity. In this, we are just part of the greater whole. We don’t have a minimum wage system or universal basic income but we have our own programmes like Workfare. Minimum wage has often been thought of as a dirty term (and therefore unpopular with some groups of people). Is it useful to have discussions on how specifically to address job losses and income and wealth inequality, even if we don’t end up adopting the “unpopular” solutions? If only to address worries about getting economically left behind or feelings of alienation due to a perceived “you die, your business” general attitude.
In an interesting twist, policymakers have often espoused that we cannot afford to be “populist” in some economic policies so that in itself might well illustrate the value of “unpopular” views. And of course, there is that book, “Hard Truths to keep Singapore going”, put together from interviews with and memoirs of a certain founder of our country. Its very title suggests that the bitter, unpopular view may sometimes be just the antidote society needs.
Key Ideas and Examples
The above arguments based on contemporary Singapore issues alone should be sufficient for a pretty good discussion. But in a broader sense, we should be aware of these key ideas that would be part of the debate / shared historical knowledge about unpopular opinions and the usefulness of debate to society.
- Actually many organizations we belong to have rules and restrictions on what we can or cannot say or do
- Codes of conducts
- Principles of respect
- Even internet forums, social media platforms and blogs have moderators
- There’s a nuance to expressing unpopular views. It’s not all black and white. There’s an idea in comedy about walking right up to the line where discomfort is but not crossing the line, in order to make a point. And wouldn’t you know it, Singapore has done pretty well here…
- Cherian George: Singapore the Air-Conditioned Nation
- Jack Neo’s social satires, e.g. “I Not Stupid”
- We went ahead and had discussions about Singlish in the ’90s, and there has been some relenting from the powers that be on it.
- Should we have a US-style first amendment type legislation that protects freedom of expression, and live with the downsides?
- Read up on John Stuart Mill and his writings on the value of grappling with opposing ideas – On Liberty
- If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. (1978, 16)
- The Harm Principle
- …the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. (1978, 9)
- Socrates, who was known among other things for his criticism of his own society, on the role of the Gadfly
- Discussion of unpopular views should be allowed, within reason, because that’s how civil society grows and charts the course of the country. Our track record shows we can handle it and anyway it’s quite hard to censor things nowadays.
- Discussion of some types of unpopular views should be allowed but overall we should restrict them because of our traditional worry over social vulnerability and the present day challenges of fake news and people living in filter bubbles.
Three Challenges in Writing your Stand
- Don’t just lean on a stand of “we shouldn’t allow discussion of unpopular views due to worries over social cohesion“. That’s not even where we are as a society now.
- Don’t go for vague principles of freedom of discussion alone without really pushing the analysis on the perceived benefits (and any unforeseen circumstances)
- Don’t just say “to a certain extent“. See if you can lay out the circumstances under which we would prohibit discussion, and leave everything else up for discussion…
Were these notes helpful? If you do write about this, feel free to share your essay with us to get feedback or share how you did on your school assignment 😉