We Must Not Judge Those in Opposition as We Judge Those in Power

In this article Evan highlights the difference between those in opposition and those in power. He argues that whilst radical antics may have value in opposition, such antics from the establishment reveal only intolerance and a sense of illegitimacy.

Last week over dinner some friends light-heartedly accused me of double standards. Pointing out that whilst I was prepared to tolerate, and in some cases even support, radical or extreme behaviour by pro-democracy activists, I disapprove of similar provocations and antics from the establishment camp. “Shouldn’t one judge both sides by the same yardstick?” I was asked.

My answer is no we should not, as we are not comparing like-with-like. Each side of the political spectrum currently represents not only an ideological difference, but a fundamentally different position within politics. One is in opposition and the other is in power, and expectations should vary accordingly.

The style of opposition is not the style of authority. It is a challenge to it. Even in revolution the wheel never spins completely. Power may not always corrupt but it will always distort as the role changes from questioning government to governing itself.

People Power and the League of Social Democrats operate in opposition, as a voice of dissent rather than a voice influence. It is their role to be critical, and to be sensitive to both the weakness in government and to public dissatisfaction. They may be theatrical, but it is because without the authority of state they must appeal directly to the people. I may personally not be inclined towards their behaviour, but I nevertheless appreciate that they represent those on the outside looking in. Like the character of the fool, their antics and bawdy humour add an irreverence to what would otherwise be the dour seriousness of political debate – an irreverence that grounds the politics in the language of the polis itself.

From the opposition we should demand a more critical position. The role of opposition is not to work with authority but to hold authority accountable – to wrestle with the distortions of authority and to act as a bulwark against the corrupting influence of power. As a retired lawyer I know spends a good part of his retirement taking up trivial cases to “kept the police on their toes”, so the opposition plays a roll in testing authority to keep it honest.  “Otherwise”, as my friend says, “those in authority start stretching the boundaries of their mandate”.

However, when those in authority begin smearing the opposition with the same or greater ferocity there is cause for concern. When establishment figures encourage protests of their own, they are protesting not against an authority with the power to affect our lives but against an opposition that attempts to curtail power from being abused.

Pro-establishment marches are not demonstrations. They are mobilized to confront the demonstration of an opposing view. Where pro-democracy supporters are compelled to demonstrate their views because they are (or feel) disenfranchised from the current political system, a pro-establishment position is by definition either enfranchised or agreeable to the current arrangement. They have no reason to take to the street unless in confrontation. When they do they must either object to there even being an opposing position, or feel a need to appeal directly to the people – a sign that they question their own legitimacy to govern. In Hong Kong I see signs of both.

Patriotism is called upon not to state a position in so much as accuse the alternative position as unpatriotic. Democrats are traitors. Clearly this is a non sequitur: the democratic ideal is not counter to the patriotic ideal. Indeed, one may be a patriot by being a democrat. There is also an irony that socialist patriotism, as defined by Stalin and adopted later by Mao, defined itself ideologically and in opposition to an alternative; “socialism in one country” presumed that the ideology on which patriotism rested existed only within one state. Are the consumer values of China today really so different as to justify this patriotism? And if not, as I suspect, the patriotic position must rest not on the party but on the country, in which case it is the people rather than Beijing that determines this line.

I may dislike the often hollow ravings of Wong Yuk Man but I do not dismiss them. In them I hear the voice of frustration, and I applaud his “show” for forcing us to consider those voices, however angry, that we can not deny are a part of this city. But when I am accosted by Voice of Loving Hong Kong and other pro-establishment protestors I am very concerned. These people are, after all, on the side of those with power. They are not there for their voice to be heard. They are there because they are intolerant of any opposition. There are there specifically to create a confrontation and to cause trouble.

Whilst all positions have a right to be heard, the manner by which a position is demonstrated must be understood within the context of authority. When the position is that of authority, the antics of protest are not the means to being heard, but a protestation against opposition. This is an important distinction to make.

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