Taiwan’s United Daily News recently ran an opinion poll showing that negative feelings toward mainlanders were on the rise among Taiwanese. As the United Daily News is a newspaper rather favorably disposed to the mainland, poll results like this cannot simply be brushed aside. When I spoke about this with a few Taiwanese who had regular contact with mainlanders, they said their negative feelings about mainlanders were mainly that they were insensible and unreasonable. Objectively speaking, there aren’t, proportionally, too many mainlanders who are completely unreasonable, and a lot of this stink, particularly over the conduct of mainland tourists, has to do with Taiwanese media themselves, which have exaggerated the issue and helped to form the stereotype.
If we’re honest with ourselves, however, we’ll admit that rudeness is something quite common in China. We see it all the time, as when someone cuts in line and then curses you to high heaven when you call them out. On China’s roads, reason must yield all the time as unreason cuts into traffic — how else can we avoid fender benders? In the virtual world of the Internet rudeness is par for the course, and 80-90 percent of comments are vicious attacks. People will spend half a day cursing something you’ve written without even bothering to first understand it. Sometimes reading the headline is enough to set them off. And unreason has now spread to the new medium of the microblog, where readers will curse you and all of your ancestors for a single line you wrote.
Bickering is the way of the Web in China. There are no rules of conduct, no preconditions or demands for logic and consistency. If you can bowl your opponent over with insults you win. This atmosphere of unreason is so all-consuming that even those who take pride in being reasonable are dragged down into the mud.
Certainly, I understand why things are the way they are. We spend our whole lives, from childhood to old age, in a culture and living context of unreason, so that we are totally habituated to it. To this day, our education system actively feeds animosity. Class struggle is no longer the iron rule, but struggle exists everywhere. We haven’t make a clean breast of our own history, and piled-up grievances still run amok.
Look at our films and television dramas and the way they portray war as a simple game of sticking it to the enemy. There is no soul-searching, no nuance.
Our government hopes we, the public, will remain calm and reasonable and not get worked up into an emotional frenzy, but in the practical course of daily life, the government lords it over us with complete unreason. You need only try to take care of business at a government agency to experience this utter deafness to reason. Or you can look, of course, at the peremptory insolence of the whole process of forced demolition and removal. On our internet, if Web control authorities are unhappy with something, they can delete a post just like that, not even bothering to give a reason. Where there is power, there is neither right nor reason.
But even though this is the world we live in, we must nevertheless learn to be reasonable. Each and every one of us, even as we act without reason, hopes to be treated reasonably by others. In moments of disadvantage, all of us, reasonable and unreasonable alike, hope that we will be treated with reason. No one can sustain the advantage forever, forcing others to eat humble pie. Cheat others too far and they’ll resort to violent resistance, playing a deadly game in which we all will crash and burn. In the havoc of unreason, everyone loses out, even those on the cheating end.
I’m quite sure the vast majority of people who pour out their curses online are actually people in positions of weakness in their actual lives, people who are trampled by unreason. They hope for democracy, but they have no idea how to even begin to change their circumstances.
But if we want to improve our lives, the only way is to improve ourselves. Our first step is learning to be reasonable. This is a process that begins with each debate or argument, each time we go online. If we cannot learn to be reasonable, even if one day democracy does indeed come, we will find ourselves unable to accommodate it. We will turn it into a mobocracy, something even more frightful than what we have now.
This essay originally appeared in Chinese at Southern Metropolis Daily.