Again, a fine line: due punishment vs. violation of rights

February 24, 2009

jailed bloggers = violation of human rights = repressive government = INJUSTICE

The above is a primitive expression of the thought process most individuals seem to take on when the subject of jailed bloggers is broached. Yet, for me, the subject of jailed bloggers immediately brought to mind the two Singaporean bloggers who were jailed for their offensive racist remarks. Here, another formula is proposed:

jailed bloggers = due punishment for action harmful to other persons/society = enforcement of law + maintenance of civil society = JUSTICE

Why this difference? Are they mutually exclusive?

Let’s examine these two different modes of thinking about jailed bloggers further.

Both modes are informed by principles: the first is informed by the principle of there being certain rights that all persons are entitled to which must be enforced and not infringed upon, one of them being the right to expression; the second is informed by the principle of justice, where persons receive punishment if they cause harm to others. This empirical way of looking at these modes of thinking demonstrate that they are not inherently mutually exclusive. However, I would argue that the particular subject of whether bloggers should be jailed compels us to choose which principle will have overriding authority over the other.

This is where you may be telling me that we do not have to choose, that I have no case here, conflating two inherently different contexts with each other – political bloggers and bloggers who have made incendiary comments against a particular ethnic group –  but let me put it to you this way: if you choose to recognize bloggers’ right to free expression, and thus judge governments who imprison political bloggers to be unjust, you cannot in good conscience punish other bloggers for making incendiary comments that were their right to make. Conversely, if you choose to recognize the need for some form of punishment for harmful actions, and thus judge governments who imprision bloggers with offensive messages to be just, you cannot in good conscience denounce another government for taking action against persons whom they saw as launching attacks on them, citizens who fall under their protection, and their society as a whole. (In some cases, this may even be the same government.)

Or can you?

The fact is, most people can and do. Most people operate on the unspoken norm that once a person commits a harmful act, he gives up his right to freedom. Most people also operate on the norm that attacks on a government are acceptable and even necessary for a government to obtain and sustain its legitmacy, while attacks on people or ethnic or socio-economic groups are inacceptable in any form.

Is this hypocrisy? Is this inconsistency? Or are these simply norms that mediate between the principles of inviolable rights and justice?

With its emergence, blogging has rehashed this perhaps ancient philsophical point of contention, and hopefully will contribute to defining a place of reconciliation and consensus.

– Hui Lim


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