Opinion Politics & Protest

No name-calling please: the Hong Kong protests and the Stanford prison experiment

Well – said my friend when Wednesday night’s race meeting was cancelled – now things are getting serious. As indeed they are. When “public events” generally started on Friday night and subsided gradually around midnight on Sunday, many people were really not much inconvenienced.

Like most Hongkongers, I had occasional encounters: a whiff of stale tear gas here, a tricky drive over a debris-strewn road there, a moment of anxiety at a junction which usually has traffic lights but doesn’t anymore.

"November 13" Central Hong Kong protest

Central, November 13. Photo: Studio Incendo.

Last week, though, the New Territories became almost as cut off as they were in pre-railway days. Some much-contested roads became unnavigable. The former KCR – now known as the MTR’s East Rail Line – stopped for the first time since the Tai Wai bridge collapsed in, I think, the 1950s.

A lot of people had trouble getting to work, shops stayed closed, whether from apprehension or simple lack of staff, deliveries were not getting through, and buses to some places were unobtainable.

The protests are becoming more “effective,” if the effect you want is to disrupt normal life. This should have been expected. Over the months people have had plenty of time to sort out what doesn’t work, what works and what works even better.

Of the active protesters, the timid and half-hearted have dropped out of the scene; the rash and careless have been arrested or injured; the survivors are careful, bold and keen. This also should have been expected.

october 20 kowloon

File photo: May James/HKFP.

This escalation has been matched by a trend to rhetorical excess among the government’s supporters. This month, we saw two long diatribes, both by lawyers (which explains the length – conciseness is not a virtue when you are billing by the hour) calling for fiercer action against protesters.

Both started by assuming what they sought to prove. In one the protesters were referred to throughout as “thugs,” in the other as “terrorists.”

Now look, people, it is unavoidable that the groups engaged in nightly conflict should generate rude names for each other. To the police, all protesters are “cockroaches,” to the protesters all police are “triads.” This is a normal human impulse.

It should not, though, be imported into public discussion of policy. With thousands of people milling about the street, intermittently clashing with each other, there will be individuals who make bad choices.

Not all protesters set people on fire; not all policemen shoot people. We need to distinguish between the dramatic and the typical. Most protesters have a pretty good idea of how far they are prepared to go, and turning people into human torches is not on the list. Similarly, most policemen want nothing more than to restore order in the way that their training and leadership have told them is correct and lawful.

water cannon october 20

File photo: May James/HKFP.

It may help to keep things in perspective if we remember the Stanford prison experiment. Like most experiments with uncomfortable conclusions, this has come in for a good deal of nit-picking, but the basic story goes like this: a group of 24 students were randomly assigned the roles of guard and prisoner, and put in a simulated prison in a university basement.

The guards had uniforms and mirror sunglasses. The prisoners had humiliating clothing and very basic cells. The experimenter, who played the role of the Warden, admitted afterwards that he may have overdone it a bit. The experiment was supposed to go on for two weeks, but after six days the levels of psychological abuse of prisoners by guards were so high that the whole thing was called off.

The lesson is that people respond to expectations, to circumstances and to uniforms. Particularly, it seems, if the uniform confers anonymity. Your local student protester, if a few years older, might have found himself in a police uniform. It is a popular choice for graduates, especially women who want a career that doesn’t involve desks: many of my students signed up.

The police person, if the disturbances had come a few years earlier or his birth a few years later, might have been out on the streets throwing things. We are all, as Henry Fielding put it, no better than God made us and many are a great deal worse.

october 8 Alex Chow Tsz-lok (44)

File photo: May James/HKFP.

The important thing is that our current troubles are not like a war, where the two sides can eventually call it a day, go to their respective homes and have very little to do with each other until passions have cooled a bit.

We are all Hongkongers and we will have to live together when this is over. We need to recognise that the majority of people on both sides sincerely believe that they are pursuing a good objective in the right way.

Our police people believe that order is the foundation of society and their work is vital to maintaining it. Our protesters believe that this campaign is the last chance for Hong Kong to avoid becoming Xinjiang with a seafront.

Whether you disagree with the premises or the conclusions of either side, you must still accept that a well-intentioned citizen may take a different view from yours. There is no need for insults. Lawyers, at least, should know better.

No name-calling please: the Hong Kong protests and the Stanford prison experiment