Monday, June 30, 2014

Setting the Terms of Rationality

In the wars for hearts and minds, governments often set the parameters of legitimacy by effectively masking the arbitrariness of their arguments. The Ma Ying-jeou government has turned this into an art 

The term has been used with such abandon in recent years that it has virtually lost all meaning. Whether it’s the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), their opponents are all too often described as “irrational.” Tibetans who refuse cultural subjugation, Chinese human rights activists, residents of Hong Kong who are running out of patience on universal suffrage, Taiwanese who refuse to be forced out of their homes or Sunflower activists who take action to defend their democracy — all have been relegated to a category of people who, according to the authorities, belong in a mental asylum. 

The terms “irrational” and its healthier counterpart “rational” are, to put it simply, rather subjective. It is easy to see that in any hierarchical system, accusations of irrationality by those in power are a tempting and effective means to discredit their opponents. But who sets the parameters, and under what circumstances, are key to understanding what the term means, or whether it means anything at all. Whenever the stigma of “irrationality” is affixed onto an individual or group of people, especially when done repeatedly by a government, one should think of what French anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu described as the mechanism of “recognition of legitimacy through the misrecognition of arbitrariness.” In other words, subject A frames the argument, sets the norm, and everything that departs from that norm is therefore illegitimate or, to put it in KMT/CCP terms, “irrational.” We all do this, often unconsciously. Evidently, this kind of linguistic hegemony can be highly problematic when it is wielded by autocratic regimes. 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by the author)

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