Justice vs. Emotion: Why are we so quick to judge Amos Yee?

I’ll be the first person to admit that I’m not a fan of Amos Yee. Even before the whole LKY shitstorm. I watched his Singlish video a long time ago and something about the strange American accent put me off. But I was ambivalent. Okay, this boy is trying to make some interesting videos and well, if he wants to do it in a strange accent, by all means.

Then the LKY shitstorm happened, which I think everyone knows by now, so I’m not going to explain it. Basically: LKY passed away, Amos made a video celebrating it and also added in a BTW side-bash at Christianity.  Next thing you know, 20 people have filed a police report and then he goes to court, blahblahblah, Sedition Act, obscene photoshop, you know the drill.

(on a side note, if anything shows the immaturity of Amos it has to be his photoshop of LKY and Margaret Thatcher, because no one else in the world except a sixteen year old boy would find a picture of two old politicians having sex funny. Despite what Nathan Heller may think.)

Today’s post focuses more on the reaction to Amos’ video.  Many people have spoken up for either side, and my facebook is like some epic war (a true sign that it’s the end of semester guys, pent up stress and study break do not mix well).  I’m not going to be a martyr here, I will admit that when I heard Amos had been charged, a little bit of (okay no most of) my brain went yes! Did a mental fistpump, justice has been served, let that little idiot get what he deserves and let jail knock some sense into that overly large hairdo. But being a political science student with a focus on political theory, of course this requires greater scrutiny.  Is it truly just to jail a sixteen year old boy for his idiocy and frankly random musings on the Internet? Honestly, who thinks Amos is actually a threat to the state or society? Is “LKY is Finally Dead!” going to bring down civilisation as we know it? Send us rampaging through the streets, looting and pillaging and raping the innocent and weak?

ER, no. At least I hope not. If it is, please tell me when the mob reaches my home so I can get my disaster kit out. IT IS TO BE A STATE OF NATURE, MAN’S LIFE IS SOLITARY, POOR, NASTY, BRUTISH AND SHORT. 

(I’ll be honest, it feels like that on the Internet sometimes.)

^^^ it’s exam week, forgive me.

What is the purpose of the law? To a certain extent, I’d like to think that the law exists to enable justice.  To make sure we don’t have a state of nature, man’s life solitary poor etc. Many have pointed out that charging Amos Yee is far from just; it is a violation of free speech (as Nathan Heller continually emphasises), he’s not even sixteen yet for god’s sakes, he’s not being tried as a juvenile but as an adult, etc. etc. Amos is not the first sixteen-year-old (or indeed, the first person) to say something stupid.  Or even say something stupid on the Internet.  Amos is being charged under the Sedition Act for making insulting comments about Christianity, but let’s be honest, most of the ire he’s gotten is not for insulting Jesus, it’s been for insulting Lee Kuan Yew. I quote Chia Boon Teck, the only guy who filed a police report who’s been interviewed by the media so far:

“I have heard many disrespectful jokes and opinions regarding Mr Lee Kuan Yew over the past few weeks.

With his death, let all Singaporeans stop tolerating such disrespectful comments made against Mr Lee and take the individuals who make them to task, by raising the issue with the relevant authorities or the individuals’ respective professional or governing bodies.”

That doesn’t sound like a Christian-motivated or a religious-harmony-motivated charge to me.  Perhaps I don’t have a strong case for this, but I think that charging Amos for his video is an unjust application of the law.  The Sedition Act exists to deter people from inciting racial/religious tensions and rioting in the streets, which as our Social Studies textbooks all remind us, happened in the ~50s (see Prophet Muhammad and Maria Hertogh riots). Taking Mr Chia as the spokesperson for the 20 people who filed the initial charges against Amos, I would say that we’re only charging him under an excuse because we don’t have a law that says you can’t talk trash about our founding fathers. It’s either that, or like Amos, we’ve also likened LKY to Jesus Christ, just that we think Christ is a deity, not a pretentious holier-than-thou scammer.

So why do I do a fistpump and think “serves him right” when he is arrested? There was already a significant amount of emotional backlash in the wake of LKY’s death.  Other writers like Alfian Sa’at were criticised when, instead of posting tributes to LKY, pointed out the dangers of deifying the man, and suggested that he had made some mistakes in his political career.  These people were pounced upon and torn apart in the blogosphere.  Amos’s video was perhaps the most infuriating of all, because he sought to incite, by purposefully antagonising LKY.  Amos pissed me off. The way he spoke, the multiple (needless) expletives, the irreverence, even his hair. (He needs a haircut. So badly.)  I recognise my negative attitude towards Amos is purely ad hominem. But if he had been talking about ponies I would not have been likely to think arresting him was the right thing to do. So perhaps talking shit about someone I respect annoys me. Of course it does.  Heck, not just a person; have you seen those fandom wars on tumblr? Talking shit about anything a person loves/respects/has an emotional connection to, and that person will be angry and upset. To top it off, a person who is a nationally-respected political figure and associated with the state, and we can see why insulting LKY elicits a demand for state action, as compared to say, insulting Justin Bieber.  (Perhaps this is our defamation suit in lieu, since the man himself cannot sue for defamation. Even if that is the case, it still remains an abuse of the law.) Nevertheless, I feel satisfied when Amos is arrested, because I felt he deserved a lesson. He needed to be punished for annoying me. For hurting my ~feelings~. For making me angry. And I can’t do anything because I can’t reach through the Internet and smack him. So yay for the state and the courts of law who will do that for me!

It’s pretty clear that the backlash against Amos is driven more by emotion than any true consideration for justice. Not to say that justice and emotion form a binary; emotion does inform justice and vice versa, but I’d like to think that justice is able to stand apart from emotion where it is necessary to.  And in the case of Amos it is so very necessary. Our emotions can lead to irrationality and especially to excessive reactions; how many of us have sent a raging passo-aggro rant email and regretted it instantly? Emotions are not exactly the best measure for justice.

This post is long, so to sum it up:

Arresting Amos and charging him with the Sedition Act is not just.  It is an abuse of the law in order to satisfy our anger and upset over his irreverent remarks.  Yes, perhaps he needs a slap or someone to talk to him to make him realise that pissing off people is making a hard life for yourself (See? The emotional vs. the politically correct side of me).  But to use the iron fist of the law to deliver that slap is excessive. To use that excessive violence, in the name of an aside insult towards Christianity, to serve our hurt emotions over his direct insult towards a well-respected political figure, is an abuse of state power.

Someone far more articulate than me posted on FB and said that Singaporeans react like this because we are unable to respond with logical, well-thought out responses. The fact that we act with our emotions, and indeed, condemn with our emotions and use the law to serve our emotions, perhaps suggests that this is true.

The law exists to serve justice.  Not our emotions.

-Nat

P.S. Fun fact: When Margaret Thatcher passed away, “Ding-Dong the Witch is Dead!” made it to No. 1 on the music charts that week. Go figure.

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