Susan Stebbing tells us, in her Logic in Practice:
What passes for knowledge in ordinary life is most often nothing but beliefs which we hold more or less tenaciously without any clear awareness as to what precisely we are claiming to know.
Where a subject is complicated, our thinking is likely to be confused; where our ordinary and passionate interests are concerned, we are likely to accept without much scrutiny any argument defending a position we want to hold.
These quotations came to mind this weekend, when I read this truly astounding exchange in the Weekend Australian Financial Review (p.52) between reporter Jonathan Barrett and his lunch guest, Western Australian Senator Dio Wang:
I ask the Senator whether he considered critiquing China’s actions in his speech, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989, when the military used live ammunition to clear a protest, resulting in several hundred casualties.
“Based on the information I have, I think the government did the right thing,” he says. “Obviously, when criminals and students get mixed up, you can’t really identify each one of them. So when there was force to be deployed, you may get innocent casualties.”
“Sorry,” I say. “Are you saying at Tiananmen Square, the government did the right thing?”
“I think they did the right thing,” Wang says. “Otherwise the country would have descended into hell.”
In accordance with Stebbing’s insight in the first quotation, the man has very little idea of what he is talking about. He is merely rehashing the ChiCom propaganda that he learnt at school, that:
- the protests that began in Tiananmen Square, and then soon spread through the rest of Beijing and to other parts of a country charged by popular discontent at the ravages of high inflation, were (mostly) the work of criminals;
- the stability of the nation, and therefore the welfare of China’s immense population, were imperilled by the protests; and
- the government’s response was therefore proportionate.
Two things concern me, above all, about Senator Wang’s beliefs:
- Since coming here from China 12 or so years ago, and living in a democratic country where information about the events of June 4, 1989 is widely available and the event is sometimes discussed in the media, Wang has made no attempt to learn more about the event, nor to revise his beliefs in the light of this information. He has zero intellectual curiosity about it, and is happy simply to keep believing the self-serving ChiCom propaganda.
- A Senator in the Australian parliament has no understanding of the rule of law and the sovereignty of the people, and believes that an army’s firing machine guns, and driving tanks, at its own population, on the government’s orders, can be the ‘right thing’ to do in particular circumstances.
Both things are deeply alarming. The second is utterly revolting.
It takes courage to face uncomfortable facts and inconvenient truths. Wang clearly lacks such courage. Indeed, the facts of the Beijing massacre are inconvenient for Wang. As Wang later tells us:
“I am fairly supportive of China simply because, despite the critics, I think it’s moving in the right direction,” Wang says. “It’s probably moving in the direction I was talking about – socialism and capitalism one day connecting.”
‘False dichotomy’ much? Why is it not possible to be both supportive of the direction in which China is moving now, and also critical and condemnatory of events that took place 25 years ago? The insight in the second quotation from Stebbing is revealed in this example: believing that the Beijing massacre was the ‘right thing’ to do is in accord with the broader view that China is ‘moving in the right direction’, and therefore Wang accepts it uncritically, in the interests of consistency, and really doesn’t want to think about it any more deeply than that.
Surely this is an unacceptable statement for a Senator in the Australian parliament to make? Let’s see what the reaction is.
The Fin Review published reactions to Senator Wang’s comments on page 7 of its next edition, on Tuesday June 9. Senator Wang was condemned by:
Labor leader Bill Shorten
It is 26 years since thousands of young people demonstrating in favour of great freedom were silenced. Many people lost their lives. It was a tragedy.
Human Rights Law Centre executive director Hugh de Kretser (who was also quoted as expressing the opinion that ‘it was profoundly concerning that an Australian senator would hold such views’, which is my view also):
The Tiananmen Square massacre involved a brutal military crackdown on hundreds of thousands of protestors demanding democracy and human rights. Hundreds of unarmed civilians were killed.d The brutal repression was a gross violation of human rights. Justifying that repression is offensive and diametrically opposed to Australian democratic values.
Human Rights Watch’s Australia director Elaine Pearson:
In the years since the Tiananmen massacre, the Chinese government’s policy – maintaining tight political control while allowing rapid economic growth – has brought on numerous problems, including rampant corruption, a wide gap between the rich and poor and widespread land seizures and house evictions.
Foreign Affairs spokesman for the Greens party, Senator Scott Ludlum:
The deeply tragic events in Tiananmen Square represent an opportunity to remember and acknowledge the democratic ambitions of ordinary Chinese people and the students who lost their lives in the demonstrations.
As much as Chinese authorities have done to try and erase memories and circumstances of the massacre, it is incumbent on the international community to neither forget nor trivialise the events of June 1989.
Chinese pro-democracy campaigners seeking freedoms we take for granted in Australia deserve our recognition and respect.
Lastly, as is utterly predictable, someone pressed the ‘RACISM!!’ button. Happily, as we’ll see, they also provided grist for the Stebbing-Heuer mill. Letter to the AFR from Kin-Mun Kan, Thursday June 11:
Was Dio Wang condemned because of his remarks or his background? (“Dio Wang condemned for Tiananmen comments”, AFR, June 9).
Many Chinese are enjoying the wealth generated as a result of the progress made in the less turbulent China following the Tiananmen incident. They have access to the facts of the event if they care to find out.
Wang can be considered one of those and he has made his remarks in the light of the facts available to him. His background does not disqualify him commenting. A dismissive criticism is just as unfair as the suppression of the facts by the Chinese government.
Gawd. Where to start??
It’s unfair to dismiss someone’s comments because he’s Chinese? Racism much?
People in China have access to the facts of the event, if they care to find out, at the same time as the Chinese government is suppressing those facts? Contradiction much?
Assuming that Wang is being criticised because of who he is, when nobody quoted above even so much as hinted at his background or race? FAC much? ‘Seeing what you expect to see’ much?
Without the massacre, China would never have experienced strong economic growth? Fallacy of Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc much?
The only choice open to the Chinese leaders in June 1989 was either shoot civilians or have the country slide into chaos? Fallacy of the False Dichotomy much?
So much material, in just one short letter.
One thing’s for sure: human nature being what it is, the Stebbing Heuer Project will never lack for material.