Freedom of Expression Online

In my previous posts, I talked about how the internet provides an outlet for people to freely express their opinions, viewpoints and observations online, and how this might result in unethical behaviour for some of these internet users, due largely to them being empowered by the internet to do or say stuff that they probably would not do or say in the real world. Extreme words, ideas and actions are not exactly uncommon online, largely due to the veil of anonymity afforded by the internet and the freedom of expression it provides, and as we have seen with the case of Ms Amy Cheong, once that veil of anonymity is removed, one might have to face severe repercussions and violent backlash with regard to their opinions.

However, are all unconventional opinions and actions wrong, or unethical? People are usually quick to generalise extreme opinions as being flat out unacceptable, and this is even more so in conservative societies with a low tolerance for extremity like Singapore. However, most people do not consider the fact that some of these ideas or actions may not be damaging per se. In this case, with no harm being done by these actions, how can it be deemed as being totally wrong? It is one thing to hurl insults at another race à la Amy Cheong, but it is another to have a harmless opinion, a different way of thinking, or a different set of values and beliefs that are not particularly harmful to anyone in any way.

Unconventional = Wrong?

Among the hottest topics that have been talked about in recent weeks is the saga regarding former ASEAN scholar Alvin Tan Jye Yee, who is currently studying law at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and his Malaysian girlfriend Vivian Lee. They made the news for all the wrong reasons when they set up a public blog titled “Sumptuous Erotica” on blog hosting platform Tumblr, in which they posted online videos and pictures of themselves naked and having sex, even in public places.[1]

Alvin Tan/Vivian Lee

This has led to widespread criticism and calls for him to return his scholarship money and give up his place in NUS. To his credit, he did apologize to NUS for bringing disrepute to the university during a disciplinary hearing,[2] but not before he made several disparaging comments with regard to living in Singapore and the public backlash he received.[3] In the end, he was stripped of his scholarship as a result of his actions, but remains with NUS after being spared from expulsion, with him being let off with a stern warning.[4]

This is not the first time that people have decided to chronicle their sexual adventures online. For example, Chen Guilin, dubbed “Singapore’s Edison Chen” and better known by his online moniker “Gary Ng”, gained online notoriety for filming his sexual exploits with various women and posting them online on various pornographic websites and his blogs since 2008.[5]

At first glance, this might seem like yet another controversial action that everyone would love to criticize and cast judgement upon. Much like Ms Amy Cheong, their identity has been exposed due to the lack of the veil of anonymity normally afforded by the internet, leading to dire consequences for the young couple, with people having actual targets to point fingers at. Unlike Ms Cheong however, their actions are absolutely deliberate, while that of Ms Cheong might have been accidental, due to her being stressed out.

Are their actions harmful though? – An Utilitarian Analysis

Most importantly, however, there is no outright malice in their actions as compared to that of Amy Cheong’s. They were being open about their sexuality, and they neither said nor did anything that targeted or involved any other party directly. Of course, one can argue that the content of their blog might be unsuitable for children, and people might say that it is distasteful in nature. However, the matter of fact remains that we all have a choice whether or not to view this content; nothing is being forced upon us.

In addition, there are tonnes of material out there in the internet that are way more sexually explicit, and presumably way more “distasteful” in the eyes of these people, that are just as easily accessible. Just looking at the act of setting up a sex blog alone, I feel that there is no real harm done to people who can easily choose not to view it in the first place, while benefiting the couple as an outlet for their freedom of expression.

What if everyone adopted this mentality of being open about their sexuality online? What if everyone started doing this? Contrary to what most people might imagine – a virtual realm full of “distastefulness”, this perceived scenario might not even happen at all! On the contrary, being sexually open will be the new norm, and with like-minded people all over the internet, no one will ever take offence to such material being put up. In fact, people all around might even revel in and be supportive of such a culture, and with no direct harm being done to others by these actions, an analysis of the morality of such an action using rule utilitarianism reveals that it actually isn’t wrong at all.

Kantiantism

Using a similar logic, if we establish a maxim entailing that everyone is free to express their sexuality freely online, there wouldn’t be a logical contradiction if this were to be universalized. There would be no dissention as such an exhibitionistic culture would be something that is shared by all; everyone would think the same way and no one would have any qualms with others showing off their sexual exploits. As such, there is no logical conflict associated with such an act being universalized. Kantian analysis establishes the act of being sexually open online as something that is moral as well.

Human Rights

It is also worth mentioning that as human beings, they have a right to freedom of expression as well, and they are merely exercising their right to do so by setting up a platform to openly display their sexuality. No one can deny them the right to freedom of expression, especially if the act in itself did not cause harm to anyone directly.

Taking a Closer Look

It is worth noting, however, that while ethical analyses of their actions per se reveal that what they did was not wrong, that is only true if we discount the fact that he is a scholar who has an obligation to his scholarship provider and university to maintain a good image. By engaging in such controversial activities, he fails to do so and in the process he actually causes damage to the reputation of his scholarship provider and his university NUS, which will in turn affect the prestige of the scholarship itself. Harm is inflicted upon others and in this case it might be greater than the satisfaction that the couple enjoys from their actions. While the act in itself is not wrong, one cannot ignore the context of the act itself and the circumstances under which such an act occurs.

In this case, due to Mr Alvin Tan being a man of such stature and the standards expected of him, such actions will inevitably lead to damage being done to those associated with him. Because of this, these actions, in his case, would be wrong using an act utilitarian approach. For that matter, any person of importance who partakes in such controversial acts would inevitably lead to negative consequences to those associated with him; under these circumstances, such an act would be wrong if we look at it from a rule utilitarian point of view as well.

Conclusion

To round it all off, I feel that it is a fallacy that all extreme opinions, actions or ideas that are expressed online are harmful per se in a direct manner, especially when one can choose not to expose themselves to it. I feel like people should not be too quick to castigate proponents of ideas or actions that do not conform to society’s normal standards and exercise more discretion and objectivity when it comes to determining if these unconventional ideas or actions, or anything for that matter, are really harmful or unethical. Take a step back to consider the circumstances and context of the action and look at whether such an action actually affects anyone directly in a negative way. In addition, we should all acknowledge the fact that it is virtually impossible for anything controversial to be universally accepted.

After all, there is no way to please everyone, right?

-Chun Leong

References

  1. The New Paper, 16-Oct-2012
  2. http://www.asiaone.com/News/Latest%2BNews/Edvantage/Story/A1Story20121031-380720.html
  3. The New Paper, 19-Oct-2012
  4. http://www.asiaone.com/News/Latest%2BNews/Edvantage/Story/A1Story20121114-383228.html
  5. http://www.asiaone.com/Digital/News/Story/A1Story20090323-130573.html

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