The Singapore blogosphere, discussion boards and news media has been abuzz with all genres of discussions regarding the recent parliamentary review of Section 377A. From homosexual lifestyles to the destruction of family values, two web sites emerged which became a pivotal point in determining public sentiment towards this ancient penal code, namely Repeal377a.com and more interestingly, Keep377a.com.
A little explanation is in order: Section 377A (“Outrages on decency”) states that “any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years.” Forgive my kindergarden speak here, but this obviously applies to male on male (as in homosexuals), as well as female on female (as in lesbians).
Now my interest in Keep377a.com lies in it opposing my traditional accounts of how an emerging blogosphere behaves, where the tendency would be reactionary and anti-establishment. Not surprisingly, this makes Repeal377a.com a natural Internet meme. After all, what better cognitive motivation to partake in civil discussion than to challenge any direct opposition to one’s freedom? While Keep377a.com does in its own way maintain the peace and freedom of those who have enjoyed it (the conservative segment of heterosexuals did end up with more signatures), its existence is a larger reflection of a populace willing to engage in true intellectual democracy.
On democracy, while blogs could facilitate collective intelligence, there are two foreseeable problems about it:
First, we can’t simply expect an intellectual web to emerge… as much as theorists like Pierre Lévy (1994) optimistically envisioned it, it isn’t on everyone’s immediate agenda (though it could emerge as an unconscious byproduct). Much like the web’s landscape (see Shirky’s Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality), Second Life stands as a testament of how an entirely man-made world (virtual) swings both ways, with some beauty (e.g. numerous digital art galleries) but more sloth (e.g. numerous deserted waste lands).
Second, the wisdom of the crowd doesn’t subscribe to any notion of ethics. In other words, intelligence is amoral. In the case of choosing which 377A petition to sign, there is an instituted polarization of opinions, where we are forced into a binary decision. This simple binary makes answering easy to a larger, more complex question. All the more so when you have thousands partaking in the same ideology with you. Once we are lost to the binary, it would be tempting to feel that opposing ideas should fall down under the wraith of righteous indignation.
Back to the idea of intellectual democracy, just because there are facilities on both ends to lay one’s claim, would this be decent enough evidence of heightened intellectualism among our networked Singaporean populace? Not exactly.
I made the mistake of not capturing the remarks left by signatories on both petition web sites. It’s gone from their sites, and probably for good reason. From there you would be able to tell how these votes may have been more of a fashionable exercise, rather than one born of heartfelt idealism. Popagandhi, a homosexual blogger herself, has provided the much needed insight into many of these misappropriated remarks left by many signatories. She lists down all the untruths seen on these sites, from homosexuals being HIV carriers, to the inclusiveness of animal sex, to the contradiction to Asian values. Indeed, those in her position are constantly (and tiresomely) misunderstood. In truth, I know little about what homosexuals do, apart from watching clips from Queer Eye for a Straight Guys and Queer as Folk, but I am able to discern from wheat from chaff by asking friends and looking up credible sources.
Seriously, it is indeed rare that we find discussions reaching this level of sophistication, where a balanced point of view is taken and carefully debated. That is an ideal, but it’s also beyond the means of the general populace. As I’ve mentioned in my earlier writing, perhaps this is the nature of the multitude, where points may be downright wrong, but the open democratic discussions themselves are essential to the well-being of citizens.
We’ve already witnessed a pattern of participation, from the number of people who vote, to those who leave the remarks, to those who blogged about 377A. Alongside with that come a growing sophistication, where the more experienced netizen would know to perform their own background investigation, from archiving potentially important web pages (think sharedcopy), to looking up online credibility by content and traffic analysis (e.g. technorati, alexa), to googling up mentioned references (see ODEX case). It is more important to note though, that the greatest value comes from the unique perspective each of us shares to these online discussions, which could be invaluable regardless of our age or profession. The more points of views shared, the higher chances of realizing something we might not have considered before. We are indeed learning from one another, and subtly patterns of use we deem productive in aiding future discourse.
On a lighter note, isn’t it surprisingly wonderful how both repeal377a and keep377a could even exist without being shut down by the Singaporean authorities? After all, the remarks left behind might have been traditionally subjected to legal action.