After the Perfect Present

12 October 2008

A Short Consideration of Blame

Blame is life’s convenient foil. It deflects criticism, delays logic and eliminates hindsight. With blame we can live splendidly in the perfect present, gazing out at the faultless future. Or when that future seems uncertain, at least we have the comfort of ‘knowing’ that someone else is at fault, that we took no part in the rout. Consider the role of blame in the current financial crisis. Instead of observing and learning about the economics of our own lives we blame the bankers. Rather than ever having asked ‘what can this financial instrument do for me?’ so many of us bought or borrowed and now rail against the way things are. And it’s ever this thoughtless way – consider personal culpability in the environmental crisis. Or, to take a different tack, consider the speed with which homosexuals were reviled at the outset of the AIDS epidemic.

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On Race and Rationality

21 August 2008

A New Take on Race from Hong Kong

Look past the bias of the times, the certainties of this epoch or that, and race becomes a messy, various concept. At any given moment – and quite aside from the scientific definition of a single human race – it can define people of different types in any number of categories, depending on perspective. There was for many years, and perhaps still is, the perception of a British race, born of the concept that empire and a core of supra-national boundaries in the so-called British Isles could fuse biology and location to produce an identifiable people with certain physical and psychological characteristics. More often today, British people are subsumed under the generic appellation of Caucasian, and at a stretch – most often in the United States – as White. Regardless of how ludicrously broad these categories might or might not seem from your perspective, they are constructed according to a reason. Each has a nub of logic at its centre, from a certain point of view.

To claim that context is crucial in defining race might well seem equivocal, but it’s an observation rather than a moral judgement. It also helps to reveal the reasoning behind otherwise inexplicable definitions and their derivatives. Consider, for instance, this passage from Section 8(4) of Hong Kong’s soon to be enacted Racial Discrimination Ordinance:

The fact that a racial group comprises 2 or more distinct racial groups does not prevent it from constituting a particular racial group for the purposes of this Ordinance.

First, let’s consider what might make immediate sense here, given the context. Any legislation seeking to address racial discrimination, if not ban it outright, must first determine what ‘race’ really means before identifying how it can be used to disadvantage anyone. So the second half of this sentence, on constituting a ‘particular racial group’, is just a way of ensuring that the Ordinance does what it’s supposed to do.

But what about the seemingly nonsensical first part of the sentence? How on Earth, or even in Hong Kong, can one racial group comprise either multiple or distinct racial groups, let alone the two together? Surely that’s just gibberish. If, as the legal norm in common-law countries insists, the words of the Ordinance should be applied in their “natural and ordinary sense”, then good luck to any magistrate doomed to apply it. Right? Well, no – it just so happens that the words do make sense, in their own peculiar way.

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Meanwhile, Back in Hong Kong . . .

12 August 2008

‘Care’ in a Callous City

One of the fundamental comforts any modern society can offer is the knowledge that emergency medical care will be available when you need it. Although few would ever have cause to consider it in precisely this way, the emergency room is a metaphor for effective governance, a symbol of the social contract at work. Those countries that lack emergency care, and those in which only begging or bribery will obtain it, are clearly deficient in their duty of care towards residents. As are those that discriminate against certain people when they arrive at a hospital, in need and in pain.

“RosesmdCW” is one of those people, a Filipino working as a domestic helper in Hong Kong. Last week she left a comment on the other blog I maintain, A Death in Hong Kong, describing the treatment that she and her sister have experienced in a local emergency room. It pays to remember that Hong Kong is not part of the Third World, has every obligation to offer proper emergency care to all people within its borders, and has an otherwise efficient (if sometimes overwhelmed) hospital system.

I’ll quote her comment here at length, slightly edited to ensure clarity and broken into paragraphs to highlight the main points:

I have been here in Hong Kong for almost 14 years now, and it makes me sad to say that most of us believe that the “LAW” here in Hong Kong is much better than in the Philippines, but yes I do agree that the discrimination here is much worse than I had ever imagined. If you are only a mere servant, even in cases of emergency, people here will just ignore you.

I have experienced going to the emergency section of the government hospital several times with a severe stiff neck pain, and still the staff haven’t attended to me immediately (you have to wait 2 to 3 hours before being attended).

I took my sister to one of the hospitals yesterday as she was bleeding, but she was still sent home and advised by the doctor to wait for an appointment on November 21, 2008. My question here is: What does “emergency” mean? Does emergency mean that you should be drawing your last breath to be considered?

I really can’t understand the hospital rules here … I saw people waiting at the emergency section with just slight problems. To make matters worse for my sister, she was immediately terminated by her employers when they knew she was going to attend Emergency! They had objected to her going to see the doctor and made her continue work even though she was in pain and bleeding.

I wish the government would really act on this, and not wait until the reputation of Hong Kong deteriorates further.

Beyond how the two women were treated at the hospital lies a truly disturbing reaction from the sister’s employer. I’ve communicated with “RosesmdCW” before and have no doubt that what she has written is an accurate description of events. If there is a social contract in Hong Kong, if social decency is at all valued, then neither consideration extends to domestic helpers.

It’s A Numbers Game

18 July 2008

Will the Hong Kong Racial Discrimination Bill Make a Difference?

Sometimes monumental decisions slip past the public gaze, attracting comment for a while then fading into obscurity. The excuse could well be that we didn’t understand, that events blinded us to reason. But sometimes it’s just because people don’t really care. Hong Kong’s Legislative Council passed its ineptly named Racial Discrimination Bill last Thursday, yet the reaction has been muted. Anti-discrimination groups have been critical of the lacklustre attempt at abiding by global standards of decency, but they’re easily ignored. The focus has been on a simple numbers game, and minorities are always set up to lose.

Freedom from racism is a human right long ignored in Hong Kong. Almost 40 years after Britain signed the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, compelling Hong Kong to enact appropriate legislation, the postcolonial result is a mixture of whimsy and whitewash. Crucially, the government has reserved its right to be racist in anything but employment matters. Look under the lid of that particular situation and you’ll see a desire for racial discrimination in immigration policy leap out at you.

Much is said about multicultural Hong Kong, this cosmopolitan ‘World City’, but the government constantly trundles out two time-worn figures – 95% of the populace is Chinese, and only 5% is ‘foreign’, which is a word spoken with gritted teeth hereabouts. The distinction is important because non-Chinese, even long-time ‘foreign’ residents, can never become fully legal citizens.

In other words, civil rights are circumvented in the denial of a human right.

But the infatuation with numbers runs even deeper than that. Non-Chinese are always lumped together as undifferentiated minorities – occasionally under the illusion that they form a coherent “ethnic minority community” – to show that even at their mightiest they can have but little influence. The media commentary that followed the passing of the law last week didn’t focus on how racism deprives people of liberty, and it skipped over the fact that racial discrimination is just plain wrong. Instead it waffled on about a provision in the bill whereby so few non-Chinese speakers could ask for such expensive translations in their own language, in particular situations.

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Human Rights for Tomorrow

30 April 2008

The Persistence of Discrimination

March against discriminations . . . by youkeo, with Creative Commons licenceDiscrimination isn’t always obvious, and it’s often explained away as something else. Racial discrimination becomes a matter of ‘unsuitability’, social discrimination becomes a lack of proper ‘skills’, discrimination against people with disabilities becomes an attempt to redefine what’s ‘normal’. There are even situations in which the very possibility of discrimination is rejected because ‘that sort of thing doesn’t happen here’. That’s hardly a logical position, but there’s no real defence against it.

What can you say to someone whose mindset fails to accept the presence of discrimination at all? To give an example mentioned here previously, how do we react to the Hong Kong government’s refusal to even address, in law, acts of racial discrimination outside the workplace? Long-standing claims by the Chief Executive that his government’s policies are “people-based” clearly depend on what sort of person you are – your skin colour, your wealth, whether or not you’re prepared to be critical.

But Hong Kong is just a dot on the map when it comes to the many forms of discrimination, both covert and overt, that deny human rights around the globe. A world that has nourished discrimination based on race, class, sex, perceived ability and any other deviation from a shifting sense of ‘normality’ will always throw up barriers to change, to the natural right to be treated as a fellow human, without fear or favour. Still, even as the struggle for human rights continues there is one area in which discrimination could well be stamped on before it properly takes hold – genetics.

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