Right to speak comes with responsibility to listen

Wednesday's article, "The shame culture", is both incisive and insightful. It speaks not just of American culture but, increasingly, of our local context too.

Writer David Brooks explained that in a guilt culture, you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels, but in a shame culture, you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you.

He concluded by saying that the guilt culture could be harsh, but at least you could hate the sin and still love the sinner.

However, the modern shame culture allegedly values inclusion and tolerance, but it can be unmerciful to those who disagree and to those who don't fit in.

I have observed the modern shame culture here, be it in public discourse or informal social media exchange.

For instance, when an individual or organisation voices a perspective that another segment of society disagrees with, the response is often to name-call and engage in ad hominem attacks, without listening to the actual concerns. Terms such as "bigoted", "intolerant" or "hateful" are too easily thrown around to discreditothers.

This is shame culture at work - excluding the voices of people whom one disagrees with and making them out to be bad people.

Ironically, this shows intolerance of differing perspectives and excludes productive conversation in the name of "tolerance" and "inclusion".

In a truly liberal society and secular state, everyone has the right to make their views known.

But with such a right also comes the responsibility to treat everyone civilly, listen carefully and then respond thoughtfully to different views. This means valuing "opponents" as people who have dignity and worth, and are deserving of respect.

If we can civilly engage with one another and not make judgments on one another's character, we would be able to disagree without being disagreeable, and we can put forth well-considered arguments without being argumentative.

Let us together build a culture of honour and respect that values true inclusion and tolerance.

Zhang Jieqiang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 18, 2016, with the headline 'Right to speak comes with responsibility to listen'. Print Edition | Subscribe