An undignified public feud between two top officials is a poor reflection on our top seat of learning, but sadly typical of our divided society
The internet and politics bring out the worst in people. Consider the latest public spat at the University of Hong Kong between council chairman Arthur Li Kwok-cheung and William Cheung Sing-wai, head of the Academic Staff Association.
A fine example these two academic leaders have offered their students in manners and etiquette! Or is it that they are taking after their own rebellious and insolent pupils? Either way, it does not reflect well on Hong Kong’s oldest and most prestigious institution of higher learning.
In an open email exchange, Cheung accused Li of being “a liar” for failing to deliver a review of governance standards at the university, and said he should quit as a favour to everyone. Despite Cheung’s rudeness, Li might have taken the initiative to clarify whether or not he planned to deliver the review. Instead, he fired back a sarcastic reply in which he implied Cheung had “no intelligence or rationality”.
“After all, stupidity has no cure,” he wrote.
Cheung wrote back, suggesting Li himself suffered from the incurable condition and would make sure everyone knew about it.
Not long ago, such expressions of contempt among scholarly gentlemen would have been communicated behind closed doors. What is disturbing is the casual manner in which two academic leaders openly exchanged mutual disdain for all their staff and students to see. That’s something you usually associate with trolls in internet forums. But then, that is characteristic of political discourse in Hong Kong these days, and radical HKU students have been at the forefront of localist politics.
It’s now perfectly okay to express raw feelings and hate, unmediated by rational considerations, in the legislature, in public forums and on television.
That is perhaps to be expected given the bitterly divided state of our society. Our political conflicts have become so nasty and intractable that any once-held standards of social behaviour and tolerable opinion have been thrown out of the window. Civility is only possible when we all implicitly acknowledge social and political norms.
Nowadays, those very norms are being contested.
Still we expect our political and academic leaders to behave themselves – or at least show more wit when they insult each other.