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  On the Manner of Public Discussion
By Yue Tan David Tang

It is firmly believed that the freedom of speech is a basic, inalienable right of every member of a democratic society, and, therefore, public discussion of any sort should not be deterred on any ground, but defended, if not encouraged, by all means. Mr. Voltaire once declared that although he could entertain not the slightest sympathy with his opponent's point of view, he would defend to death his right to speak. This, however, represents no justification for defamatory speech, nor for personal attacks. A genuine recognition of the boundary of the freedom of speech, in this regard, fosters, upon Mr. Voltaire's insight, a rational respect for the audience, the discussants, as well as the public discussion per se. Stands vary, so do styles and approaches. But the attitude should always be one of serious engagement.

To guarantee an open and sincere discussion, these two requirements are sufficient, as far as the common people are concerned. Yet, for an educated person, who, by that very name, has enjoyed even just a minimal benefit of schooling, it is never too harsh, nor unreasonable, to add a third, namely, that the manner of speech be polite, if not elegant. Heated debates should not be the mother of foul language, nor ultra-colloquial expressions. If an educated person had to use this kind of verbal vulgarity to beat his opponent, or voice his own idea, he must be proclaiming either the utter failure of his school and his teachers, or a miserable defect in his soul which has so far prevented him from receiving, by turn of head, the light beyond his cave. Verbal vulgarity is as base a manner of speech as personal attack; even if there indwells in your heart a boiling hatred toward your discussant, an expression better than the vulgar can always be found to vent the steam.

Recently, it has come to my attention, that some fellow students at WYK have been very eager to make known their momentary thoughts at the expense of a more careful choice of expressions. That neither Chinese nor English of an elegant sort should fail to be an effective means of communication in a public discussion, I firmly believe. Mannerism might be the skin of a narcissistic ivory tower dweller; a total contempt of manner is definitely the embryo of an educated person's self-vulgarization.

Yue Tan David Tang
May 4, 2001


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