Monday, July 19, 2010

Thoughts on Online Intellectual Exchanges... [updated]

[Warning: This is destined to be a long, rambling post, written in both English and Chinese. 無他嘅,因為有些諗法係同一些用中文的網友交流時啟發的。又,由於我的中文程度差,所以白話和書面語會撈埋一碟。敬請見諒。Thank you in advance for bearing with me.]

So anyway, this is something I've meant to write about for quite some time. In fact, I think I had some earlier drafts of this post lurking somewhere on my blogger dashboard.

What brings me to write this finally is a recent exchange I had with a fellow blogger (which I would get to later on in the post). Don't get me wrong, it was a pleasant exchange, and the blogger is extremely civilised. But the thoughts and feelings that the exchange prompted had been building up in me for quite some time. So, perhaps it's time I let it out.

Readers would, hopefully, therefore forgive the fact that this post may come across as a bit of a rant (per my usual blogging style), with nary a coherent structure underpinning my rambling thoughts (again, per my usual blogging style). As I mentioned previously on my blog, blogging is a way for me to let off steam, as well as to put down all these higgledy-piggledy thoughts I had in my head as I found them. To find order among such chaos depends entirely on the patience of an indulging reader. And if you happen to be one of these rare souls, I'm eternally grateful.

Okay. Here goes. My basic thesis (if it could be called as such) is that there are very notable differences in online exchange of ideas between those whose cultural backgrounds are based in the West versus those who are based in the East. But here I already run into immediate problems even just stating this simple proposition. Perhaps it's not really to do with one's cultural backgrounds as such, perhaps more a sort of cultural identity that one subscribes to, consciously or unconsciously, which may or may not have a direct relation with where one is brought up (as I suspect, a lot of it is to do with how one is brought up -- and on this score, I may be bringing shame to my Chinese family if I imply that perhaps I hadn't been quite brought up properly. 其實係我自己嘅問題,唔關家教事,一人做事一人當。). And "East" and "West" are such totalising categories anyway -- maybe I should restrict them to just "Hong Kong" and "Irish"?

Anyway, what I want to say is, 有好多我認為是『港式』交流方法我是非常不認同的,甚至覺得頂唔順的。這樣說我是會俾人打,甚至被雷劈。唉,係都無辦法,死就死啦。。。

1. 排輩論級
Over here (Ireland, Europe, the West, what have you), the intellectual ideal is that one would win or lose an argument simply on the strengths of the argument alone, or lack thereof. If there are merits to your arguments, supported by logic and/or evidence or hopefully both, it should not matter if you are an up-start, marginalised outsider; or a well-established, well-connected insider. In this view of intellectual endeavour, expert authority is meant to be the LAST resort, and would be frowned upon if it is the sole criterion determining the quality of an argument, especially when one rely upon it at the expense of searching for logical coherence or for supporting evidence. That's the reason why we have double-blinded peer reviews -- it should not matter WHO says it, but WHAT is said, and whether what is said made sense, theoretically if not empirically.

Yet a curious thing occurred to me when I see ideas being exchanged on some blogs within the Hong Kong/Chinese blogosphere (whether the bloggers are themselves based in HK or overseas). To me it seems that, to many HK/Chinese bloggers, expert authority comes FIRST in any sort of intellectual exchange. People would preface their arguments with (what I'd consider to be irrelevant) details like where they had studied or who they've worked with or been taught by, or how long they have been in a foreign country or working in the field or how often they had come across other experts in that field. Okay, so authority based on hard-won field experience is indeed important and persuasive, but only in the limited sense of supporting one's personal opinions. After all, personal experience is STILL anecdotal evidence where rigorous scientific investigations are concerned, unless the topic is indeed concerned with the lived experience at the personal level itself. Yet it seems quite a lot of bloggers think it appropriate to elevate such anecdotal evidence to the level of 金科玉律. Whilst there is nothing wrong with being interested in personal experiences, after all, we are all just shooting the breeze; what annoys me is those who would choose to privilege certain personal opinions above others, and certain personal opinions over objective empirical evidence, because of that person's seeming expert credentials.

So, when any sort of debates/discussions are being held, there is always a meta-exchange going on in addition to the points being debated, a jockeying of positions in establishing the degree of one's authority on a given subject among the various participants. Not only that, but this exercise in 論級排輩 is done so in a way that is full of false modesty from all involved. Lots of self-deprecating addresses like 小弟、小妹、鄙人、不才、晚輩, etc. are being used, even when one professes oneself as a 老人.

I'm not saying that one shouldn't be modest, not at all. There is a certain decorum to civilised academic exchanges that we could all do well to observe. But for God's sake, could we not lower ourselves in such an artificial manner especially when we are at the same time trying to set out our stalls in demonstrating our so-called expert credentials? If you must engage in credentialing, could you please just say that you're indeed knowledgeable about the subject, or that you are adopting an outsider's viewpoint, and proceed to share your thoughts. Don't pretend to be modest when you're clearly knowledgeable about the subject, and especially don't try to be modest when in the next breath you're busy establishing your credibility on the subject. It's hypocritical and even smacks of schizophrenia (especially if you describe yourself as 不才, but then when you proceed to share your analysis / viewpoints, it's clear you're quite pleased with yourself to have come up with those angles, which in turn suggests that you don't actually subscribe to the idea of yourself as 不才 at all, and so in that case, why pretend?)

False modesty reeks just as bad as self-aggrandizing bravado, it really does. At least to me. (So maybe it's really just my problem).

2. 設法摸你底
A corollary to 論級排輩 is of course trying to get as much information as one could on fellow debaters' backgrounds, because, again, establishing WHO others are is way more important than listening to WHAT they have to say in these types of Hongkong-style intellectual exchanges.

Now, again, please don't get me wrong, there are times when someone is genuinely interested in your academic backgrounds because of what you have already said. Unfortunately, it is far more often the case that one is trying to establish your background to better adjust how receptive he/she is going to be towards your ideas/arguments. As after all, they aren't just prepared to listen to anybody. And hey, if you happen to be considered a heavyweight by dint of the reputation of your school, Congratulations, everything you say would be taken as gospel. The most mundane of your observations would be whole-heartedly embraced by everyone as extremely enlightening.

On the other hand, if you're unfortunate enough to be slaving away at somewhere considered lightweight and 不入流, then I'm sorry, but you may as well just save your breath. Because, you know, you are not considered worthy to even have a debate with -- because some Hongkongers are quite clever in that they will never actively teach someone they don't consider worth their while: "嘿!入錢落你袋,咁我咪好蝕?" They don't believe in arguments for arguments' sake, and debates are not meant as vehicles for trashing out ideas. No no no, they are deathly afraid that they might accidentally "teach" someone if they deign to explain their ideas even just a tiny, tiny bit. And if they do have objections to the "silly" ideas propounded, they would show only their distaste, but not the rationales behind their objections. Because they are too high-minded to bother to explain what must be obvious to everyone.

So, it doesn't matter if they profess they love engaging in debates or discussions, because they would only do so with people they consider their intellectual equals. Somehow, it has never even occurred to these people that they too just might learn something themselves if they expose their ideas to others, even apparently ignorant outsiders and upstarts. You know, the story of the Emperor's new clothes and all that?

這會不會就是所謂的『門檻觀念』呢?那麼我們常引用孔夫子的教學理論:『有教無類, 因材施教』又怎樣呢?



It appears that some Hongkongers actually believe that there IS such a thing as a foolish question. Over here though, we are taught that there is NO such thing as a stupid question. Maybe that explains why Hong Kong students are (in)famous for being quiet in class and never participate in Q&A sessions in lectures?

I have thus been quite wary about giving out information relating to my academic backgrounds, in spite of the many times I have been accused of having studied certain subjects (one of the earliest examples, see here; and one of the more recent ones, see here) [Oops: I have to clarify these are merely instances when I have been asked about my academic background, not as examples of arrogant bloggers.] Because, you know, people don't consider that your thoughts and ideas are worth any discussion if you don't happen to have earnt an actual PhD in that precise topic. I thus always wonder, as one's PhD could only be on a very circumscribed topic, how Hongkong bloggers could ever manage to exchange any ideas at all on any given subject? Why would anyone bother when we have to go through a cloak-and-dagger ritual to establish who has the most authority on a given subject before we could even begin chatting, every single time? And forget about trying to cross-pollinate ideas across intellectual fields. That's "bastardising" academic knowledge and, you know, not appropriate conduct for a pure specialist (and apparently everyone could only be a specialist if one is to be considered a serious intellectual -- they must have forgotten that in Germany, there are medical generalists as well as medical specialists; and in Ireland and the UK, family doctors are referred to as GPs, "general practitioners"). I therefore seriously wonder if any interdisciplinary research ever gets done in Hongkong, simply because I'm not encouraged by the kind of ideas exchange that I've seen online among many avowedly cerebral Hong Kong bloggers. Many are busy comparing the size of their brains (or more correctly, they were comparing the prestige of their schools / their disciplines, which they take as proxies for the size of their own individual intellects) rather than to actually debate ideas.

All this just reminds me of a time, ages and ages ago, when a Hongkong blogger -- a creative who graduated from Central St. Martins in London -- was being demanded by some commenters to put his portfolio online, and when he didn't, some of them then proceeded to unilaterally 起佢底. These sick people somehow got the idea in their heads that, if the blogger could somehow be shown up as an inferior creative himself, then all his witty and insightful criticisms against the dearth of creativity in Hong Kong could automatically be rendered null and void, because then he would no longer be considered an expert and thus become a fraud by default. Please read the actual exchanges (here and here) between this blogger and the commenters to see what a really, very, deeply sad state of affairs it was (And I'm of course referring to the credential-demanding commenters as the sad sacks rather than the blogger himself.). Unfortunately, much of the intellectual exchanges I observed online among Hongkong bloggers retain echos of this unseemly exercise -- unseemly in that parties to a discussion are more concerned with determining the worth of a person by dint of who s/he is, rather than with weighing up the merits and demerits of the actual arguments being put forward.

Even if people don't accept that a person's background is irrelevant for the sake of determining the quality of one's argument, few would actually consider that there exist also other valid reasons for NOT sharing one's intellectual heritage or academic credentials online. A key one of which is personal privacy of course. Especially if a blogger, like me, has occasionally moaned about her workplace on her blog before. Would someone in my position then want to disclose where she had studied or what her disciplines are so that one could go and search online and find out which department she works for and who her colleagues are? Of course not. Get real. A fleeting taste of power and credibility in an online debate is no incentive for potentially jeopardising one's academic career. So until the day when I'm ready to actually become a public intellectual, I will keep my disciplinary backgrounds under wraps, thank you very much.

3. 猛拋書包,亂掉jargons.
I don't mind people 猛拋書包 actually, in fact, I love it when they do! I love love love bloggers who cite sources in support of their ideas and who further intellectual debates by bringing in facts and theories taken from textbooks and journals, and the more obscure the source the better, as the debate becomes more educational and interesting! This kind of 猛拋書包 could really open our eyes to the wide variety of viewpoints out there on a given subject and I love it for that reason.

What I can't stand though are people who 猛拋書包 in such a way as to merely show off their academic credentials, especially when they proceed to throw in jargons without explaining their relevance to the topic at hand. What's the point of throwing in terms and references if you aren't then going to bother to explain how they support your argument? Are your audience meant to do your work for you and come to their own conclusions themselves? But have you forgotten that it is your argument, and that it is your job to explain and expound, not your audience. Why should we be impressed that a person could throw out a particular term or concept or reference if s/he does not actually use it to support a point of contention?

In fact, more often than not people don't even attempt to try and formulate an argument as such, just throw a few key words here and there and be pleased that they have fulfilled their side of the discussion bargain. As if speaking one more word on the subject to form a semi-complete sentence, not to mention a semi-coherent argument, would have meant that the blogger has unnecessarily taught the undeserved something they should have figured out for themselves.

Oh I get it, it's again because it is only important to establish WHO one is by way of one's academic credentials (evidenced by the few terms one bandied about). Nobody is meant to care WHAT one's arguments actually are, or what logical and empirical grounds actually exist to support such assertions.

I really am such a silly, silly sausage to have cared about the substance of such intellectual exchanges online. Apparently I should have been grateful already to know that I was in the presence of the "greats". And who am I to argue with them, much less challenge?

And as I said, 這篇文章是找死的!Please God help me face the inevitable backlash when it comes. Amen.

Actually, if you do disagree with any of the above, I would be very grateful to hear your views. I'm being absolutely sincere about this. I also understand that I might have caused grave offence in what I wrote above, and if so I sincerely apologise in advance. Again, this is not just fake polite posturing, I'm sorry if I'd hurt anyone's feelings. These are merely my observations, and I would be happy to stand corrected. More likely than not I am just 以小人之心,度君子之腹. Yes, that's probably it indeed. Please be kind enough to forget any nonsense I've written above. It's the mere ramblings of a mad woman.

Further reading (feel free to compare and contrast):
"問題周而復始,每隔幾年都有淺白生動的評論,卻未見對症下藥的專業思維和知識。再叫人對話,也無法回應「80後」。 礙於時勢、學者迫不得已暫代「大部分人」發聲,聯合學界和公眾,向政府施壓——大抵造成日後的「誤解」,讓人以為教授身分,就是在下放研究知識,不知道原來可能是個人分享。港人治港了,即使跟中央尚在磨合,政府也應重新尊重本土知識,建立知識鏈。如此,公共討論才會出現精細研究和思潮辯論: 研究型學者,研究問題,非研究青年,解決問題,非解決青年;公共型學者,引介理論刺激公眾思考,非以修辭隱藏個人理論框架,造成誤讀。香港不乏健筆,卻欠為本土指路的學術研究。沒有研究、盲目相信任何主觀看法,才是「管治失效」和「暴力」的起源。"




懂與不懂 (read the article and the comments)

一個哲學讀壞了人的例子 (read the article and comments)

他曾向我表示,由於文化水平的限制,他無法使他的思想系統化,因此渴望能夠上大學。 我不無理由地判斷,他的那種偏執症和自大症未必是病理性的,因而知識視野的拓寬可能會把它們治愈。 更重要的是,他的事例向我們提示,在社會底層生活著一些執著於精神事物並且具備相當才能的青年,他們在其生活的環境中完全得不到理解,社會有責任為他們開闢獲得理解的渠道。 我設想,有一天,在中國社會科學院的講壇上,他們中的佼佼者為何不能坐在哈貝馬斯曾經坐過的位置上,向職業學者們報告自己業餘思考的心得呢? 如果有那一天,我一定破例改變一次晚起的習慣,做一個準時出席的聽眾。


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At Tue Jul 20, 01:20:00 a.m. IST, Anonymous blue said...

Hi Snowdrops - I have wanted to post a comment on your previous post but stopped short last minute...

Anyway, being politically apathetic and unfamiliar with the blogsphere I will however proceed with a biased observation based on my recent experience in obtaining mortgage loans: People of chinese descent are generally more nosy (八卦). I got far more personal questions from a mortgage specialist immigrated from HK, than from an American born Causasian specialist.

I'd like to think that the girl fr HK is trying in a culturally appropriate manner to build rapport and be friendly, not that she plans to ignore my business until I have proven my mettle.

At Tue Jul 20, 01:37:00 a.m. IST, OpenID bakingmaniac said...

Hi, Snowdrops, indeed your post is really interesting. However, I bet only hongkongers could understand what you have written while only rare of them WILL be patience enough to read through the WHOLE article. Haha~ No offense. It is because as shown from your writting style and the way of presenting your ideas is indeed purely academic with number of social science jargons. I bet not all so-call interlectuals could understand especially those who have been "born" in the commercial sector.

You seemed to be quite annoyed with what you've come acrossed with in blogging. To me, blogging is a way of exposing our hidden self in the cyber world. Why should we take it that serious? Relax. :) Blogging allow us to see different kinds of "true" self. It does help to broaden our vision. Hm...for example, like taking a vacation in a place you have never been to and trying to explore what, who, and what happened there. Just like digging out some sorts of stories and learn about the general phenonmenon. Some what like 「噢~ 原來d人係咁諗嘅~」

Life is tough already while blogging has been treated (normally and most probably) as a channel of releasing steam as you've said. Just ignor the so-called "bastards", be kind to yourself. :)

May peace be with you.

At Tue Jul 20, 01:54:00 a.m. IST, OpenID bakingmaniac said...

O, one more pt, sometimes asking for your major is just wanna know if any deeper could be shared, but not 起你底,or to see if your arguements is really that authoritative. You know, sometimes it's indeed hard to find someone who is in similar speclialism AND that can share similar views. 共鳴感 sometimes is pretty hard to find on certain topics, no matter in real or cyber world. There's a sudden idea come up in my mind that it might be possible that another function of blogging is to allow the blogger to search for his/her long lost social identity in the real world. :)

At Tue Jul 20, 08:57:00 a.m. IST, Blogger Snowdrops said...

Hi Blue, thanks so much for stopping by my blog, I really appreciate your comments :)

Yup, I agree that people of Chinese descent are a bit nosier than your average Caucasian, and I do understand when someone is trying simply to build rapport with another person rather than just trying to suss them out. I'm fortunate in that the few bloggers I've come to know via blog interactions (i.e. those with whom I had quite pleasant exchanges) fall into the first rather than the second category.

But there were also a lot of times when I was simply an observer of such interactions rather than a participant, and at such times I stopped myself commenting when I realise the blogger exudes a certain intellectual haughtiness, which I don't think befit genuine intellectuals.

I have just updated my post with some more Chinese explanations, using some scenes from favourite movies as an analogy. Hope you see where I was coming from.

And can I just say again that I'm really happy that you dropped by :D I'm so glad to find another gal who blogs in English but understands Chinese too!! Look forward to more exchanges with you in future :)

At Tue Jul 20, 09:23:00 a.m. IST, Blogger Snowdrops said...

Hi B.M. Thanks so much for your kind comments on my blog, and I'm so so sorry if I've given the impression before that you were one of those people who I felt were trying to "suss me out", so to speak. The truth is, I only dared to link to you because you happened to be asking me the question in a rather nice manner, AFTER we have had a proper chance to exchange some views already. So yours, just like Leung Din Din's, was actually a reverse example of what I was criticising.

But many thanks for being one of those rare souls who finished reading my long rambling post :D (Which just got longer because I've added "further reading" links as well as some movie analogies in Chinese). I hope you could see better where I was coming from as regards 切磋 :)

I have to admit though that I don't think I used purely "social science jargons"? Even though they are indeed, academic, and may well put off a lot of non-academics from reading my post! But things like "double-blinded peer review" and "empirical evidence" are common across most if not all academic disciplines, even within Business and Management, so I think they are warranted as my post is aimed at those who have an avowedly intellectual background. More importantly, I was using them to construct my arguments, rather than just putting them out there as something to be admired on their own... which is what I can't stand, if you know what i mean?

But I really like your wonderful analogy of blogging as travelling :D In fact, that's one of the things I've been trying to get across in my post -- that reading and interacting with some Hongkong bloggers at times made me feel like I'm in a foreign land, which kinda shocked me because I didn't realise that there would have been such a cultural distance between me and HK bloggers...

Thank you so much again B.M. for your lovely comments and support. I do agree that I was taking things a tad too seriously for something that's meant to be frivolous. And I hope you can see that I do appreciate when someone is asking about about another's major purely as a friendly way of finding some common grounds between people :) I guess I was trying to say that there'd been times when I witnessed a kind of ugly intellectual snobbishness, and the way more hierarchical structure of the HK blogosphere is something I'm not sure I agree with. Thanks again for your generous patience and good-will in hearing me out :D

At Thu Jul 22, 06:49:00 a.m. IST, Blogger Haricot 微豆 said...


In response to your July 19, 2010 blog article entitled "Thoughts on Online Intellectual Exchanges (updated)", I have written a series of 3 articles entitled :
博友網上交流切瑳之我見 / Exchanges Between Bloggers

1: Judgment on What I Say, not Who I Am
2: No Way to Old Way: Circumstances Appropriate Responses (CAR)
3: Not Every Exchange/Blogger is "Intellectual"

Unfortunately, I have exceeded the max capacity of 4096 characters and cannot posted them all here .

To read my comments, please go to my blog site at:

At Thu Jul 22, 08:24:00 a.m. IST, Blogger Snowdrops said...

Thanks so much Haricot for stopping by and for your thoughtful comments on my long-winded ramblings above. I have just managed to respond to your series of your three posts on your blog as well. Thanks for the opportunity to exchange our views :)

At Tue Jul 27, 09:33:00 p.m. IST, Blogger ah-yun said...

Hi snowdrops!

How are you?! I'm always amazed at how long your posts are, where do you get the time?! :P

Anyway, to be honest, I didn't have the patience to finish the entire post, but skim through it. But I guess I understand what you were talking about, maybe that's why I'm all that eager to exchange thought over the blogosphere. I think the blogosphere really expand our horizon, ideas and also the type of ppl whom we might never met in real life. In some sense, I agree w/ bakingmaniac. There are bound to be many ppl who will be very different from us, why so surprised. Just be thankful when you find someone who's share similar perspectives.

And yes, I find it difficult to communicate to east-cultural ppl (or whatever you would call), though I'm proud to be Chinese yet I find myself not a bit think like a Chinese. I find a lot of things annoying about Chinese thinking. However, I think now I have learned to look the other way, because, heck, why should I care. (But of course sometimes I get pissed off too, but I don't act on my pissedoffness!)(wow i made up a word!)

Well, now I think I would rather spend my time thinking about useful things. Heh!

Take care girl!

At Tue Aug 03, 02:58:00 a.m. IST, Blogger Snowdrops said...

Hi Yun (hey, since when have you become ah-yun?), long time no "see" la, it's such a nice surprise to see you again, hope you've been keeping well.

Yes long rambling posts are my speciality :P It's been this way from day one and not gonna change anytime soon -- maybe it's why I'm into poetry blogging as well, to balance things out a bit.

Anyway, I'm glad to know that you kinda know where I was coming from as well. When I re-read the passage again I was veering between wording it even more strongly or putting it even more mildly or hide it altogether... It's a complicated thing, this not-getting-certain-HK-style-of-exchange thing... I'm not sure I've completely worked out my issues with it yet, I just know that it still bugs me, somehow, and unfortunately I'm not as wise as you are about just not getting pissed off about it... Precisely because I've been holding off expressing this "pissedoffness" (great word, I must say!) for sooooo looooonnnng that it was bloody high time I got it off my chest. And I was glad I did, to an extent (I just hope it didn't make matters worse!).

Anyway, thanks for bearing with me and my long-windedness, it's so nice to hear from you again :)


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