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The right to speak one's mind

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2011-07-14 14:41

The right to speak one's mind

A celebrity couple's latest salvo against gays should be countered with reasoning and rational rebuttals, and not threatened with reprisals.

Before the power couple of Sun Haiying and Lu Liping became the de facto spokespersons for homophobia in China, they were representatives of a style of performance art that is rooted in the old traditions yet connected with modern audiences. Lu Liping was thrust into the eye of the latest storm when her gay-bashing slur on her micro blog was reposted and rebuked by famed Taiwan television host Kevin Tsai, who is openly gay. Before that, she was perceived by the public as the proverbial "white face", the appeaser who pulled her husband away from trouble-causing situations. Yes, Sun is a bigot, the public seemed to agree, but Lu is not and it is a pity she married a person like him.

The right to speak one's mind

Well, I happened to find out a week before the rest when I interviewed the pair on June 18 at the Shanghai International Film Festival. Ever since I wrote a column in August 2007 lambasting Sun's first gesture of homophobic grandstanding, I had been curious to find out what was behind his "moral crusade" other than religious conviction.

I found Sun peculiar. When he walked into the room, he seemed to be in a daze, the kind induced by inebriation. His head was constantly moving in a swirl and his eyes were mostly drifting toward the ceiling. I could only assume he had drunk a bit too much.

But he surprised me when our conversation shifted from a movie the couple had just finished to the controversial moral issue. To give them room to opt out, I deliberately couched homosexuality in euphemism. But Sun got the point without skipping a beat.

"Should an artist impose his or her own moral standards on others?" I asked.

"Universal values are universal," Sun responded. "They are not imposed on you. You tell the audience that it is something you have to abide by. Do not think of right or wrong. When you think of such things, you are already wrong."

I continued: "What if the things you consider to be universal values fall in the realm of one's personal freedom. Should what they do be tolerated if it does not hurt others?"

"Universal values are precise and must be respected by all mankind," Sun said.

"Are what you call universal values prescribed by some kind of religion?" I asked.

At this point, Lu took over: "What he referred to as universal values are human emotions shared by all, such as compassion. If we say someone's heart is eaten by a dog, we all know he has violated our common values, by doing things like abusing animals and wrecking the environment."

Sun added more examples like murder. I pointed out to them that the condition I had set was consensual behavior between adults that does not harm others, humans or animals. They raised their argument to a somewhat poetic level, categorizing human action as "light and darkness", saying no "gray area" should be allowed.

But surely, they would not want to portray symbols of pure goodness or evil on screen, I thought, which would be so boring in terms of artistic creativity. And here, Sun said something that I agreed with totally: "The best characters are those who change, especially when they are about to be devoured by darkness and they repent. Everyone has sins, nobody is perfect, not everyone can be good, but he has to be willing to turn to the light."

In the minds of Sun and Lu, a good artist has to have perfect moral standing. Yet, in front of me was a paragon of consummate artistry covered with a thick layer of prejudice.

Ever since I saw Lu with Zhang Yimou in Old Well in 1986, I've considered her one of the best Chinese actresses of her generation. She does not have the radiance of a typical movie star, but her acting has depth and resonance. I have not seen much of Sun's oeuvre, but from what I have seen, he consistently delivers very respectable performances.

That is why I'm very much against calls for boycotting their movies. No artist should be punished for his or her beliefs no matter how inappropriate they seem to be or how much they run counter to mainstream opinion. The decision by Taiwan's Golden Horse committee to retract the invitation to Lu to next year's award show - she won this year's Best Actress award and customarily gets to be a presenter for the next year - is regrettable.

I'm really conflicted as to whether the couple has the right to openly say things that hurt a certain segment of society. If they are simply private citizens, that would be another case. But they do have clout and their words of intolerance have more power to hurt.

How would they react if others apply so much pressure as to shut them up, say, by shunning the movies they star in? They'll probably lie low, but they won't change their mind. Words of hate may hurt, but sometimes it is important we know they exist. Only when people are free to express themselves can healthy dialogue and debate take place and whoever has greater powers of persuasion will win more minds. Sweeping differences under the rug is not the right way to resolve them.

So, after giving it several nights' thought, I have come to the conclusion that not only are they entitled to their opinions, but are also entitled to expressing these opinions without reprisals. Their careers should not be negatively affected because they believe "gays are sinful and will go to hell".

In this round of condemnation, gladly I have not seen people equating their bigotry with their religion. On the contrary, some have raised the question that as Christians they should espouse the ideals of love and compassion even toward those they do not fully understand or accept.

That was the question I meant to ask them face-to-face before I was cut off. Even though my run-in with them did not last long or go very deep, I had a sense that it was their unique way of reasoning, simplistic yet dramatic, with everything being either good or evil, that made them who they are. People of this stripe can be found in every camp. When they do good, they can be great; yet when they hurt others while thinking they're doing good, they can be worse than the cartoonish evil lords of, say, James Bond movies.

After I published my first column on Sun Haiying's remark in 2007, I received an e-mail from a reader named Shirley L. Phelps-Roper. She wrote: "The very day that Godless China decriminalized the filthy manner of life of the homosexual, they brought wrath upon themselves. God hates China and all her perverse people!"

She said "China is doomed" because of this. For me, it is the opposite. We used to discriminate against homosexuals, and now we are slowly learning to be tolerant even though many of us do not understand why certain people are different from the majority.

I cannot say gays have achieved equality but they have come a long way. For one thing, gays are not sent to jail or mental institutions simply for their sexual orientation. I call that progress. And I wish Sun Haiying and Lu Liping, as Christians who sometimes encounter difficulties of acceptance in this country, would come around and see that progress for one minority group is good for all.