#Day11 Amos Yee Asylum Case Update
Amos was informed today that he received 4 separate packages from Amazon but because no one told the officers that he was expecting books, they returned the books back to their respective senders. Frustrating! Of course now that the situation is rectified, moving forward, receiving books should go smoothly.
He was in high spirits today, and we talked for a while as I interrogated him with some questions from The New York Times.
The question is, what motivates Amos? Did he see himself as a free speech martyr on a crusade to point out the abysmal state of civil rights in a country with barely any history of cultural, intellectual or political dissent or, was he merely an outrageous provocateur moonlighting as a firebrand atheist entertainer?
Various civil groups back home in Singapore have poured their hopes into the vessel that is Amos Yee, trusting that he would elevate their cause, and for a few brief moments, he did shine an international spotlight and ignited some scrutiny on the state of civil liberties, free speech, and democracy in Singapore.
As it turns out, the then 16-year-old did not actually set out to be a poster boy for free speech. In fact, in none of his videos did he ever mention the cause célèbre that now defines his fame and underpins this precedent-setting legal case.
He said he made those YouTube videos, for which he was arrested and charged (links in the comments), primarily to criticize the government, Christianity and Islam, without putting any thought to the consequences. It had nothing to do with proving a bigger point; he simply made them because he felt like it (typical teenager).
He still stands by the content but now regrets the manner and style in which he packaged those ideas – not only did he offend so many people unnecessarily, he stressed that it’s not actually a very effective method of activism.
Then, we got into a heated debate because he alluded to how he was in favor of “safe spaces,” which is anathema to the cultural libertarian and free speech radical that I am. I told him that essentially, hate speech codes like the ones that imprisoned him in Singapore, essentially reinforced a “safe space” from his views and ideas. He replied that he’s actually SEEKING ASYLUM in the US because it is a “safe space” FROM authoritarian speech-policing and State surveillance/interference, to which I replied that most of the “safe spaces” on US college campuses are leftist attempts at using similar fascist impulses to exclude dissenting and nonconformist speech. Time was running out (20 min. limit per call), so I said that we would continue this debate when he’s out of detention, because the US is not a safe space from the discussion of safe spaces. 🙂
I felt, in a way, what we had today was a breakthrough. The boy grew up a little and showed some maturity in the way he handled the Time’s question, giving the answer, uncoereced, that I was really hoping he’d give. He is strongly against hate speech laws that are short of inciting violence and speaking from experience, he thinks that it is inhumane and cruel to send somebody to prison for expressing themselves without threatening violence, for mere thought crimes, and that legislation is merely a way for those in power to suppress legitimate dissenting speech and controversial political opinions.
However, he says that he failed to make a distinction between expressing opinions and expressing opinions with an explicit, deliberate intent to offend. The choice to not offend should be borne out of courtesy and self-interest in making sure ideas are communicated effectively, NOT avoiding criminal charges.
“So, while I will continue to criticize hate speech laws, I really do not endorse hate speech itself.”
Now that’s a tweet-worthy, quotable quote. I know many are desperate to see the worst in him, that he’s just lying or faking it for “PR” purposes or whatever. But what he said to me today is merely an iteration of the last post-prison interview he gave in Singapore before coming to the US to seek asylum. In a few weeks, when he’s out and is able to speak directly with the press, you can judge for yourself. But today, we made progress.
I gained some trust as he opened up more and meanwhile, he earned some respect from me, especially when I warned him that some of his views (like that on “safe spaces” and feminism) will alienate his core base of supporters and he retorted that he had to be true to his opinions no matter what. Such self-awareness and intellectual honesty is rare for an 18-year old.
And so, the inexorable march of time moves on, but in McHenry County Correctional Facility, it will appear, for the many asylum-seekers whose cases are stalled by the bureaucracy of the immigration department, to stand still for a while. Day 12 beckons.