by Brian Hioe
Continued Conservatism from Taiwanese Society, PTT, and Media
CONSERVATIVE SOCIAL reactions to the Huashan murder case have continued, with further attempts to pin blame on the residents of the 120 Grassroots Self-Autonomous Zone artistic community by the media and society. As with before, much outrage has been centered on PTT, which has hardly proven to be a progressive social force in this case, and instead an enforcer of a highly conservative social morality.
The Huashan murder case involved the killing of a thirty-year-old woman surnamed Gao by an a man surnamed Chen. Chen, an archery teacher, was one of the residents of the 120 Grassroots Self-Autonomous Zone, a small community of artists that built a small camp on a field by Shandao Temple that they had applied for the use of from the Taipei city government. The 120 Grassroots Self-Autonomous Zone’s usage rights to the field were set expire at the end of July.
While Gao disappeared several weeks ago, it was after a confession was secured from Chen by police in late June and the body was discovered dumped on Yangming Mountain that the current controversy broke out, with members of the public attributing blame to the 120 Grassroots Self-Autonomous Zone and calling for it and other similar spaces to be stamped out and eliminated from Taiwan. Chen dismembered the body, making this the latest in a long series of dismemberment cases that have taken place in the past two months in Taiwan—almost all of which were cases of men killing women after being rejected by them, which was the motive for Chen’s killing of Gao.
PTT subsequently began a “human flesh search engine” to doxx Grassroots organizers and media reports have in many cases been less sympathetic, depicting Grassroots members as dangerous, threatening social forces, and suggesting that the murder, as committed by one resident of the Grassroots space, reflected the dangerous behavior of Grassroots members writ large—if not their active participation. It is widely feared among members of the artistic community that public anger will have a chilling effect on art and counter-cultural spaces across Taiwan.
Anger has led to the scapegoating of Grassroots members, then, with a failure to examine the roots of this series of murders in the culture of toxic masculinity which prevails in Taiwanese society seeing as this and other dismemberment cases took place because of men feeling victimized by women who rejected them. This would be simply be another case of Taiwanese society taking the view those who look or act different are socially dangerous—so much for claims that Taiwanese society is “pluralistic” and “open”. News has become big enough that this would become a front page article on the Apple Daily. As with this and other past murder cases, this has also become the object of lurid speculation based on little fact.
Controversy continues, with accusations from PTT members that Grassroots members organized a free, illegal party in an abandoned subway tunnel and pictures emerging of a nudist party organized by the “Unregulated Masses” (野青眾), the group which primarily organized Grassroots, which is accused of having actually been an orgy rather than a party.
As with before, conservative social morality dominates in anger from members of the public. Firstly, why would such a party be harmful, if it harmed nobody and was in an unused structure? Again, this view also fails to address the structural conditions which lead to this phenomenon. One notes that with Grassroots or other spaces, it is the high commercialization as well as bland sanitization of spaces for young people to enjoy themselves which drives young people into fields, forests, and literally underground outside of the high consumerism of the city in order to organize free events. Grassroots would be a particularly rare example, as a space in the high consumerism of Taipei.
And—speaking from the standpoint of sexual liberation—what is wrong with a nude party, or even an orgy—if it was conducted between consenting adults? It is simply conservative sexual morality which views such events as dangerous and assumes that there is a direct relation between them and anti-social or violent behavior.
However, this is nothing new for Taiwanese society, which has justified crackdowns on the gay community for decades on a similar basis, as justifying raids on gay bars and other establishments. One also notes that reactions have continued the tendency of conservative elements of Taiwanese society to frame young people in purely sexual terms, as creatures given to dangerous sexual, hedonistic urges. This was something particularly seen with the sexualization of young people by the media—particularly in the 2014 Sunflower Movement, in which students were accused of doing drugs and having sex within the Legislative Yuan.
Conservative social attitudes in Taiwanese society will not be going away anytime soon, it seems.
The End of Utopia?
ON THE OTHER hand, we might note that members of Taiwan’s artistic community have in many cases proven little better, with greater emphasis on pointing fingers, and apportioning blame than rallying together in solidarity. Many of the reactions also evidence that the artistic community in Taiwan in itself has deeply internalized conservative attitudes from Taiwanese society as a whole—of which it is, of course, a part of. This is something which proves highly shameful. Attacks by conservative social forces, then, echo among artists themselves, amplifying the cycle of castigations and self-castigations.
Oftentimes this has revolved around questions of blame. Many take the view that Grassroots organizers were insufficiently responsible and at the very least allowed for the conditions which led to the murder. As with society as a whole, in other cases, this has been almost the view that Grassroots members might as well have conducted the murder.
Sometimes this has been members of the artistic community who did not participate in Grassroots blaming those involved in Grassroots—as well as those involved in Grassroots blaming themselves out of an internalized sense of guilt. In such cases, this may be the attempt by artists to divorce themselves from any links to Grassroots for fear of being tainted by the social stigmatization of Grassroots. At other times, much as with self-condemnatory Grassroots participants themselves, artists condemn Grassroots out of a sense of guilt—precisely because they identify with Grassroots.
A prevailing view would be that Grassroots failed in allowing Chen to identify himself as an artist and join the community. Other criticize what is perceived as a failure by Grassroots to root out dangerous behavior from one of their members, or to discover the body sooner—particularly with regards to that Grassroots did not search the hut in which Chen was residing during the three days that the body was there. Some take the final step of not only attempting to exclude Chen from the category of “artist”, but attempting to avoid the possibility of being blamed or implicated in Grassroots actions by claiming that Grassroots members are not artists.
This points towards how the artistic community sometimes is far from open and accepting, instead with those who have securely achieved the position of “artist” acting as gatekeepers seeking to exclude others from laying claim to the term and what is a vaguely elitist manner. In this, one observes that among artists, sometimes there is the knowledge of how the word “artist” constitutes a form of cultural capital which can ward off social criticism to some extent.
One also observes the failure of Grassroots and other Taiwanese artistic group’s self-professed radical positions in many of the reactions to date after Chen confessed to the murders—again, which evident deeply internalized conservatism more than anything else. What this points to more broadly is that all this was simply youthful rebellion, perhaps—all this has the ring of something like the ending of Lord of The Flies. After a youthful attempt at utopia failed and became a dystopia, then the adults have finally have arrived, perhaps.
Deep-Rooted Conservative Morality from Taiwanese Artists
GRASSROOTS ATTEMPTED to differentiate itself from consumerist, capitalist society as a free space in which anyone could join the community without exclusion. It would have been contrary to such principles to exclude individuals from Grassroots on the basis of criteria nearly impossible to quantify. After all, when Chen wanted to join the encampment, what should Grassroots members have done? Should Grassroots members have intuitively, even preternaturally known ahead of time that Chen had the potential to commit a murder? In general, one scarcely imagines that people one knows or encounters would be a murderer or commit other serious crimes, usually imagining that this only happens to individuals far removed from one’s self, or that this is something which one only sees on television—not as an event that could suddenly intrude into one’s life.
Certainly, it is probably that the gender dynamics of Grassroots may have been a background contributing factor to the toxic masculinity which undergirds Chen’s murder of Gao as also seen in the series of other recent cases in which men rejected by women subsequently killing them and dismembering them. Yet the fact that the crimes of a single member of Grassroots are seen as indicating the guilt of Grassroots as a whole reflects the fact that members of the artistic community seem to have internalized the highly conservative notion of collective sense of punishment—sounding something vaguely like the baojia system from Chinese antiquity.
One can imagine how differently reactions to the murder would have been if it had taken place in a different sort of space and in a different sort of group setting. For example, if the murder had taken place a few hundred meters away in the Huashan Cultural Park, there would hardly have been such reactions from society calling for the eradication of the Grassroots space. Similarly, if in a company, an employee killed someone, society would hardly be calling for the closure of the company. Indeed, to draw on an example from my own life, when living in New York, I was hardly responsible for when my upstairs neighbor shot his roommate. Should one be responsible for the behaviors of anyone living in the same space, even strangers that one might know only remotely?
Along such lines, one also notes that discourse to date has honed in entirely on the fact that Chen was a resident of the Grassroots space, and seen this as a case of murder committed by a Grassroots member only, as committed against an outsider. This has not framed the issue in any way as a case of one Grassroots member killing another community member—even if Chen seems to have been the more proactive participant as an actual full-time resident of the Grassroots space. Along such lines, the blind ascription of guilt to the whole of Grassroots, while denying the open nature of Grassroots shows that Grassroots is only thought of as a collective endeavor selectively—indicating the collapse of its ideals to be truly open.
Likewise, if the murder had taken place in an apartment building or a small village, few would call for the wholesale demolition of the village or apartment building. And with regards to the failure of the Grassroots community to discover Gao’s body, one notes that the police, who are professionals at searching for searching for missing persons as compared to members of Grassroots who lack such professional experience, did not discover the body.
Along such lines, if Grassroots members should have searched for the body in Chen’s hut, which they did not do out of respect for his privacy, one notes that if the police searched every apartment in an apartment building or a small village after a person went missing, this would be considered a large-scale invasion of privacy. With regards to claims that Grassroots should simply have known to do this, it certainly seems strange for a space which declared itself to be an “unregulated” space outside of restrictive social norms to demand more restrictive policing practices than what may already exist in “normal” society.
It may have be that members of the artistic community would demand a higher moral standard for Grassroots in light of its self-professed radical aims, and a sense of collective responsibility in line with its communal aims. Yet, again, at the same time, for a space which focused on absolute openness, this also meant that this would open up Grassroots to the possibility that undesirable elements would enter.
And one observes that this discourse of morality purity calling for absolute moral perfection strikes as a conservative view internalized from society, which treats young people as either self-sacrificing arbiters of moral perfection—as in the view of the social category of “students” as “pure” and “innocent”, as in the social discourse which has led to widespread social support of student movements as the Sunflower Movement in recent years—or as unruly, anti-social miscreants prone to violent, hedonistic behavior above all else, as in this case.
From Utopia to Dystopia? Or Reinventing the Wheel?
ONE OBSERVES how quickly the self-professed radical discourse embraced by Grassroots members and other members of the artistic community fell away after Chen’s confession. Frankly, one observes the rapid shift from utopia to dystopia in some of the suggestions made. Much of this evidences that the radical discourse embraced by artists may truly just be a form of ressentiment, an attempting at negating the mainstream which actually occurs out of deeply internalized self-resentment and childish rebellion, that is, a form of Nietzsche called slave morality.
One Facebook post which was widely circulated, for example, made the outlandish suggestion that no locks should be allowed in public spaces. Presumably then, there should be no locks for public restrooms, even when this might lead to sexual assault in bathrooms. Yet one observes something of the inklings of the Foucauldian panopticon in this—that crime will be prevented if everyone is under constant surveillance from everyone else. Perhaps, like in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, in the future utopia/dystopia, we should all live in completely transparent glass houses.
An article in the News Lens would make the argument that Grassroot’s failure was in self-regulation, that is, in the lack of controls present at Grassroots. Is the critique, then, that Grassroots members should have, from the beginning, given the state more of a direct role in the encampment? But was not the precise point of Grassroots to be “Unregulated Youth”—as the English name of the group 野青眾 went—in the face of a state and all-encompassing system of laws which already presents fetters on personal freedom and individual free expression? Then, if not giving more power to the state, should then we be a self-policing “Self-Regulated Youth”? If so, then the next step would be to regulate one’s self, to establish laws, government, and form a police force.
In such a case, as time went by, one would eventually end up more and more regulatory laws in order regulate society and deal with various contingencies that violate the fabric of society, such as when a member of the community commits a murder. In this way, then, one would eventually end up with something not so different from society as it exists now. Then, we end up as “Regulated Youth” once more.
More contradictory still would be the claim that Zhuang Yi-fan (莊奕凡), an individual perceived as the “leader” of Grassroots, should make an official apology for the actions of Grassroots and the “Wild Youth.” It certainly is true that Zhuang had a disproportionate role in the formation of Grassroots, but it seems to reveal the lie of Grassroots truly being a collective if Zhuang can be seen as an individual representative of the entire commune, and the actions of the commune are reducible to Zhuang. This might simply being offering up Zhuang’s head to the authorities as a sacrifice for one’s personal safety, as some form of sacrifice to the powers that be—that is, the state—to stave off threats from the state because of the threat that the actions of the state may present to artists.
Such is the danger of every utopia, then—that either it ends up becoming a dystopia or something resembling the society from which it attempts to break. From this, we can note two things. First, how quickly utopian ideals fall away when thrown into shock and suddenly instead skew towards advocacy for dystopian authoritarianism, as provoked by a deeply traumatizing event such as Gao’s murder—one then, understands why Walter Benjamin argued that the permanent “state of emergency” was necessary for authoritarian forms of governance to take power. Second, that attempts at utopia which seek to breakaway from social norms can end up simply recreating them. For example, speaking from my own experience, while Occupy Wall Street may have resisted the undue influence of unelected Wall Street bankers on government, against what David Graeber and others claim about “prefigurative politics,” it ended up similarly as an unelected set of leaders who claimed not to be leaders but excluded viewpoints outside of their own by asserting that they were only “moderators” or “spokespersons” and not leaders. Or how during the Sunflower Movement, while the movement may have asserted that it was resisting a “black box” government in which executive power had gone out of control, there were criticisms of the leadership of similarly lacking transparency in its decision-making, or similarly carrying out decision through unaccountable executive power by two leader figures or a small set of individuals in the Legislative Yuan.
Frankly, every community or organized group which is larger than two people has to deal with the possibility of wrongdoing by one of its members—even the possibility of crimes as severe as murder. This is part of what eventually gives rise to social “regulation” or self-regulation, as in the law, or a police system—again, leading to the possibility that attempts at creating utopia become not so different from the society which ender them, or may even ultimately lead to something like reinventing the wheel. First as tragedy, then as farce, as Marx said. It is a worthwhile aim to strive for a society without law or police, perhaps through education which prevents crime, but one cannot simply strive for utopia by expecting all members of a society to automatically be saints, a priori of anything.
A Failure of Dialectical Negativity?
PERHAPS ALL THIS points to the shallowness of the radical utopian ideals that many Taiwanese artists claim to advocate, then. In line with the Hegelian dialectic, every utopia seeks to “negate” what exists currently, even as it is born out of what exists currently. However, utopias also sometime are insufficiently “negating” of the circumstances that engender and end up re-creating the conditions which engender them. This is what we see with a conservative morality emerging from Taiwan’s artistic community following the Gao murder. At the macro-level, one can even see the failure of the grand socialist experiments of the 20th century in this vein, with the radical socialist experiments that took place in the Soviet Union and China eventually becoming conservative, nationalistic dictatorships in this phenomenon, having failed to be sufficiently “negative” to break out of the centuries of absolute monarchical rule which preceded the Russian or Chinese Revolution, ultimately returning to a form of dictatorship.
This is particularly true in Taiwan, perhaps, only recently a post-authoritarian country. The education system that Taiwanese go through still fundamentally teaches authoritarian values from childhood onwards and Taiwanese aspiring towards utopian experimentalism must “negate” this. At the same time, in times of crisis or shock, they suddenly revert back to such values. Grassroots would simply be one case in point—making the murder and its aftermath all the more tragic—and, where the artistic community is concerned—all the more disgraceful.
The initial tragedy of Gao’s murder has simply been made all the more tragic by what has taken place afterwards, that artists did not support each other, then, but instead sought to pin blame on each other, or just appeal to the powers that be to come in to rescue a group of lost children.
A Failure to Come Together to Mutually Heal?
VERY LIKELY entire collaborative networks will be broken up after the Huashan murder incident, with many unwilling to cooperate going forward. After all, how is one to collaborate with others regarding high-risk projects, knowing that if something goes wrong, others may react in far less than a supportive manner?
After a fire which killed 36 in the Ghost House warehouse venue in California in 2016, for example, members of the American artistic community rallied in support of Ghost House organizers and pointed towards the broader social conditions of systemic inequality for young people which led to inadequate safety measures in the Ghost House venue—instead of condemning them for their failure to take such measures. In terms of the social reaction from Taiwanese society, one finds similarities to accusations of Satanism against industrial music pioneer Genesis P-Orridge and collaborators in the 1980s for their music, counter-cultural lifestyle, and alternative sexuality in the UK during what later became known as the Satanic ritual scandal—a significant moment in the history of the British underground and one which has gone down in history for those involved.
While this is not the only counter-cultural scandal to have occurred in Taiwanese history, who knows? Perhaps eventually current events will also be remembered as a seminal event in the history of the Taiwan underground, as a moment in which the values of the underground clashed directly with the conservatism values of mainstream society. However, the solidarity seen in these other contexts has failed to occur in Taiwan after the Huashan tragedy, with mutual condemnations and calls for collective punishment taking place instead. And so, one imagines that, in general, many opportunities for cooperation and collaboration have been lost forever—after all, one finds one’s self hesitant cooperate with those whose immediate reaction is to cut ties when things have horribly gone wrong. It is shameful enough already that a life has been lost, what is even more shameful is the subsequent failure of solidarity which has taken place.
An authoritarian mindset remains internalized even in those who seek to break from authoritarianism. And this may illustrate the shallowness of much self-professed radicalism in Taiwan—that when push comes to shove, it may simply revert back to conservatism, a complete binary between “total responsibility” and “no responsibility” that has its origins in that under authoritarian regimes, one is only ever “guilty” or “not guilty” with no middle ground, as well as a failure to come together to try to heal each others’ wounds after a traumatic event, instead with the emergence of an attitude of each for one’s one self. This, too, would be a form of authoritarian mentality, in which victims of tragedies themselves come to be blamed, or those not responsible for a crime are held responsible. One observes this in other cases, such as successful attempts to hold the employer of the killer in the Mama Mouth murder legally responsible because the murders were committed during working hours, something popularly mocked by the Taiwanese public.
In general, this would point to that much radicalism in Taiwan is simply embraced out of shock value, or as a youthful, Oedipal rebellion against one’s parents, which may claim to be anti-authoritarian, but also actually has deeply internalized authoritarian values. No surprise then, how the youthful rebels of the 1960s later became the baby boomers that destroyed opportunities for the generation which came after them—that is to say, our generation. As a result, rather than acknowledge that mistakes have been made—mistakes which cost a life—then strive to work, at the end of the day, when radical values are less than immediately successful, or run into difficulties, one sometimes simply reverts back to appealing to the authorities, or reverts back to the default conservative morality entirely.
This would not be surprising in the least, and this would be entirely consistent with a psychological reaction to trauma. And so, in the end, after the failure of their rebellion, the lost children will just need to be rescued by the adults. That would not be surprising in Taiwan, where there are even those who long for a return to the safety of authoritarianism because of a “fear of freedom” that demands a return to what is “safe”.
Where do answers lie? Namely, freedom and safety will always remain forever juxtaposed, and after an excess of freedom, now many call for safety—that is, for authoritarian powers to simply take control. Where answers are remains unknown, but it may be only through understanding this antinomy—the age-old juxtaposition between freedom and safety—and its conditions of possibility and impossibility that follow for there to be answers. Denying it entirely will just return us back to square one for efforts at experimental living or striving towards utopia in Taiwan.
So rather than to acknowledge mistakes have been made on both sides—significant mistakes which led to the loss of a life—one to strive together towards improving ourselves for the next time around, to make up for shared shortcomings, and to move towards healing. Instead, driving home guilt longer and longer will just leave all the deeper scars on those who are probably already highly traumatized, shocked, and feeling betrayed. Nothing will bring the dead back, nor can the enormous crime of the loss of an innocent life taken be undone, but we can still move forward as those who are still living—and to jointly seek redemption and healing. To do otherwise would be, frankly speaking, sad, shameful, and pathetic.