The term has been used with such abandon in recent years that it has virtually lost all meaning. Whether it’s the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), their opponents are all too often described as “irrational.” Tibetans who refuse cultural subjugation, Chinese human rights activists, residents of Hong Kong who are running out of patience on universal suffrage, Taiwanese who refuse to be forced out of their homes or Sunflower activists who take action to defend their democracy — all have been relegated to a category of people who, according to the authorities, belong in a mental asylum.
The terms “irrational” and its healthier counterpart “rational” are, to put it simply, rather subjective. It is easy to see that in any hierarchical system, accusations of irrationality by those in power are a tempting and effective means to discredit their opponents. But who sets the parameters, and under what circumstances, are key to understanding what the term means, or whether it means anything at all. Whenever the stigma of “irrationality” is affixed onto an individual or group of people, especially when done repeatedly by a government, one should think of what French anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu described as the mechanism of “recognition of legitimacy through the misrecognition of arbitrariness.” In other words, subject A frames the argument, sets the norm, and everything that departs from that norm is therefore illegitimate or, to put it in KMT/CCP terms, “irrational.” We all do this, often unconsciously. Evidently, this kind of linguistic hegemony can be highly problematic when it is wielded by autocratic regimes.
Accusations of irrationality were rife during the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of the Legislative Yuan in March and April 2014. According to Ma administration officials and pan-blue media mouthpieces, the activists had departed from the norm of civil — or rational — protest as defined by the authorities. It followed that “rational” protests should have been limited to small, peaceful, controlled gatherings at predetermined locations with proper permits and police supervision. Discontents should chant slogans, wave banners, stay within the limits of police fences, submit (always in supplicant fashion) a petition, and go home. Unsaid was the fact that social movements, NGOs, students, academics, and ordinary citizens had followed such rules for several months on issues from forced evictions to the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), to absolutely no avail: They were ignored, public hearings (when held at all) were a travesty, and they were constantly forced out by police. Meanwhile, the government continued to act as if no opposition existed. What, then, was the rational thing to do? Under the terms set by the authorities, capitulation was the rational course of action, even if this meant losing one’s home or allowing the government to sign nebulous and potentially damaging deals with an authoritarian country that does not recognize the existence of Taiwan. Conversely, refusing to give up and choosing to escalate was “irrational” — violent, even.
The term reared its ugly head once again during the just-concluded four-day visit by China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) Minister Zhang Zhijun (張志軍). Once again, protesters, this time mainly from the Black Island Nation Youth Alliance, which followed the official around the nation, were accused (KMT spokesman Charles I-hsin Chen [陳以信] leading the charge) of taking “irrational” action. Blocking roads, splashing white paint and gathering in hotel rooms departed from the norm and the rules of acceptable behavior.
The object here is not to condone or to condemn the actions taken by the activists or the appropriateness of subjecting a foreign “guest” to such acts. Instead, our aim is to highlight the high subjectivity and arbitrariness of the term “irrational.” As we have already established, ordinary protests — “rational” protests as defined by the Ma administration — have long failed to sway a government that, since its second term, has become increasingly (some would say inexplicably) disconnected from the public. Would more such peaceful protests, knowing that Zhang’s “dialogue” with Taiwanese society was an orchestrated and highly insulated affair, be rational, knowing that they would inevitably fail? To quote Albert Einstein, insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
The arbitrariness that underlies the government’s parameters of rationality goes much further. While KMT officials were quick to disparage the Black Island activists as “irrational,” they were completely silent about the throngs of gangsters, ostensibly associated with the pro-unification Chang An-le (張安樂), who materialized at every venue visited by Zhang and who on occasion physically assaulted protesters while police officers looked on, incidents that unfortunately have become much frequent since Chang’s return to Taiwan in June 2013. Also conveniently ignored (or arbitrarily misrecognized, to echo Bourdieu) were, to name a few: Overreliance on China; lack of media access during the visit; the vested interests of cross-strait negotiators; the lack of oversight in cross-strait deals; China’s irredentist claims on Taiwan; the threat of force against it; the constant references by the TAO that the future of Taiwan should be determined by 1.3 billion Chinese; the KMT’s tendency to intimidate people and NGOs in foreign countries who criticize it; and CCP authoritarianism. None of those, if we turn the tables, could conceivably be interpreted as “rational.” And yet, Zhang, the CCP and the KMT were in the rational camp; those who oppose their actions were “irrational.” (That isn’t to say, however, that Black Island shouldn’t propose viable alternative policies for Taiwan’s economy in a global context, which at this point it does not seem to have thought through.)
In fact, the Black Island’s unorthodox actions (or the Sunflowers’ for that matter) were the very opposite of irrational; they were calculated and represented escalation in line with global traditions of civil disobedience. Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, two celebrated icons of peaceful civil disobedience, understood very well the dynamics of protest. Above all, they knew that if they were to succeed in their efforts to combat injustice (colonialism and racism respectively), they had to refuse to play by the rules and escalate in such a way that inconvenienced both the authorities and the public. Otherwise, they would simply be ignored. Men and women of color therefore broke contemporary laws and sat in the “whites-only” sections on public buses; Indians organized marches and went on strike, paralyzing the economy. All of this was, in theory, illegal and under the terms set by the rulers at the time, highly “irrational.” It is hard to imagine that Gandhi and King would have prevailed had they stuck to the rules created by the authorities, or if they had given up after being accused of irrationality. In fact, acting “rationally” then would likely have ensured the continuation of Indian subjugation and discriminatory practices in the U.S. against citizens of African descent. Both men were in reality very rational and realized that only through sustained campaigns that shook their societies at the foundations could they change the parameters of legitimacy and force a societal recognition of arbitrariness. (I would argue that “rationality” would be better used in the context of proportionality rather than whether opposition is itself rational or not. For example, bombing the hotel in which Zhang was staying overnight would be irrational, as the act would unquestionably break the rules of proportionality, regardless of the Chinese threat against Taiwan. By this same yardstick, throwing paint or blocking access to a road were beyond doubt rational in the context of China’s designs on Taiwan, perceived signs of KMT complicity, and government indifference to public opinion.)
In the war for hearts and minds that is now being waged in Taiwan, the KMT has set the parameters for rationality through the exercise of linguistic hegemony, which unfortunately a large number of people both within Taiwan and abroad have agreed to follow uncritically. Language matters immensely under such circumstances, and when governments make repeated use of certain key terms to counter their opponents, we should request proper definitions from them — in this case, what constitutes “rational” — and be sure that we understand the context in which they are utilized.
J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.