In my speech at the Opening of the Legal Year in January this year, I quoted from an article in the Economist, “Do social media threaten democracy?” which stated:
“... Everyone who has scrolled through Facebook knows how, instead of imparting wisdom, the system dishes out compulsive stuff that tends to reinforce people’s biases.
.....Because different sides see different facts, they share no empirical basis for reaching a compromise. Because each side hears time and again that the other lot are good for nothing but lying, bad faith and slander, the system has even less room for empathy. Because people are sucked into a maelstrom of pettiness, scandal and outrage, they lose sight of what matters for the society they share.
This tends to discredit the compromises and subtleties of liberal democracy, and to boost the politicians who feed off conspiracy and nativism.”
Back in January, although we were alert to the phenomenon of confirmation bias, we could not have expected that it would polarise society to the extent that we have witnessed in the recent months. Some people tend to jump to conclusions on an issue impulsively on the basis of information and materials fed through social media, without allowing themselves time for proper consideration of those materials and other sources of information.
It has been said that one way to effectively overcome confirmation bias is to surround oneself with a diverse group of people and listen to dissenting views. In addition, staying objective and accepting challenges to existing views are helpful in widening perspectives on how else things can be.
Engaging in dialogue with an open mind is thus important to enable a better understanding of the differences and to identify common grounds. The Law Society has recently organised a Members’ Forum (the “Forum”) to provide an opportunity for our members to exchange views on how to rebuild trust and move forward. The Forum was fully subscribed, which was indicative of our members’ keen interest to engage in open discussions and to contribute to finding ways to resolve Hong Kong’s current difficult situation.
The common goal for every person who loves Hong Kong is, undoubtedly, to lead Hong Kong to a better future. Our role as solicitors in achieving this common goal has never been as important as it is today, considering that our primary role as officers of the court is to defend the rule of law. As stressed by a member at the Forum, he also had five demands, but they were all identical - “to uphold the rule of law” (repeated five times).
Every person is free to form their own views and adopt a position in any matter including political issues. Solicitors are no different and we all enjoy the same freedom. However, solicitors must never
allow their professionalism to be unduly influenced, compromised or impaired by their own personal stance on a political issue. Professionalism is the guiding beacon to solicitors in defending the rule of law, in upholding their duties and responsibilities to clients and to the court, and in meeting their obligations to the public they serve. Professionalism is the rock upon which the public maintains confidence in the justice system. It is especially at times of social unrest and conflict that the public look to the legal profession, as defenders of the rule of law, to maintain the fair administration of justice and to do their part to facilitate true access to justice.
In the Forum, some members have stressed the importance of assisting the public to correctly understand the law so that they know clearly their legal rights and obligations as well as the legal consequences of breaching the law. No one is better suited than qualified lawyers who have the relevant expertise to take up this educational task. Some lawyers have already been giving their personal interpretations of the law through, for example, social media and various communication platforms. This is helpful, but extreme care must be exercised in making sure that the interpretations are strictly based on the law and not tinted by any bias caused by political preferences.
Another suggestion made at the Forum, which had also been previously considered by the Law Society and submitted to the Government for consideration, was for the latter to introduce a mediation pilot scheme to resolve some of the current social conflicts in Hong Kong. These conflicts have, in some instances, broken up relationships among colleagues in workplace, members in families, schoolmates and teachers in schools and friends in many other different walks of life. The healing process will be difficult if the conflicts are left neglected or suppressed and not properly resolved. Professional assistance should be made available by the Government to help the parties involved to deal with the differences in a mutually acceptable manner, restore trust and confidence in each other and move forward.
As members of a forward-looking profession, we owe a duty to future generations of solicitors to play our part in promoting a proper understanding of the rule of law and to do our best to ensure that we leave the practice environment in better shape than we inherited it. As a citizen of Hong Kong, we all wish Hong Kong to continue to prosper and flourish. Let us work together towards achieving this common goal.