Written by Ping-Hsuan Wang
The 15th Pride parade in Taipei attracted over 100,000 people in 2017 and broke all previous records for event attendance. Earlier in the year, the Highest Court in Taiwan ruled in favour of same-sex marriage, paving the way for the legislation of same-sex marriage. On the surface, the gay rights movement in Taiwan seems to have made great strides towards equality. Or has it?
Comments like “with the obscenity in the Pride parade… I can’t picture Taiwan’s future” and “all for business and pornographic promotion, Taiwan is hopeless”, evaluated the naked bodies in the parade as a threat to the nation.
When it comes to public opinion, polling has yielded varying results. A nationwide survey conducted in 2015 by Public Policy Network Participation Platform, for example, suggested that up to 71% supported a same-sex marriage act. In 2016, however, Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation conducted a similar poll showing that 46.3% of the respondents supported the legalisation of same-sex marriage, while 45.4% were opposed to it. In response to the results, You Ying-long, the Chairman of the organisation, concluded that “Taiwan is not ready.” Scholars, on the other hand, pointed out that not only were the sampling procedures questionable, but the same statistics could be interpreted otherwise. It is, therefore, not unreasonable for politicians to take a reserved stance toward the issue of legalising same-sex marriage.
Where does that leave us, and how can activists proceed to gauge public opinion and advance public discourse?
In this article, I propose a discursive approach grounded in the tradition of qualitative analysis of linguistics toward sketching the sociopolitical landscape in Taiwan. Computer-mediated communication (CMC) has gained much scholarly attention in recent decades. Analysing online discourse as a departure point not only extends academic research but also galvanizes social activism. First, it presents a more nuanced portrayal of public opinion in which attitudes and beliefs are not reduced to only two extremes, reinforcing the positive-negative binary. Online comments allow for a glimpse at some ideologies that people subscribe to.
As commentators take a stance toward the topic, they align with other like-minded people to create a social reality. Second, with the advent of technology and the increasingly ubiquitous presence of mobile devices, social networking sites have become the new arena for contestation over social issues. Computer-mediated interaction, although frequently referred to as virtual experiences distinguished from ‘real life’, reflects public opinion even more so than face-to-face interaction does. Activism would benefit substantially by considering these facets of our online activities. Social media has come to serve as the primary platform where ideas transpire and, in turn, transform into tangible actions.
While online comments are a lot messier compared to the carefully administered surveys with controlled variables, they provide vivid examples that illustrate what people think regarding legalising same-sex marriage. In fact, such an issue was never a dichotomous question that begets only two possible responses. Whether it is policy making or activism, these comments offer a new perspective. Often, online discussions in the comment sections are characterised by the ‘us-versus-them’ mentality and are associated with vicious polarisation.
While this phenomenon is not absent, the negotiation over what is appropriate for the trajectory of gay rights movement in Taiwan can critically inform activists of plausible directions to take in the future. These comments can be examined through the linguistic lens of ‘stance-taking’ in that the nature of these online discussions, sometimes highly contentious, is about displaying one’s stance. When viewed individually, the comments do not hold more significance than personal opinions; collectively, however, they give fodder to certain ideologies in the climate of opinions. Several linguists have noted that text-based interaction in CMC is the primary source for creating social reality. Taking this particular stance, one makes a convergent or divergent alignment with other commenters.
Take the news coverage of the Pride parade for example. Divergent stances on online discussion platforms correspond to the mutual demonisation that Caramagno observes: “anti-gay propaganda feeds upon radical images” while LGBTQ activists label religious groups as bigoted and homophobic. Comments like “with the obscenity in the Pride parade… I can’t picture Taiwan’s future” and “all for business and pornographic promotion, Taiwan is hopeless”, evaluated the naked bodies in the parade as a threat to the nation. Some comments position themselves supporting LGBTQ rights as divorced from public nudity; “I don’t discriminate against homosexuals, but freedom ≠ sexual liberation” or “I support same-sex equality, but I oppose this parade.” Others retort, “you’re hopeless for taking this news seriously” or “religions are for slandering.” On the flip side of the obvious divergence are comments with shared views that foster alternative social realities. Stance-taking in the comments, in this very sense, connects the negotiation of power at the micro level to wider ideologies in Taiwan.
A qualitative analysis of these online discussions reveals the minutia of public discourse that likely dissipates into numbers in polls. Taking heed of the ecology of stance-taking, we can move away from the procrustean framework of treating comment sections as an obstreperous playground, and instead toward deconstructing the discussions into a range of politically acceptable and unacceptable ideas. Despite such a rancorous process, this approach lends insights into not just why someone is against legalising same-sex marriage but also how much one is willing to compromise. To answer the question at the beginning: Taiwan is going through a transformation, and a large part of the shaping now takes place on social media. An in-depth investigation of online comments, therefore, can provide resounding outcomes for future activism not in the form of a debate between two sides, but a dialogue that include all sides.
Ping-Hsuan Wang is a Ping-Hsuan Wang is a socio-linguist based at Georgetown University. He works as a linguistic analyst examining physician-patient dialogues to gain insights into healthcare conversations. His research interests include gay immigrants’ coming-out narratives, framing in family food talk, epistemic positioning in therapeutic discourse, and stance-taking in computer-mediated communication. Ping-Hsuan also has his own YouTube channel . He tweets at @hoganindc2015. Image Credit: CC by Taiwan Scenery Gallery/Flickr