by Martin Yip
I was first introduced to Les Misérables in seventh-grade music class: whenever our music teacher had time to spare at the end of class, he would go on YouTube and play us clips of its musical adaptations. I was captivated, and when a few years later the film adaptation was released, I quite liked it too. The soundtrack was wonderful, and the characters so round and relatable. For me, Les Misérables was a fascinating story of revolution, of ordinary folk having to make the most extraordinary decisions about what they would do with their lives and what they stood for.
The inconvenient truth is that the real world is more complex than the world Hugo depicted. Revolutions are not always motivated by noble intentions, and they are often unsuccessful. Mao Zedong initiated the Cultural Revolution in Communist China, in a bid to concentrate and consolidate power in his own hands; the resulting damage to traditional Chinese culture was immeasurable. The Arab Spring was a series of revolutions that supposedly were to bring an end to oppressive regimes and perhaps even catalyse democratic reform. Alas, only Tunisia has transitioned to democracy, while other Middle Eastern countries continue to suffer from unrest and even civil war. In Hong Kong, we had the ‘Umbrella Revolution’, as some refer to it: 79 days of street protests, calling for ‘true universal suffrage’ and opposing electoral reforms; the proposal by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress would have allowed a select pro-Beijing committee to screen candidates for Chief Executive before voters could go to the polls.
It is nonetheless important to recognise the intrinsic value of revolutions, for all their possible caveats. Revolutions are by definition ground-sweeping; they aim or threaten (depending on point of view) to fundamentally alter societal order, whether socially, politically, or economically. They force each citizen to engage with the matter and put forward their thoughts – there is no abstaining and no being ‘neutral’. What matters is that, through this process of deciding where we stand, we clarify our values and our beliefs. Revolutions provide the perfect opportunity for us to show, if only to ourselves, our commitment to those values. It is easy to be swept away by the tide and mindlessly pick a side in these situations, but then the unexamined life is not worth living.
This is not to blindly encourage revolutions, especially considering the destruction that they may potentially cause, or seem to be associated with in general. There are ‘revolutions’ of less salience that are still worthwhile. The internet was a revolution, as was the printing press. In science, every one of Kuhn’s paradigm shifts are revolutions in their own way. It would be naïve to think that any revolution, in any sense of the word, would solve some sort of problem once and for all. But even if we can anticipate the fruits of today’s revolution to be rendered insignificant by tomorrow’s revolution, it remains meaningful for us to help pave the way of human advancement. It also follows that we don’t have to think of revolutions as necessarily monumental and dramatic incidents, so long as their effects are far-reaching and long-lasting.
As Marius and his friends so boldly sang, ‘Beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see? Then join in the fight that will give you the right to be free!’ What would you give up for the world you long to see?