“What Broccoli Tells Us About the Umbrella Movement” by Vinton Poon

Umbrella Movement

From a poster “KEEP CALM & STAY TOGETHER” seen in Mong Kok. Photo by Jason S Polley.

The people involved in the Umbrella Movements have been called many names by those who disagree with them. They were described as being ignorant, provoked, misinformed, and manipulated. In the eyes of the opposition, the protesters, who wore yellow ribbons as their symbol, were dummies whose strings were being pulled by organisations outside the country, who aimed to harm Hong Kong and China.

On the other hand, people who are sympathetic to the movement often see its detractors, symbolised by blue ribbons, as puppets controlled by the Hong Kong (and very possibly Beijing) government. From this perspective, the blue ribboners do what they do merely because that are told to do so by the authorities. They lack the ability to think independently and act autonomously.

There is a term for people who are manipulated by the authorities, acting in favour of those who are in power: useful idiot. This term is often linked to Vladimir Lenin. As the term suggests, these people work hard for a cause that they are not aware of, and this cause is often benefiting no one but those who are on top. They are useful because they serve the interests of the authorities, and they are “idiots” because they lack awareness of what is actually going on.

So now we have two different viewpoints given rise to by the Umbrella Movement, yet both viewpoints are the same in that they involve an accusation that says those who hold a different opinion are being influenced by external interests. The hypnotised individuals could be the victims of lies, wrong information, and, perhaps most of all, propaganda. Indeed, propaganda is widely regarded as an effective way to influence opinions. Citizens, especially those who live under authoritarian regimes, are often perceived to be brainwashed by their leaders through the use of propaganda. Even in democratic countries, people’s opinions are at best affected, and at worse manipulated, by politicians and lobbyists who employ propaganda – in the form of advertising – judiciously.

But are people really that easily controlled? A theory proposed by the linguist John Joseph suggests otherwise. In the last chapter of his book Language and Politics, he discusses propaganda and its limits in depth, and he starts his discussion by talking about broccoli. Broccoli is a vegetable that is disliked by most children in the West because of its taste, yet it is known for its nutritious qualities and is often considered to be a healthy option on meal tables. If, Joseph says, propaganda is so powerful and the government wants to promote a healthy life style to its citizens, then it, together with the broccoli farmers, should invest in promoting the consumption of broccoli. The government should use propaganda to transform the vegetable into something cool and chic, something that children desire. Why do propaganda campaigns of this sort never take place? Joseph argues that it is because the cost of the advertising campaigns simply does not cover the extra income these advertisements generate. In other words, propaganda is not that powerful.

Given that we agree with Joseph’s argument, why do we see both sides of the Umbrella Movement accusing each other of being brainwashed? Joseph explains this using an observation:

Something else is true without exception in my experience: I have known hundreds of people who were absolutely convinced that media propaganda was controlling the minds of their fellow citizens, but I have yet to meet anyone who thinks that he himself or she herself is acting under the influence of such manipulation. Oneself is always resistant to the perceived propaganda, but no one else is, or anyway very few, apart from the invisible string-pullers who are behind it all and whose interests are being served. (Joseph 2006, pp. 141-2) 

We all believe that we see through propaganda, but just as universal is our opinion that says other people are under its influence. During the Umbrella Movement, I often witnessed two camps of people – on Facebook, or Whatsapp group chat, or even face to face – accusing each other of wrongly believing in misinformation, while endlessly and tirelessly quoting facts that favoured their side that they had gathered from various credible and not-so-credible sources. Not only did they believe that they were the only ones not affected by propaganda, they also maintained that people on the other side of the issue mistook propaganda for truth. In other words, when the information favoured them, it was the truth, and when the information disagreed with them, it was propaganda.

Of course, it would be careless of me to say that every piece of information each side believes in is the product of the calculating string pullers. There are for sure unbiased facts that people refer to before taking their stance. It would, for example, be unreasonable to consider the police teargasing the protesters as just a conspiracy theory. Also, it would just be ridiculous to genuinely believe that the police handled the protesters like caring mothers handling their children (I for one have never seen, and will very likely never see, a caring mother teargasing her children). However, despite having facts that can be used to support one side or the other, it does appear to be the case that people cherry pick information that suits their ideology and pre-determined stance. It is easy for the supporters of the police to accuse the protesters as being a group of educated and demanding spoilt brats. Just as easy is the yellow ribboners regarding the blue ribboners as misinformed idiots mobilised by the authorities.

Unfortunately, maybe because it is actually easier to put people into stereotypes, there are individuals who form their opinions by utilising these generalisations. For instance, a senior PRC official who handles Hong Kong affairs commented that Hong Kong people “do not know where they are”, and that they needed to be “re-enlightened on understanding their identity”. The implication here is that the protesters are in the dark, and they would not be protesting if they saw the light. This official is a prime example of the kind of person Joseph mentions above: one who considers others to be swayed by propaganda (in this case from the West), and he and those of a similar mind are the only ones who see through that.

Joseph’s Broccoli Theory not only demonstrates the limitations of propaganda, it also illustrates the tendency for people to claim their immunity from propaganda and to accuse others of being influenced by it. Even though it is hard to imagine that anyone could be totally immune to these tendencies, education may be the key to resisting them, at least to some extent. An independent and critical mind will research, contemplate, and evaluate information it obtains before accepting it as truth. One cannot be completely objective, but at least one can attempt to be more informed and critical before taking a stance.

As someone who is caught in the middle of the Umbrella Movement, together with everyone in Hong Kong, I am very likely to have been influenced by information (be it fact or fiction) that favours my stance. With this in mind, I have to remind myself that, while I would like to believe that I have thought through the issue after evaluating evidence from both sides of the debate, I also need to admit (albeit reluctantly) that I am not totally unbiased, and that at least some people on the other side have done the same before taking their stance. Like many yellow ribboners, I believe in true democracy (notice the loaded term here) for good reasons, but if I dismissed people who disagree with me just as the aforementioned official did to the likes of me, then we would never be able to have a dialogue, and truly discuss what is best for Hong Kong and her people.

Joseph, John E. (2006). Language and Politics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.


VintonJust like an average person, Vinton Poon assumes many different identities. To name a few (not in any particular order), he is a son, a lecturer, a badminton enthusiast, an extrovert, an elder brother, a debating coach, a semi-Buddhist, an academic, a friend, a hypochondriac, a volunteer, and a pursuer of good tea.  [Click here to read all entries by Vinton.]

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