Friday, February 3, 2012

Can 韩寒 salvage the fight against 方舟子

方舟子 vs 韩寒 is a clash between two heavyweights of Chinese online culture.  They both have millions of followers online as well as many famous friends and enemies in real life, with 韩寒's base being larger.  In essence, 方舟子 argues that 韩寒 had ghostwriting based on his and others' analyses of 韩寒's early articles and novels and of what 韩寒 and his people said about the events surrounding those writings.  韩寒 has no effective answers to the criticisms and has now gone to the court trying to stop 方舟子.  The funny part is that 韩寒 has long had a reputation of bashing writers, artists, officials, and other people, and always came up on top, until now.   方舟子has a similar track record, although his area has been mostly in science which is quite different from 韩寒's, making this encounter even more surprising.

In the court of public opinion, 韩寒 has decidedly lost the fight so far, although his fans still flood many polls.  This is because of two reasons.  First is that 方舟子 has support from the older, more educated people, while 韩寒's fans are mostly young and more superficial.  Even many of 方舟子's high profile enemies are at least not against him this time, and a lot of people resent the fact that a high school failure, i.e., 韩寒, would enjoy such a success in life for so long and openly advocate for it.  Second is the way both sides argue their cases.  方舟子 uses steady analysis and logic and receives help from online to discover many holes in 韩寒's stories.  韩寒 misread many of 方舟子's arguments, which makes people question his intelligence and ability, and resorted to personal attacks, which turns more people off.  韩寒's close family and friends offer little help, and his fans are loud yet useless. 

There are quite a few lessons from this ongoing fight.  One is that education is critical.  Unlike Bill Gates or Steve Jobs who left college, 韩寒 is just not a learned person.  His popularity is mostly a result of shrewd marketing, landing him among top 100 influential something in many lists including on the Time magazine in 2010.  Yet his image is always fragile, and he rarely does interviews and other public events.  On the other hand, 方舟子was well educated in China and the US and reads and writes in a wide range of subjects.

The second is that people need to know how to do PR.  韩寒's PR was awful; if handled better early on, e.g., without the personal attacks and other silly stuff, 方舟子 might not even have turned his gun on 韩寒.  The irony is that 韩寒 and his so-called "public intellectual" friends frequently bash other people including government officials, earning them media exposure and popularity.  A common argument of theirs is that the officials do not know how to deal with incidents, thereby making things worse and justifying more suspicion or criticisms, even though the officials might be innocent to begin with.  But when the sudden situation happened to 韩寒, his response was equally or more unreasonable than those he and friends have always protested.  We are just not good at following our own advice.

This fight also shows that scientific reasoning is important even in the literature field and likely in very aspect of our daily life, itself an enlightenment process.  And as it is going to the court, a whole new different level, we will have a chance to see how the legal system defines or decides on authorship, literature analysis and criticism, and libel. 

What should 韩寒 have done and do now?  If 韩寒 had had been modest and stayed low, he might not even have had this fight.  But 韩寒 has such a flamboyant personality and has been so pampered that he thought he would easily run over this opponent like countless others before.  Unfortunately, 方舟子 is unique and at a completely different level intellectually.  His personal attacks did not scare 方舟子 at all. 

The damage is done.  People now see that 韩寒 lost his footing just like anybody else in the face of adversities, his image of "public intellectual" shattered, so is his legendary image of a literature genius. 

So how to salvage the fight?  Both sides have advantages and disadvantages.  For 韩寒 to succeed, it is not enough to defend that one or two articles are legit with original drafts, which have questionable relevance anyway.  For 方舟子 to suggest ghostwriting, all he needs is to find just one instance, out of hundreds of 韩寒's long and short assays, and he has found plenty of inconsistencies. 

A key fact to remember, however, is that ghostwriting is very difficult to prove.  There is no smoking gun here, and there is perhaps not even a gun.  方舟子 suspects it was 韩寒's father, but he is certainly not coming forward.  方舟子may have been largely successful in the public, but his case is still weak if ever presented in court.  韩寒's decision to going to the court has been widely ridiculed, but it is the only way left to limit or reverse the damage on his part.  It will divert at least some people's attention, introduce new variables, and open a new battle front.

Here is what 韩寒's people should or will do.  They will say or admit in public and in court that his writings were mostly fictional (so 方舟子's scientific analyses do not apply), the discrepancies in their own accounts are due to faulty memories (so 方舟子's many criticisms are blunted), 韩寒's prior words about himself and work contain many inaccuracies and hyperboles, and 韩寒 did learn (life experience, etc) from others, but maintain that he wrote the articles and novels himself (so 方舟子's attacks lose traction). 

韩寒 has started doing these in recent days.  He needs to do more and sticks to the above three points at every chance he has, i.e., in interviews, public appearances, and court.  This way, most of his fans will probably still accept him as somebody with gift as well as common shortcomings.

After this fight, 韩寒 definitely needs to improve himself.  Not just in PR.  He needs to learn more, reading books that have not been in his comfort zones.  He also needs to befriend people with serious science background.  This way, he would not make the same mistakes he has been making as a "public intellectual" or "opinion leader" for these many years.  He should feel very lucky that he was not exposed until now.

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