A cousin called at 4 a.m. He needed ten thousand baht at once. Of course, we responded. That was a few months ago. We are waiting.
Friends of mine think failure to repay personal loans is a simple matter of duplicity. Almost every foreign national (“ex-pat”) living in Thailand for very long has been “hit” for a loan. In many cases there is no apparent effort to repay. I have reflected on this phenomenon for several decades, and I would like my expat friends to consider these three principles:
A. The operative dynamic, the underlying engine driving the matter, is not financial, IT IS RELATIONAL
B. The presenting issue is also not about money but ABOUT NEED VS RESOURCES.
C. The facilitating matter translated into money as the immediate solution to the need, IS NEVER SEPARATE FROM THE OTHER TWO PRINCIPLES, A AND B.
Financial, commercial, and legal enterprises do not work this way. But it is delusional to try to compare what is going on when a neighbor needs help from us, to when she needs a bank loan to get her son into college. The bank is more duty-bound to be repaid than we are. It’s not just that banks have regulations and powers. When you are asked for money, the entire situation is different.
All social interactions are relational. The nature of the relationship determines where a financial transaction sits on the scale between zero % interpersonal (as is a withdrawal from an ATM) to 100 % interpersonal (as when a spouse brings home groceries).
When a nephew borrows money from an aunt, all factors are in play: the need, the amount, their affinity, their ages and locations … everything. The next time the nephew needs a loan all those factors are re-calculated, plus the memory of the previous loan and how it was handled by everyone. Understanding what is going on when one is asked for a loan is complicated by the need to try to know how the other party views the relationship at the time and what difference this response to the request for money will make to the relationship from now on. “Does it matter in any way you can anticipate?”
At the heart of every request for money is the possibility that refusal will sever the relationship permanently. No one asks for money without believing that the donor could give the money if they liked you enough.
That brings us to the next principle.
The need is paramount. When an emergency arises, it is easier to focus on the need than when the need is of a less urgent kind. If Nephew calls for 10 thousand baht from the hospital it is different than if he’s calling from a jewelry store. But the pressure he feels may not be very different. We would have to get “inside his head” to know how important his need is to him at the time.
Obviously, you, being asked for help, are being treated as a prospective source to address the need. You are a means. You are an outside agent; in a way you are a third party to what is going on. To some extent you are being manipulated. All this is true, but it is secondary.
When Nephew calls you, it is because he believes that you have sufficient resources to be able to respond. He would not call if he knew you loved him but were in deep trouble with creditors yourself. So, the factor that matters is his need versus your resources.
Money is the way to get what will meet the need. Money transactions make things happen. Sometimes the need can be met without spending money (but this essay is not about those times). Even when it seems clear that what is being requested is money, the transaction is interpersonal (principle A) and circumstantial (principle B).
For example, the picture attached to this essay is of a groom on the way to his bride's family to ratify his engagement. They will prominently carry cash and gold jewelry. These signify both the intention of the groom to bond with the bride and her family and his capacity to undertake the duties of a husband. (It is an obsolete idea that the money is a "bride's price" in any way, Nobody in Thailand thinks that, these days.) In fact, the money on this occasion is only important in what it stands for. The money is really a sign. It is, in itself, not basic to this wedding event.
In Asia, money rarely is the most important part of a financial transaction.
Now we come to the essential dynamic about why so many loans are not repaid.
Failure to repay is not basically about INTENTION but about CAPACITY.
In every case of loans between family members or friends that I know anything about, the intention to repay is intact, even after years of default. In all cases, all of them, the lack of repayment is because of the sense that the person who has given the money does not need the money as much as the person still does who has borrowed it. Repayment is “not yet” at the top of the list. Discussion about dates for repayment are always tentative, no matter how precise they may be at the time they are proposed. Priorities change. A date to repay is never a high priority. If a repayment date is missed it is no indication of any change in intention to repay.
Now I am addressing ex-pat friends candidly, and I submit that if you persist in your belief that a financial transaction in Asia is about how the money is handled, you are still failing to perceive that it is always about how people are being handled. IT’S ABOUT LOSING FACE.
Where thinking is cloudy, it is about one’s ability to do what one intends. Intention is about character. Everyone accepts that. But one’s ability may be inhibited by factors beyond one’s control. As long as one’s intentions are honorable, one’s character is intact.
I know I am suggesting it is a subtle matter to distinguish between degrees of intention when it is obvious that intention to repay will never become a priority unless the creditor creates some pressure in that regard. If it seems that time has arrived, there are ways of stirring the pot, if the risk to your peace is low enough. The creditor must let it be known that urgent need has arisen.
Finally, when is enough “enough”?
A protégé borrowed a large sum from me in order to fill a contract for which he was to be paid and then I would be repaid in full. In the meantime, his mother needed urgent help to save her fruit crop, and then the crop sold at a loss. She threatened suicide and got medical help. The needs of that family are very great. So, I will not push to get my money back. It’s not just that I feel sorry for them. The family has no resources. There is no point in trying to get water out of a stone. At the time I gave the money, repayment seemed assured. I have been paid back three or four times by them. But this time is different. Now, however, even though their need is still pretty high, I think we have reached the limit. There will be no more grants of money, even at the risk of a cooling down of our friendship. I think he knows that if he were to ask again, I would find a way of saying “no”.
So, expat friends, remember this: when your Thai relatives ask you for financial help, it is because they think their need is great enough to infringe on your assumed resources. Their failure to repay is not what they intend, and to imply that it is a matter of character is a slur that is capable of damaging your standing in the clan and community. To be perfectly clear: To malign a person’s character is just about the most destructive social mistake one can make.
Manslaughter or accident?
For the first time in recent memory, our village has been the scene of a violent death not caused by motor vehicles.
The victim is the wife/mother. The survivors are her husband and adult son. They were all drunk and fighting last night. This was so common that next door relatives considered it normal for them, and tried to pay no attention. But the woman was unconscious in water when neighbors intervened. First they had to disarm the son who was threatening the father with a knife. When they retrieved the woman, they were told, "She's just drunk!" But when she was brought to the hospital she was pronounced "DOA -- dead on arrival." The police interrogated the father and son. The son accused his father of killing his wife.
As the new day dawned the father had disappeared, throwing suspicion on him all the more. But by mid-morning the police announced that the case was "accidental drowning while inebriated."
Before long, a couple of things will certainly happen. The woman's body will be returned to her home and we will all become involved in helping the relatives conduct a funeral. Village elders will agree how to respond to the threat posed by the despondent ghost of the woman who died in such circumstances.
Unfortunately, a couple of things will probably not change. Domestic violence will continue to be considered a private matter. Alcohol abuse will continue to inflict immense harm. Root causes, like sleeping dogs -- no matter how dangerous, will be let lie.
ACADEMIC RECONSIDERATION OF WHAT CAUSES HARM
The current effort to rescue J.K. Rowling from the abuse she has endured is part of the trend to re-evaluate the “woke” movement that has moved into intimidation and imaginary victimization. Because of her astronomical celebrity status, whatever she does takes on magnified significance, as does whatever happens to her. So, it’s mostly not about the content of her argument about gender and the law, but it’s about the impact she has.
Rowling is being excoriated because of her advocacy of “women’s right to spaces for biological women only,” and because “she has insisted that when it comes to determining a person’s legal gender status, self-declared gender identity is insufficient.” Others have advocated these things, but Rowling is bold and famous and she is recognized as a leader, and therefore is targeted as an opponent to Trans women who are trying to gain freedom and rights. She has been branded a TERF (“trans-exclusionary radical feminist”) and “trans-phobic.” She is fighting back.
As we emerge from the mire (as it seems we are doing) where imagined harm is treated as if it is just as damaging as all other kinds of physical and social attack, and where all disagreement on the harm is equally harmful (and punishable to the fullest possible extent), we are struggling to find a balance. Indeed, the struggle is to regain a rational definition of truth and facts. We are not yet within reach of this. It is unclear how much will be left of our 300-year consensus about the nature and value of education when we manage to settle this struggle. But the mood is shifting.
Meanwhile, according to those who are trying to insert sense into the fight, the highlighted issue is which marginalized group is most in need: trans men and women in their effort to gain basic human rights, or women who have survived abuse and are trying to develop legal means to protect themselves from threats. Rowling insists she is defending women in need of legal protection. In the process of undertaking this noble effort, she has been attacked and is a victim of injustice.
J.K. Rowling, whose influence rivals royalty, and who would be hard-pressed to produce evidence of having suffered actual financial or physical harm, is claiming to have been harmed (or the claim is being made in her behalf) while the rebuttal to those (trans and others) who oppose her is that “imagined harm is simply less consequential than actual damage or credible threats.” In other words, “My imagined harm is more important than your imagined harm.”
This is one of those “one or the other” times. It is undeniable that Trans people are being subjected to murder, discrimination, social ejections, and obstruction from resources. They need help. It is obvious that Rowling’s more rigorous legal controls over who can say “I am the gender I say I am” are not helpful to them. Rowling makes the argument that these legal measures will protect an equally endangered group: women who have reason to be scared due to past experiences, and women who can’t come to terms with the removal of the binary concept.
I predict that Rowling and friends will say, in forthcoming podcasts and writings, that it’s high time to have a clear way to separate women from “women-want-to-bees” and pretenders, and to protect children and adolescents from being swept into life-changing measures before they really know what it’s all about. She may need to concede that these legal measures will impinge on unrestricted freedoms, but not more than other safety laws we have had to accept and have grown to appreciate.
For me, on this side of the world and in close contact with all manner of gender ambiguity, there is far too much that is invasive and wrong about legal processes that impose physical examinations to establish biological identities which over-ride all other considerations. This is going to replace one set of bullies with another.
[Note: the picture accompanying this blog is of LGBTIQA advocate extraordinaire, Sirisak and a friend at a Pride event last year. Both are representatives of the sector J.K. Rowling is trying to protect “real women” from. I will argue that a physical exam in which authorities get to see more of the anatomies of these two and hundreds of thousands of others, will not establish a valuable degree of clarity about what gender they are on a continuum, nor will it help protect “real” biological women from men who terrify them.]
We can do better than this.
Ivan P. Hall
Ivan Parker Hall was born in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1932 when his parents were Presbyterian missionaries there. Their family returned to the USA in 1939 when World War II was imminent. He received his B.A. in European History from Princeton University, an M.A. in International Relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and his PhD in Japanese History from Harvard University in 1969. In the 1950s he served in the US Information Service in Pakistan and in the future Bangladesh. He was a cultural attaché in Afghanistan after that. He served as a cultural diplomat at the American Embassy in Tokyo from 1977-1984. Then, for the following 9 years he worked as a visiting professor at Tsukuba, Keio, and Gakushuin Universities. He was guest lecturer at Harvard University, Yonsei University in Seoul, Tokyo University at Komaha, and Renmin (People’s) University in Beijing. He retired to Chiang Mai, Thailand where he was a guest lecturer at Payap University.
He was best known for his book Cartels of the Mind: Japan’s Intellectual Closed Shop (1997), an expose of the barriers to foreign participation in Japan’s academic, media, and legal institutions that was chosen by Business Week as one of its “Ten Best Business Books of 1997”, and of Bamboozled! – How America Loses the Intellectual Game with Japan and its Implications for our Future in Asia (2002).
Friends and relatives remember Ivan’s tenacious opinions on matters about which he was informed. They included his activism in behalf of LGBT issues and matters of civil law. His nephew recalls how he engaged politically in multiple countries – bringing a landmark civil rights lawsuit in Japan and resigning vociferously from his federal position in protest of the policies of the administration of US President Ronald Reagan.
About two years ago Ivan left his Hillside Condo in Chiang Mai and moved to Hoenow, a suburb of Berlin, where he died on February 1, 2023.
VANISHING VILLAGE CULTURE
Here in Thailand it is still not hard to come across an E-tan อีแต๋น on village roads, although you can usually hear them quite a while before you see them. They are known for their sputtering, muffler-less “bang-bang-bang” (or “put-put-put” if you are kindly disposed toward them).
I think their days are numbered and they are an artifact of vanishing village culture.
E-tan farm trucks are fabricated rather than manufactured. They are made of salvaged parts, put together largely by hand, and powered by a Kobuta engine. Their design tends toward the imaginative side, but they are utilitarian.
The engine was first produced in the 1950s by the Siam Kobuta Co. It is a single cylinder, 14-horsepower diesel engine, widely used as a long-handle, 2-wheel field tractor, in place of water buffalos. The motors were and still are also used as water pumps. Apparently it was the first motor of its type to be practical, and the design has been copied all over East and Southeast Asia.
Now, both the tractor and the E-tan truck are fading as larger tractors and “real” trucks are available at affordable prices.
Expelling Evil Day by Day
Just when I think I have seen every Northern Thai Buddhist ceremony still being done, a new one comes along. On January 21, 2023 at Wat Ta Pong in Sanpatong District of Chiang Mai an old Lanna "Suat Sadaw' Kroh'" ceremony was resurrected from obscurity.
The ceremony was chanting to expel evil.
To set up the ceremony, nine tables were placed in 3 rows of three, with trays made of plaited banana stalk loaded with items formerly considered essential for a satisfactory life. They included hand-rolled cigars, betel nut, bananas (slices), orange sections, fermented tea, biscuits or some other goodie, and balls of sticky rice. In the center of the tray was a cluster of flowers in the midst of which a bees-wax candle was stuck. The most prominent feature of the tray was a rank of colored paper flags, actually called jaw' in Northern Thai dialect or chaw' in Central Thai which usually indicates a boquet. (See photos of the tables and trays.)
The rows of flags represented the days of the week. Sunday's tray had 6 red flags, Monday's had 18 yellow ones. Tuesday: 8 pink; Wednesday 17 green; Thursday 19 Orange; Friday 21 sky-blue, and Saturday had 10 violet-purple flags. There were also trays for the god Rahu with 12 black flags and for Gay-tu with 9 white ones. Those were the numbers if the set were full, but some trays had a few less. Each tray also contained a pair of animals, in miniature. Sunday's tray had an elephant and goat, Monday's had a kwai (water buffalo) and krut (the mythic bird-giant that is the Thai royal symbol, the transport for Rama). Tuesday's tray had a lion and sheep. Etc. The reason for these particular colors, numbers, and animals is mythic, with no single explanation other than the ancient assignment of a color with a divinity, red being the color of Suriya, yellow for Chandra, pink for Mangala, and so forth.
Beneath each table members of the Ta Pong community had put items of clothing in bowls. Each person put a single garment or cloth piece under the table for the day of the week in which they were born. These pieces of cloth symbolized the person, of course.
The ceremony began with the usual chanting, and then the abbot of Wat Ta Pong was invited to light the candle in the tray for Sunday. As he did so, a priest who was the instructor for this ceremony chanted. He told me the chants for each day were different, but they were substantially to expel evil influences for the people born on that day and to have those evil entities and forces float away into the waters of oblivion. His recitation took about 5 minutes. When he was done, the chapter of monks chanted a response in unison. Then the abbot was invited to light the candle for Monday. This went on color by color, day by day, finishing with black for the waning phase of the Moon (that phase going by the name Rahu, the god of eclipses) and then white for the waxing phase of the Moon (Gay-tu) being the eighth and nineth.
This ceremony was one of several included in the weekend to mark the 62nd birthday of Phra-kru Arun, the abbot of Wat Ta Pong. They included a Syb-jata life-extension ceremony, the awarding of educational scholarships for novices under the patronage of Wat Ta Pong, and a birthday lunch, followed by a "tawn" ceremony to commence the tearing-down of the dormitory for the novices in preparation for building a new housing unit after 50 years.
This set of events served several purposes, I think. As a birthday celebration it reiterated the importance of the abbot in the life of Ta Pong village and surrounding communities. This reinforces his authority and his ability to do things, including supporting the education of several novices and other children, as well as construction of things for the temple, such as the new dorm. Not entirely coincidentally, the life-extension ceremony is one of a number of measures being undertaken to combat a life-threatening medical condition for the abbot. At the same time, all of us who participated also were infused with the ineffible enhancement to our kwan (elan-vital or life-force) as we were symbolically connected through the 9-strand cords to the Lord Buddha, whose image was regally clad for the occasion in a magnificent red cloak.
The reintroduction of the "expulsion of evil" ceremony is part of a prolonged effort to keep Northern Thai religious practices in mind. But that ceremony is also indicative of the persistent power of the supernatural in Thailand. About the only aspect of this ceremony that is Buddhist is the fact that it was conducted inside the temple by ordained monks. That does make the ceremony Buddhist. There were also no obvious Brahmin or Hindu elements or symbols for this ceremony. But it was all about demonic powers, kharmic evil, and the restoration of tranquil goodness. Orthodox Buddhism insists this can be accomplished by individuals practicing right thinking.
Evil is never completely comprised of kharma, which is the result of demeritorious behavior in this life or previous lives. Evil resides on its own, insinuating itself in people's lives as conditions permit. It is the part of evil which can be expelled, that this old ceremony addresses.
“Academic freedom” would be much clearer if it were understood to be an aspect of ACADEMIC INTEGRITY.
Integrity is consistency between thought and practice. One has integrity when one’s actions align with one’s principles. Teachers have integrity when they teach what they understand to be true based on the most comprehensive and valid research about the subject matter. Academic truth involves a measure of trust: “Trust but verify.” Integrity is also about responsibility.
Academic freedom is a narrower matter of the right to investigate and report conclusions. Academic freedom is based on the process of asking questions, collecting evidence, proceeding down promising lines of inquiry, and narrowing answers down to the fewest and best conclusions. Then the academic researcher proposes how that corresponds to the body of knowledge of which those conclusions are a part. Most of the time the research confirms as well as challenges previous knowledge. The effect is to nudge stakeholders of a body of knowledge toward or away from change, and to suggest matters that need more research. In rare instances the research may signify utter clarity – conclusive and final proof about an issue.
HOW ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND INTEGRITY WORK
Teachers also need academic freedom in order to have integrity. There is a social contract between teachers and students. Essentially, teachers instruct students about how to learn. Learning is a process of gaining access to information, retaining the information so it can be synthesized into the student’s knowledge as a whole, so that it can then be a resource for various purposes as needed. This knowledge collection begins with acquiring skills and competence in ways to gain access to stored knowledge, namely, languages and technical thought processes.
Then a student can proceed to study a subject. That begins with study of what the whole subject is about, its basic principles, history of previous conceptualizations and productions, and current applications. A teacher’s role is to organize and direct this study. Ordinarily this involves selecting resources, topics, and methods to be used so students can accomplish the educational objective implied (or explicated) in the learning contract. For example: “Biology 101. We are going to help you learn what life science of plants and animals is all about. We will do this through 3 one-hour lectures and 2 one-and-a-half hour lab sessions a week for 15 weeks. Your success will be evaluated by a mid-semester exam and a final exam as well as 10 lab practicals.”
As study advances, smaller segments of the subject field are provided as courses. For example, “Medieval Islamic Art,” “The Cantatas of J.S. Bach,” “Laws about the Amazon Rain Forest.”
At the highest level, students investigate issues that have not been studied before, or issues that appear to merit a new approach. The instructor serves as a mentor as the student proceeds to select tools, to collect data, and then to compose conclusions to be available for review and use by others.
To do their job with integrity teachers need to have academic freedom. But that freedom is never unlimited. This is where controversy arises. All stakeholders have a voice and vote at some point.
At the tertiary level (college or university) if degrees are to be granted (rather than tutorial instruction [which is normal for musicians, for example]), the stakeholders include the institution, the instructor, the students, the students’ parents or sponsors, and the future employer or educational institution which the student will attempt to enter. Sometimes valid stakeholders are also community organizations, professional associations, and governmental units.
Each of these must have integrity – i.e. congruence between aims and endeavors. Something will go missing if any party shirks or is duplicitous, even if that is unintentional. Integrity implies forthright intentions in concert with all other concerned parties.
After a teacher is hired by an institution and the student is enrolled in a course, the contract is functionally between the three of them. The institution, however, may operate in such a way that academic freedom and responsibility resides with a faculty of the university and with an academic department.
From experience, it is obvious to me that the educational contract can break down at any point. If that happens the most productive discussion will be about “where was integrity compromised, and why?” It will not be most helpful to cite some subsidiary cause.
Over the past few months and during the very recent past an increasing number of controversies have resulted in conflict, sometimes leading to people being penalized or even mob violence. The media tend to brand these as incidents of infringed academic freedom, insensitivity to community standards, failure to perform as required, or some other indictment. When the charge is not basic enough (i.e. when it does not highlight the core issue of integrity), a satisfactory resolution will be difficult or will be deferred.
THE CASE OF HAMLINE UNIVERSITY
The case that prompted this essay involved Hamline University.
On October 6, 2022, Adjunct Professor Erika Lopez Prater included a picture of the Prophet Mohammed in her online lecture on Islamic art, which was part of a course on world art. She chose a depiction of the angel Gabriel delivering the Prophet’s first revelation. The source of the painting was a manuscript copy of Rashid-al-Din’s “Compendium of Chronicles” made in Persia (Iran) in the early 14th century. She posted a warning for two minutes before showing the image, so that any viewers would know what was to follow, since the subject was sensitive, and certain sects of Islam are forbidden to view depictions of the Prophet.
Aram Wedatalla, a student who remained online, then complained to the school officials that the image “blindsided” her and made her feel marginalized.
Hamline then cancelled the teacher’s employment, when other people joined in the protest. They said that the class was undeniably Islamophobic. Far from being undeniable, an Islamic history professor, Amna Khalid of neighboring Carlton College, responded, “…I am offended. In choosing to label this image of Muhammad as Islamophobic, in endorsing the view that figurative representations of the Prophet are prohibited in Islam, Hamline has privileged a most conservative point of view. Their insistence that figurative representations of Muhammad are forbidden to look upon runs counter to historical and contemporary evidence.” She and many other art historians denied the picture was Islamophobic, on the grounds that the picture portrayed the Prophet with face veiled and with flames of glory as a halo, which was the Persian way of signifying a supreme being. Her position was endorsed by more than 8,000 academicians and art historians.
In short, Hamline was accused of ignoring historical facts, as well as failing to include Professor Prater in the meetings that fired her, and also of pandering to a vocal student minority. What Hamline did, in words of a university spokesman, was to yield to the students, because “it was important that our Muslim students, as well as other students, feel safe, supported, and respected.”
A SINGLE FRAME OF REFERENCE
In this case the issues are “what was the right thing to do?” by the teacher, by the student, and by the institution. Each agent did what they thought was best. The teacher “needed” to show images representing Islamic art from diverse Islamic subcultures, and posted a warning she thought to be sufficient. The student felt duty-bound to protest an offense against her branch of faith, in accordance with actions currently being taken by her fellow-believers whenever the offence is committed, especially since she was a first-hand witness and felt victimized. The school prudently chose to respond to their Muslim clients rather than their adjunct (temporary) employee. In other words, all three were acting with integrity. Their actions and convictions were consistent.
The trouble was the three were responding to different frames of reference. The teacher thought it was about course content, academic integrity. The student thought it was about blasphemy, religious integrity. The university insisted it was about student safety, how the university operates, a matter of institutional integrity.
When a discussion is not in agreement about a frame of reference, there can be no resolution. The disputants will go on disagreeing about what is disagreeable.
A CONCLUDING REFLECTION
Before simply concluding that this has happened in many other cases and it gives a window onto the state of discourse during the ongoing culture war, I paused to think about what I would do if I were told to design an online course on “American Novels, 1850-1900.” There are three novels that would have to be on the required reading list. A course would be irresponsible without Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Little Women, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. No matter how I presented the course, it would have content that some students in 2023 might find intruding upon their right to feel safe, respected, and supported. My choices would be two: to decline to teach the course because the content cannot be academically covered without the risk of offending Black American and/or Southern White students – as long as it is the institution’s policy to protect students from having their core values, heritages, and identities challenged. Or I could give the institution and students warning that agreeing to have me provide this course will require an agreement to endure a measure of inevitable discomfort in order for the course to have academic integrity.
Realistically, however, institutions are more apt to respond to academic problems after they have occurred, than to anticipate them. Even when an educational institution foresees a potential objection, its action is less likely to be to protect academic integrity than to protect the institution’s esteem. When trouble erupts the least powerful stakeholder and the easiest scapegoat to target is the instructor.
These are difficult times for academic integrity, and for higher education. But the educational contribution any civilization cannot do without is wisdom produced with academic integrity.
A PERPLEXING PUZZLE
A puzzle presented itself in the past few days: WHEN TWO PEOPLE DIE IN A VILLAGE, WHY MUST THEY BE CREMATED AT THE SAME TIME? And why must the final religious services for the second person to die be conducted before those of the first?
Nai Jan (Mr. Jan) died on Wednesday. His final religious service and cremation was set for Saturday. Nang Som (Mrs. Som) died at 4 a.m. on Friday. Som’s family was told her funeral must be the very next morning. Her son had to get off work and travel 800 km to get back in time for his mother’s funeral. On Saturday, Som’s funeral was first and then there was a meal for everyone. Her funeral procession passed Jan’s house while his funeral was going on. All of Som’s family and neighbors waited two hours at the cremation grounds for Jan’s funeral procession to arrive so the cremations could take place simultaneously.
I tried to find out why things had to happen in this complicated order. Why was it absolutely necessary? Normally, social convention favors a family’s exclusive right to make life-passage arrangements. Nothing in Buddhist lore mentions why one funeral must be before another.
The greatest mystery is death. It is the cause of our most universal apprehension. The death of a person impacts not only the individual, but the family, the community, and society. Every culture has developed ways of dealing with death.
After quizzing a dozen people, who gave contradictory answers to my “why?”, I think I have found a strand that untangles the puzzle.
The matter is about how the supernatural realm is perceived by people around here in North Thailand. Basically, the supernatural is obscured and only handled tentatively. Metaphors favor the idea that there are divinities that reign in nature, and spirits (ghosts or pii) abide in the supernatural realm. Some of them are rogue demons, formerly the spirits of living beings, but bereft and hostile, seeking revenge or solace. They are more dangerous if there are more of them.
Funerals are designed to handle the spirits of the deceased. That is the primary purpose, rather than to comfort the survivors (which is the point of modern funerals in other cultures). The normal plan is as follows:
1. When a person dies, the body is given its last bath and clothed a final time.
2. The body is removed into a special container. The casket is a signal to all realms, mortal and immortal, that life has departed from this body.
3. Priests chant to remind everyone that life is impermanent.
4. Merit is made by having priests do this, and that merit is transferred by a water-pouring ritual to the credit of the deceased.
5. The casket is moved onto a meru (an elaborate catafalque) symbolizing the departure of the deceased into a different realm of existence, not of this world.
6. Priests conduct a tawn ritual to extract the spirit and demand it get ready to leave. Spirits are presumed to be confused and in need of regulation.
7. As the funeral procession goes to the cremation grounds, in the lead is someone carrying a “three tailed banner” with the name of the deceased and a declaration of the dates of birth and death. A portrait of the deceased removes any doubt about who is being taken for cremation.
8. The cremation begins with noise and spectacle to drive the ghost-spirit to go where it needs to go in order to get ready for reincarnation.
9. The body is cremated so there is no place in this world for the spirit to remain.
The normal thing for a community to do is to handle one body at a time. But when there are two overlapping deaths there are two distressed spirits abroad. They are apt to create havoc and seek a third to join them. Northern Thai supernatural lore has it that before these spirits can go on a rampage, setting off a chain of deaths and disasters, they must be discombobulated and befuddled. A sequence of deaths has begun (whether it is caused by ghosts or not, no one is sure) that must be broken.
Sequential deaths are an ominous thing.
A non-sequential death is manageable in three steps: 1. The body is prepared after death. 2. A funeral is conducted during which the spirit is sent to its destiny and poses no further danger. 3. The body is cremated and gone. Any more deaths are separate events.
The logic behind the puzzle that confronted us is not so complicated, after all. When there are two spirits at large, having not yet been properly dispatched by the funeral rites, it is best to keep them confused until the end, so they cannot join forces and avoid the departure that would be best for all concerned.
The only thing a village can do is to disrupt the sequence. That is why, when Som died before Jan’s funeral was completed, the normal plan was disarranged. Instead of having Jan’s funeral before Som’s, it was the other way around. Then instead of sequential cremations, there was a simultaneous cremation.
It was as confusing as it was meant to be. Hopefully, the desperate spirits of Mr. Jan and Mrs. Som were distracted from any recruitment of still another spirit to join them.
This way of doing things had no guarantee of success. Nothing about the supernatural ever is certain. People cling to prevailing wisdom in times of danger. When a belief prevails about what is best, social pressure to conform will be exerted, and consequences could be severe for disregarding the people’s will.
The prospects for a happy, healthy, prosperous year 2023 are not a lot better than they have been in 2020, 2021, as well as this year happily ending. This pessimistic essay is about only one of the ways we are not improving: social communication.
We are bound together by shared social investment (trustworthy social networks), strong institutions that enhance informed discourse, and shared narratives about who we are. Without these, democracy cannot survive. None of these three forces is working as well as formerly. They rely on communication. Our communication is breaking down.
One basic reason for this failure is how we process information, or, better, how we select it.
As cognitive beings we have a tribal-survival instinct to agree with evidence that confirms our beliefs. We are biased toward input that our beliefs are right. At the same time we try to ignore whatever contradicts our beliefs.
Conflicting ideas cause us stress. The name for this stress is "cognitive dissonence." It occurs when we hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time.
In the past, we have been taught to welcome opposing ideas. Science is based on the principle that truth results from refining concepts in the face of new evidence. Higher education and research lead to clearer understanding and more accurate knowledge, so we put up with the mental discomfort that comes with learning -- even when our core beliefs are challenged.
Our toleration has been eroded. We now have a generation of new adults who never lived in an environment that welcomed diverse belief within their social community. Gen-Z (born after 1990) has arrived at a consensus that emotional discomfort is unnecessary and dangerous. Furthermore, there are acceptable ways to prevent this, through active opposition. It may not be enough to simply isolate ourselves from pernicious opposition by boycotting or shunning. If adversaries encroach on us, as when we have to live within the same political system or locality, we may feel the need to be forceful. Some groups espouse violent opposition as inevitable or as a last resort.
Now we have social media, entering a second decade of technical abetment for disseminating socially destructive opinion. One can now denounce dissenting ideas by attacking adherents of those ideas, and social media will automatically draw attention to our attack for people to agree with us. If our group grows large enough, it has influence on those who produce products or pass laws. It's easy to subscribe. All you have to do is hit "like" or "retweet."
The validity of information is now far less important than how it confirms our beliefs and the beliefs, policies, and actions of our side.
Even more alarming than the way social media help total strangers form alliances and take sides is the way the media provide punishment for dissent.
We are in deep trouble when we undermine the correctives to our communication. The most effective remedy for bias is involvement with people who don't share our outlook; but we no longer feel we need to or want to interact with people who don't share our beliefs. And we no longer think there are strong institutions we can trust to develop information that is beyond suspicion. Social media and the algorithms that run them have reinforced our intolerance of diversity and also increased the ease with which we can remove ourselves from unwelcome challenges to our opinions and our beliefs.
Thanks to technological developments in social media, we can now "like" a post and find ourselves receiving agreement and countless similar ideas. Studies have found that we pay more attention to ideas of conspiracies to inflict danger on us and our group. We're being persecuted.
As if it were not enough that we feel our own community is "embattled and disrespected," there is an ongoing "Information World War in which state actors, terrorists, and ideological extremists leverage the social infrastructure underpinning everyday life to sow discord and erode shared reality" [quote from DiResta's 2018 essay "The Digital Maginot Line" in Jonathan Haidt's "After Babel," The Atlantic, May 2022, downloaded Dec. 23, 2022, entitled "Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid"].
My pessimism for the coming year is that this communication deterioration has not yet run its course or even reached its peak. Artificial intelligence sources are already able to spread "highly believable disinformation" and state entities are finding out how to exploit our communication vulnerability. Meanwhile, technical correctives (such as the ability to detect bots -- internet programs that interact with each other) and social awareness (including willingness to check facts) are just getting started.
Our communication trouble is deeper than our ability to send and receive messages. We now know how to do that better than ever. It is the content and intent of the messages that is undermining our communication.
What we need to repair is how we think and formulate beliefs.
Who Are Women
What about trans-women in sports?
The presenting issue is whether there is scientific evidence that trans-women (born as male, now self-identifying as women) have an unfair advantage in sports over cis-women (born as female and self-identifying as female) in athletic competition.
This debate is divided into separate issues.
Basically the scientific issue is unresolved because science takes time and this has only recently become a matter to be studied carefully. Tentative results seem to say that trans women maintain a small amount of advantage over cis-women, but it is very uncertain that it is enough to make a difference among elite athletes who have to excel in many ways.
The social issue is heavily leaning toward "common sense" that "obviously these men turned into women are still physically stronger. It's why we have separate men's and women's divisions in athletics." So, just as clearly, cis-women are disadvantaged when trans women compete against them.
The strictly political issue is usually about whether laws should be passed or why some faction is using incidents to advance a political agenda. Too often these discussions pay no attention to anything but expediency. In other words, the issue is whose side you're on. Something trivial often emerges to befog the argument when it's really political, like "how can boys be let into girls' locker rooms?"
That's the presenting issue. There is no solution that is becoming a consensus. Professional athletic organizations are being pressured to make decisions. Each announcement reignites the argument and most of them are biased toward shutting trans women out, in one way or another. It's hard to be trans. It's even life-threatening in some societies.
Beneath the presenting issue is the cultural issue. It may be called "the issue of athletics in modern culture," or, "Why are athletes celebrities and athletics a measure of cultural value?" Or "How come sports became so important?"
First, it has not always been this way. In modern times this developed somewhere around the middle of the 19th century. Before that, sports were recreations for the upper classes. Then came a complex idea about what constitutes human nature and what makes some human beings superior to others. Throughout the Middle Ages birth was the factor. One was born into a class. Royalty were on top. But that was challenged, and by the 1850s other factors began to show up, including economic power, with wealthy people often better off than royalty. IQ was recognized as a measure of a person's "quality." And physical factors were added, but always further down the list, and inevitably imbued with racism.
Until the modern era, beginning in Europe and North America, military competition was the only real way to establish superiority. By superiority I mean identification of the truly superior people, not just the ones who control others and have power to exploit and benefit. In the modern era, new means were developed of being superior and -- this is important -- of feeling confidently superior as a human being and as a valuable member of society.
A distinction has to be made between elite and superior. Geniuses have always been identified and recognized, although some died before recognition came. Nobel prizes are for geniuses, as is the Chopin Competition. On the other hand, superiority is a more democratic quality. Superiority is a complex confidence that one is excellent in some important ways that can be demonstrated and recognized.
What happened to athletics in the modern era is that recognition expanded, spread throughout society, turning athletes into celebrities. Modern news media had a lot to do with this. Because news is what the media says it is, sporting events became news, and sports stars became popular. The modern Olympics, restarted in 1896 after 1500 years, created a new arena for demonstrating participants' physical superiority. This became, from that first modern Olympics in Athens, a way to show national superiority, as well. World Fairs were another way. Then came national and international sports.
These have taken hold of people's attention and created fortunes for organizers and stars. Commercialization has come to sports. Notre Dame University remains financially viable because of its athletic income (argue with me if you have the facts). Budweiser is America's beer, and Anheuser-Busch exists in that top rank of beers because of the Cardinals. Money helps sports.
Locally, athletics may be a community's main identifying factor. Athletes are temporary stars.
This is the heart of the cultural issue:
Since athletics are culturally important, and since athletics are competative by nature, the competition needs to be regulated so the "playing field" is level. Since athletics is also an important way for individuals to become outstanding and to feel successful, accessibility is sought and controlled.
In progressive times accessibility tends to be expanded. Paralympics were added in 1960. New competitions also expand the ways medals can be won. In conservative times, some non-athletic factor emerges to dominate the decision-making. Race was the big matter in the 1936 Olympics hosted by Nazi Germany. Jackie Robinson, the first Black American to play major league baseball, as a breakthrough. At that time, athletics were more progressive than politics.
It is imperative, when a previously exempted or unrepresented group tries to gain admittance to compete, that it be established that all competitors are equal in every way except in the skill being contested. It's up to the host to make sure the conditions for the competition are fair for all contestants.
The current effort to gain the right to succeed in sports is a matter of gender. Trans women are pushing for access. Athletics are a culturally valuable way to succeed in society. It is only fair that they, too, are given the right to play the games. But it is still unclear how some of the games are to be played for this to happen.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.