RUMINATION ON HOW UNIVERSITIES WILL SURVIVE
Four incidents conspired to focus my thinking on the desperate straits of higher education as we get to the end of the first quarter of the 21st century. I heard of increasing closings of colleges and universities in the USA. The Bangkok Post published an op-ed piece on the massive failure of Thai universities to stay competitive in the region. This weekend is our university’s 42nd annual commencement. We have begun a new phase of recruiting international students (from within and from outside Thailand) for our university.
Without overwhelming this essay with statistics, I still feel the need to cite a few, in order to see where we are going.
· The number of degree granting institutions of higher education in the USA dropped from 4726 in 2012, to 4298 last year.
· The cost to be a full-time, in-state student at a public institution was $7605 per year, on average, or $11,990 for out-of-state students.
Business administration courses of study continue to be the most popular in most countries. So, let’s compare costs between US and Thai institutions.
· The annual tuition for bachelor’s degrees in business administration in the USA was $9970 at public institutions for in-state students and $25,620 for out-of state students. At private non-profit institutions the tuition averaged $34,740.
· At Payap University the published cost for the International Business Management program is $4475 (based on this month’s currency exchange rate) for international students and about $3,130 for Thai students.
· The cost at Chulalongkorn University for the BBA degree is $1133 per year for Thai students and $4,100 for international students.
· The cost at Assumption University for the same program is $4098.
· The cost for international BBA students is $1333 per year at Rajapat Chiang Mai University.
These are the best figures I could ascertain. They help in doing a comparison between costs for students from the USA. Many Thai universities are considering how they might recruit students from overseas with our attractive tuition and fees as well as lower cost of living. In order to do that the quality of instruction and educational activities must approximate stateside levels. Instructors’ English proficiency must be close to that of “native speakers.” The social and recreational options must be attractive. And free time options must at least not be a problem. These things cost more.
In the long run it is word of mouth that will attract students and sustain this recruitment source. For the short run it can be helpful and even necessary to establish agreements with partner institutions and organizations where Thai universities, like ours, provide educational services including full courses, semesters abroad, double degrees and other advantages. Our location in Chiang Mai, which is a cultural intersection, can be important.
But these plusses, as we like to think of them, can be obliterated by the challenges facing all Thai higher education, as well as higher education elsewhere. In the educational ethos of the near future, already breaking upon us, institutional survival and relevance will not depend on simply recruiting students from overseas to sit in our classrooms and laboratories learning in the time-honored tradition. People learn in different ways than they used to. Universities and colleges must be educational innovators. It will cost a lot for universities to get over the habit of waiting for the new students to flock to our gates.
A seminar conducted by Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok a week ago highlighted the challenges.
· Digital technology enables people to learn anywhere and anytime.
· “Students will be able to study in multiple modes, switching seamlessly between on-campus, mixed or wholly online study, to suit their lifestyles and fit learning around work and other activities,” Piriya Pholphirul, director of the National Institute of Development Administration (Nida) Graduate School of Development Economics, said. Flexible learning will be available on-demand, 24 hours a day, and will be tailored to what students want to achieve, he said.
· Thai universities must improve their standing on the global stage or students will turn their backs on them.
· It is estimated that a person makes 3 major career changes during their working years. Life-long learning is becoming mandatory.
In the USA, right now, a generation is entering the workforce who will have to spend their whole lives in it. My generation, now mostly retired and rapidly becoming deceased, was able to accumulate resources to depart from the workforce at an age (around 65) when we could count on several years of activities unrelated to economic security. That is being wiped out for future generations. The education that used to suffice for a lifetime of gainful employment is obsolete. No profession, even now, allows professionals to function for 40 years without re-training. Changing professions is even rougher. Education and work will be linked inseparably and educational institutions may or may not fill the new need. Educational costs for those who need to keep up will be on-going.
As it happens, the educational establishment is its own enemy. The main obstacle to doing what Piriya predicted is the government’s control system. Every time some innovation is introduced, such as semesters abroad were a few years ago, the objection that made most of the efforts impossible was that such things were against regulations and would undermine the university’s quality and therefore the university’s accreditation. Distance learning is facing the same hurdles. It doesn’t matter that this student generation doesn’t learn in the old way anymore, the system makes change almost impossible. It’s not that we do not know how to teach better, it’s that we are not allowed to do it.
I am beginning to think that only open rebellion against the system and its guardians is what it will take. The cost to those who dare to rebel could be substantial.
On Saturday evening, November 16, the 42nd graduating class of Payap University is receiving diplomas with all the rights and privileges thereunto appertaining. These graduates are among the last to be marching proudly to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” wearing medieval academic garb, expecting that they are becoming secure by degrees. The world is changing too fast for long-term security. Some of these graduates will be the innovators and technicians who find out how to do education differently and some will try to leave the world of academia with a firm farewell.
If our university has done a good job up to commencement time for these students, and if we are able to manage the challenges of transforming Payap University into an educational institution for a technology-assisted future, the university will be here when they need us.
UNDERSTANDING LOY KRATHONG
Loy Kratong comes on the night of the full moon of the twelfth lunar month, according to one of the Thai reckonings (or the second month, “Yi”, of the year according to the Lanna [northern Thai] calendar). It is the larger of two “secular” festivals in the Thai calendar and the most extensive annual celebration here in Chiang Mai. This year Loy Kratong is November 11 with the major city events on November 12.
The way Loy Kratong is celebrated varies from village to village, and in large cities from neighborhood to neighborhood. What they all have in common is making an offering of flowers and candles (called kratongs) on a waterway. The offerings are set on the water to float (i.e. to loy). Many homes will decorate their front walls with candles or prateep (candles in clay cups), hang paper lanterns, or erect festival gates made of banana leaves and stalks with palm leaves. Electric lights are becoming popular recently. Almost every village will build a stairway and pier to give access to the water where families come to launch their offering. Villages may hold contests of various sorts, especially contests for home-made kratongs. Fire crackers and fiery “flower pots” as well as “Roman candles” will be common wherever people can get away with it; police crack-downs have been effective where large crowds gather, after years of horrifying accidents. A big central event might include a boat race, parade of large commercial kratongs, beauty contest, or fireworks display.
In Chiang Mai Loy Kratong and Yi Peng overlap. Loy Kratong, as it is celebrated now, moved from the Central Thai region several decades ago. The celebration in the city goes on for three nights, with a big parade at the climax ending with fireworks on the river. Yi Peng is an older merit-making observance centered on village temples from which large paper hot air balloons (called khom loy) are sent aloft. The balloons are sent up during the day at the end of a chanting service, and are made of brightly colored paper, with a long tail. A delayed fuse sets off fire crackers when the balloon is overhead, and candy or coins wrapped in colorful ribbons are released to be chased by children. Khom loy are also launched at night in massive numbers these days. They make a stunning sight as they rise and then are caught by winds. The heat to fill the balloons is provided by a wax coil of string which burns up after 15 minutes or so, allowing the paper balloon to cool and fall. Airlines have to cancel, delay or divert flights to avoid the swarms of khom loy.
Some form of Loy Kratong festival is a tradition all over mainland South East Asia. However, the idea of floating a handmade offering is said to have originated with a woman named Nopphamat in the King’s court in Sukhothai. This story is how the festival is made particularly Thai. No trace of this legend can be found, however, before the beginning of the 19th century when a story of Nang Nopphamat appeared. HM King Rama IV accredited Loy Kratong to a Brahmanical festival honoring the Lord Buddha where a story says a bird with a candle in its beak flew down to worship the Buddha.
No matter the origin, there is complete agreement that one of the features of the festival is to venerate and appease … whom? The Mother of Waters would be one candidate, water being the very source of life itself. Rivers in Thai languages are called mae naam – Mother of Waters. So the floating offerings are composed of symbolic items: flowers, candle(s), incense, and perhaps a coin or a bit of something sweet or savory. The art of Thai traditional flower folding is employed in making these dinner-plate-size floats. Inherent in the respect given to the source of life is confession and apology for using and misusing waterways and water (and by extension all life-resources). It is said that some old-timers include a few fingernail clippings and sprigs of hair to symbolize the floating away of sins and the intention to lead a better life. It’s apparently going to take more time for the King’s application of Loy Kratong to the Lord Buddha to take hold. In any case, Loy Kratong is not so firmly religious that Christians feel obliged to shun it.
Another way to look at Loy Kratong is as an environmental festival. It is one of the few remaining celebrations where families bring children to appreciate their dependence on nature.
Fire and water are the most prominent elements in Loy Kratong. As traditional elements they are opposed to each other, and supplementary to each other. In one way Loy Kratong is the obverse of Songkran, where Loy Kratong comes when the rivers are high at the end of the rainy season and Songkran comes when the rivers are drying up. The one gives thanks for life-giving water and the other begs for it. Rainfall on the hills provides water for irrigation (rain is not counted on to make rice grow, but flowing water is). The hills are covered with trees where nature thrives and can be found to sustain life. The rain comes from the sky, into which the lanterns are sent in joyful reverence. Prayers go up with the khom-loy balloons, as well as downstream with the kratongs. Mother Nature, formerly called Gaia by the Greeks and Mae Toranee in this part of the world, is the source of life, the embodiment of earth and water, along with fire and air. People may not remember a particular name for the source of life, but the four elements of nature are evident when the kratongs float away from the pier and catch the current and when the khom-loy rise in the air and catch the breeze.
Loy Kratong is about sufficiency, sustainability, and sustenance. It is about life. It is a joyful and humble thanksgiving.
Today it is almost universal (at least it seems so among those who use social media) for everyone to have the right to their own point of view about everything. Moreover, they have the right to call it whatever they want. Metaphysics and theology are particularly cited. But, actually, there are limits. One’s theology must have resilience and consistency.
I have been ruminating for several weeks on five examples of theological assertions that are wrong because they cannot be justified due to internal logical impossibilities.
Theology is wrong that sets apart a population for special entitlements while setting up barriers for OTHERS.
“Anyone born into this community is welcome. Outsiders have to prove their loyalty.”
In churches in Thailand and most other countries children are automatically welcome either by being baptized shortly after birth or by being included as insiders, while newcomers have special classes and expectations to meet. Thai Buddhism lacks these requirements.
But these are organizational rules. When the rules are justified by theological rationale the result is wrong theology. Theology cannot be potentially universal while still attributing to supreme authority the demand that various groups be treated differently.
Theology is wrong that relegates a population to oblivion as the conclusion of any configuration of natural conditions.
“That earthquake proves those people are sinners.”
As recently as last week prominent commentators again made the unfounded connection between California wild fires and the law in California to employ LGBT persons in official positions. Old women with black cats were killed as witches because their worship of the Devil was rumored to have caused the Black Plague.
The Supreme Being cannot be supremely just and rational if people are destroyed due to circumstances totally external to them and with no logical connection to them. This often is the result of confusion over realms of discourse, as, for example, when events of nature are conflated with moral principles that are social.
Theology is wrong that legitimizes a system whereby the particular gifts of any category of persons are prevented from being contributed to the common welfare.
“We could never have a woman in leadership.”
A religious foundation has refused an unconditional contribution of funds on the basis that the contributors included people unopposed to abortion. Thai Buddhist hierarchy still opposes the ordination of women monks. The mandate in some Muslim regimes is to capture and execute people suspected of being gay.
At the base, the reasons for making these exclusionary distinctions are always warped theology. It must be a principle of any theology that presumes to represent universal truth that the goal is inclusive of all people, in which case diversity is to be embraced and celebrated.
Theology is wrong that delays fulfillment by postponing eternity into the future.
When that which is ultimately important is entirely in the future, that which is in the present is not important except as a means. This reasoning is used to lower the priority for taking action now on social and political issues. In opposition to this distorted perspective is Jesus’ insistence that the Kingdom of God is already operational, angels are among us now, and the journey has begun. A theology is faulty which cannot incorporate factors because they are unexplainable in a certain time-frame.
Theology is wrong that objectifies those who are subjects.
“Leave everything up to God.” “God rewards your faith.”
Theology must be about the human relationship to the holy in a specified context. It is a distortion of theology to treat either subject (the Divine or the Human) as an object to be acted upon. A Supreme Being would not be very supreme if the being were easily persuaded by supplications to alter the supreme plan, as would be the case when people say “God stopped the storm because of our prayers.”
[Thanks to my friend the Rev. Paul Frazier from whose extensive files I have filched the cartoons to illustrate this essay. A subsequent essay may follow on Heretical Theology. That might lead to others.]
Our colleague Dr. Rung died this weekend. He was a kind and gentle man, a Christian leader, an educator of theological students, and a Thai-Chinese Presbyterian. As his death was announced messages began to pour in, most of which wished him now to rest in peace. We were also informed of memorial services to come, coincidentally, on Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day.
These announcements caused me to reminisce about what we are doing when we do these things. Of course, we are honoring the one who has died and comforting ones left behind, but there is more to it than that. The penetrating questions, I submit, are two: what do our departed ancestors need from us? Why do we need to do these strange things?
First, let’s separate two sets of actions. Funerals are conducted to bring about closure and healing. Funerals come at times of acute loss. The sense of loss, remorse, and grief can go on for a long time. But sooner or later those rituals are over and a generation comes who never knew those who “went long before.” The rituals and festivals for those long gone are what I want us to consider as I ask, “What do those ancestors need?” And, “Why are we doing things that are so disconnected?”
Every culture that we know of has some form of ancestor remembrance.
The Celts had Samhain at this transition season between summer and winter. Christians super-imposed All Saints and All Souls Day on that, which was morphed in Latin America and elsewhere into Dia de Muertos, the day of the dead. The Hindu festival of Pitru Paksha, in mid-September “to keep the souls of our ancestors at rest” is related to our northern Thai Sip-song Beng festival and the Japanese Bon festival.
It seems there are four general concepts about what those ancestors might need:
They need food. The folk-narrative behind this says that the ghosts of the dead are tormented by terrible hunger. It is helpful for us to offer it. It’s the least we can do, even though the way these deceased, hungry spirits actually feel hunger and get benefit from our offering is shrouded in mystery.
They need rest. This life is one of travail that inevitably comes to an unfortunate end. Some deaths are agonizing and other lives pass peacefully away, but all life is a journey, and journeys are tiring. It would be too bad if the after-life were also restless. Serene peace is one’s best hope.
They need to be remembered. “One is not utterly dead until no one remembers us,” says the aphorism. Even when all the details of one’s life have been erased from memory and one’s name has been eroded from the tombstone, some need is fulfilled if there is at least a festival where the host of ancestors is honored.
They need nothing. The dead cease to exist. Their egos are extinguished (e.g. Nirvana), their bodies decompose back into atoms or stardust. Only ripples of influence remain to be merged into the vast sea of effect. Even for modern materialists, however, cultural heroes and heroic metaphors are enshrined in obelisks, street names, and Mount Rushmore.
There is a predictable pattern for the progression of ancestor festivals: they tend to evolve from veneration to entertainment.
All Saints Eve (All Hallows Eve / Halloween) is an example. Samhain and related festivals were perilous times when things were turning dangerous. The fertile season was ending and the cattle were returning from summer pasture. The transition was a liminal time when boundaries could be crossed. The Aos Si (spirits / fairies [don’t imagine Disney fairies here]) could cross the thin barrier at this time. At the transition from winter to spring, the festival of Walpurgisnacht was (and still is) observed on May 1 with large bonfires to keep away the witches as they flew toward revels with the devil. Bonfires are also lit on Halloween for the same reason. Mummers and folks dressed in disguise to confuse and deceive the witches and demons dared to come out and beg for food. A similar time was celebrated in every culture from Polynesia to Siberia. Halloween is the de-terrified residue of these customs, insisting “we are not afraid” or at least “this fear is fun.” Halloween is about enjoyment.
Another way ancestor festivals have been transformed is by holding them as cultural festivals. The Japanese Bon Festival is an example. I saw a Bon Festival in a park in New York City on the eve before my first flight to Japan on my way to Thailand in August 1965. What I was looking at was a set of dances in which all the dancers in elaborate Japanese dress on a central bamboo platform and the crowd below were doing movements simultaneously that echoed such traditional peasant harvest activities as cutting rice, thrashing the grain, and winnowing the chaff. The ancestors who did these things to live were venerated in shrines no doubt, but remembrance had melted into something less solemn and more about enjoyment. It was a combination of harvest and ancestor festival.
In addition to the movement from placating fear to playing, there is a predictable appropriation of the cultural activities to enhance socio-political consciousness. Bon dancing becomes a celebration of Japanese-ness. Dia de Muertos is patriotically Mexican. Halloween is particularly American – so much so that religious groups have sometimes deplored the way Halloween erodes religion.
By the time the fall festival has moved from being about protection from supernatural danger to veneration of ancestors, and then from sacred rites to enjoyable entertainment, and finally into celebration of cultural identity as well – by that time it takes mental discipline to see the overlap between harvest, ancestors, and heroes. In fact, it is probably best not to look for it at all and just be content that Halloween, All Saints Day, and Thanksgiving are three separate holidays. Here in Thailand so are Sip-song Beng (where wandering ancestors are fed to make them as happy as possible), Wan Pi-ya Maha Raj (the remembrance day for King Chulalongkorn, Oct. 23), and Loy Kratong (a festival of lights that also honors the Mother of Waters and the environment). Then comes Christmas [the mid-winter festival], Christmas [the family festival with gift giving], and Christmas [the observance of the Nativity of Jesus Christ].
[This completes our 7th year of weekly blog-essays. We have signed onto our domain for another year. We average about 2000 visitors a week, my website manager tells us. The fact that this number is fairly constant is what keeps me writing. Thanks, readers.]
After nearly a decade of having little to do with tourists and their perspectives, I have just spent 2 weeks introducing my brother, Dan, his wife, Rita, and their son, Travis, to as much of Thailand as could be packed into that time. I was reminded of several things which I think might be helpful to share in this short blog-essay about traveling to a new country and being a host to people coming to yours.
First, you cannot do everything. It is best to focus on a variety of experiences that challenge without aggravating new travelers to this exotic country. What do the travelers think are “must do” experiences based on what they have found out from other tourists and from the omniscient Internet? If beach time is necessary, that will take precedence. I personally feel that 2 weeks is too short to travel to more than two or three different parts of the country since each trip takes a minimum of half a day. So if Angkor Wat is a “must” side trip, it’ll eat up at least 3 or 4 of the days.
Second, is the rule of thirds. A successful time in Thailand will probably be divided into a third for shopping, a third involved with eating and resting in one way or another, and a third spent on sight-seeing and cultural orientation. The shopping part needs to be carefully planned to overlap with cultural studies as much as possible. Too much of any of the three will spoil the trip, possibly without meaning to. Even with a larger group needing to include something like a conference, the rule of thirds will help keep everybody smiling.
Third, not all cultural or natural highlights can be fitted into two weeks. But the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha are almost mandatory. It is a mistake, however, to suggest that this covers everything that’s important about the monarchy and religion. In fact, these do not even fairly represent either of those institutions. Nevertheless, tourists are cheated if they are not helped to see Thai Royalty and Thai Buddhism from a Thai point of view. The other necessity, and the one most often overlooked, is to see Thai life from the perspective of the people living here. This cannot be done by staying on the “tourist routes” in tourist hotels, tour busses, and tourist destinations. Package tours make this mistake.
Fourth, everyone comes with a set of biases. These can distort the experiences of the travelers and even ruin the trip for others. It is best if the travelers correct one another, but the tour leader may need to intervene if things get out of hand. New food choices can be a challenge. The first signal of danger is when the initial question is, “What is it?” Except for food allergies and dietary restrictions, the best advice is to assume it will be OK until proven otherwise. Communication bias is the other most common issue. The best travelers assume that communication will be successful one way or another, as it almost always turns out to be. Travelers on the way to a failed time in Thailand assume that everybody ought to be able to understand if the conversation is loud enough and the language being spoken is dumbed down enough … “Me like this. You sell how much?” It really helps just to relax and enjoy what is happening.
Travis was a good traveler who seemed to thrive in new opportunities here on his first visit to Thailand. I liked it that he took personal pictures to record his experiences. Some people’s selfies tell you nothing, but Travis’s were better than that. You can almost know without being told what he’s up to in the pictures (at the top of this blog) and how much he is enjoying it. He’ll be back one of these days.
Essay #5 on SOCIAL ORDER
During the week of September 20 to 27, 2019 worldwide protests mobilized 4 to 5 million participants in a Strike for the Climate. The figurehead and early instigator of this historic week of activism was 16 year-old Greta Thurnberg of Sweden who began Friday “School Strikes for the Climate” in front of the Swedish Parliament. Within a year the movement has expanded and has now generated a counter-movement determined to establish doubt about Greta personally in order to undermine the effort to stop carbon emissions and global warming. No matter which side is right (and I do think the answer is beyond doubt), everybody agrees we live because the environment supports life as we have it.
This is a striking, current example of how social order exists in a context.
Obviously, there would be no social order if humankind becomes extinct. Social groups, evolutionary theory states, came into existence when the natural environment made it possible for human beings to emerge and survive. Groups clung together for mutual support, and possibly because DNA prescribed social order for our species.
Put another way, more generally, physical existence with all its necessities and conditions is one of the contexts for our having life. An accommodating set of physical circumstances and abilities is a precondition for anything more complicated, such as a social group.
Religion is another context.
It is one of the persistent efforts of religion to describe how optimum social order must also exist in a religious context. Creation stories for all major religions provide metaphors and narrative images that tell how society was conjured up within a state of pre-existing divinity. Usually those stories describe how people were created in the world of the gods and then consigned to a realm sandwiched between divine order and utter chaos. Most of the narratives admit that the divinities were orderly in ways beyond the scrutiny of mortals, and behaved in ways that combined conflicts as much as harmony. But the idea was that something like a heavenly kingdom was the context for the best human life.
Reformation of religious talk about this typically includes objecting to the idea that some sort of divine order existed before human beings thought it up. Buddhism, for example, dispenses with the need to propose a creation narrative with gods being the creative agents, and instructs us that there is a far better way to optimize our human condition than to rely on gods to do it. Even Christianity, which centralizes the role of God, proposes that social order depends on correct social action, in which divine intervention is to provide inspired motivation, unobstructed by such limitations as sin and evil, those having been dealt with by Jesus Christ.
Religion, however it is conceptualized, is one of the contexts for social order.
In fact, every aspect of social order is contextual. Some of our context is from birth: genetic heritage, cultural heritage, civic heritage. Some is subject to change by moving into a new social context or life condition: examples are how we adapt to the way we are seen by others (as when we move from being one of a dominant ethnic group to being a minority), how we change based on new experiences, how our social context changes when we develop a terminal illness. Some of our contexts can change through effort or intervention, as when a person transitions from being male to female, or how we can become urbanized after having been born on a farm. Some of our social boundaries have everything to do with morality, as when a person is imprisoned for a crime; but other limitations of our situation in society may have nothing to do with morality, as with persons on the autism spectrum.
Most of this is so obvious that the question arises, “Why is it important to recognize that social context is a controlling factor in the social order of which we are a part?”
Obvious as it may be when we are thinking about it, when we are not thinking squarely about contextual influences on our social order context fades from view.
Take moral authority for example. I define moral authority as the discursive power that comes from consistently advocating a moral position to the point that the positive results of such a position are obvious and compelling. If a person or a social entity loses their moral authority through some action(s) of their own or through a change in their society, the loss can be devastating. But when we are not considering acquired moral authority as a factor of value, the full consequences of a course of action may not be accurately assessed.
Throughout several decades of the twentieth century the USA acquired moral authority in behalf of democracy. As a result, the USA was able to convince several national governments to make choices for democratic policies, both by its moral example and by offering persuasion or incentives to overcome obstacles those nations faced in the path to democratization. Primary among the democratic principles is that the authority to choose resides with the people, and it is important that all minority voices be heard. The Cold War began with both sides (led by the USA on one side and the Soviet Union on the other) espousing high moral principles, but the moral authority was heavier on the side of the USA because of the subjection that Maoist-Stalinists imposed on free expression and dissent. But in the conduct of the Cold War, which became hot in many spots (Korea, Vietnam, Latin America in particular), moral authority was traded for strategic authority, the power to obscure facts and ignore moral principles in order to gain strategic advantages thought to be necessary in order to attain a greater objective. Assassinations, targeting civilian populations in order to get at guerilla military and terrorist groups, disrupting or corrupting humanitarian activities, and many other actions previously thought to be immoral were justified and then normalized. That erosion of moral authority is now nearly complete in that the USA is no longer considered a shining example and advocate of democracy. It is actually hard to find any nation that looks up to the USA in this regard.
During World War I, as a result of unrestrained barbarity, Europe lost its authority to be the world’s moral leader. The very idea that Europe could show the world how to be civilized was reduced to ridicule. In retrospect the end was a long time coming, considering how Europe dealt with its colonies and subjugated whole people groups to extermination and enslavement.
It is becoming clear that Israel has also lost its moral authority. It was moral authority alone that mandated the creation of the State of Israel by a vote of the United Nations in 1948. The people of the Holocaust needed a home of their own to live free and achieve a future for their children secure from pogroms and genocide. The rights of all people in the region were to be guaranteed, Jews, Christians and Muslims; Semites, Europeans, Palestinians and Bedouins, Africans and sojourners. Israel was to be a secular state with a national religion. Borders with other states were defined. After 5 decades of intermittent war, and the immigration of masses of Jews liberated from the Soviet Union, Israel’s character has changed. It is almost finished subjugating minority populations and appropriating the entire land for Jewish settlement.
People, too, lose moral authority. Clergy come to mind. It is mainly a pastor’s moral authority that validates the pastor as leader of a group. But that can be lost.
I read, today, of a pastor who reported, "I do not currently have a congregation because I was deemed to be ‘dangerous’ to couples during and after my divorce.” And another clergyman was suddenly without his position in a mega-church the very day he admitted he was gay. Stories are piling up about priests whose moral authority and their ability to function in their pastorates has been undone by their moral turpitude, and bishops have been exposed as co-conspirators, sending the entire church into thundering decline.
But moral authority which is social power in one context can be unlike powerful moral authority in another. I lost my moral authority to serve as a religious leader in the Christian Church in Thailand when I was open about my relationship with my spouse (not, I contend, because the relationship was immoral but because the church consensus was against it, and so my social context prevented its being openly acknowledged), but I slowly gained a new kind of moral authority through insightful and consistent dealing with subordinates and officials in university circles.
That concludes this series of essays on SOCIAL ORDER.
Our status in society is determined by several factors. My right to be in a group depends on how the group conceives of itself and what it requires of members. It also depends on how rigidly the group enforces those requirements and whether there is room for adjustment and change. Membership in a family is widely considered a matter of birth or adoption, but many homeless gay and lesbian young people know the family can be capricious. Love and hate coincide and rotate. Immigrants are loved at one time and despised at another.
The right to be in a group resides with the social contract the group has adopted. Some societies opt for authoritarianism and others against it. But there are consequences and those can be hard to predict. On the whole, authoritarianism breaks down, but giving ultimate authority to all the people is hard to manage and sustain. Authority tends to gravitate toward the top and must constantly be shaken down again, or society begins to disintegrate.
Communication is essential to society. When conversation becomes devious with hidden agendas or other willful disregard for dialogue, what remains is some form of self-reflexive expression on both sides. Once we have agreed to expression rather than conversation the outcome is division rather than consensus. Society cannot be sustained without honorable dialogue.
That brings me to little Pen.
Pen is 5½ years old. She was born with a rare congenital condition that prevents her muscles from developing. She lacks muscles to move around, to grasp anything, or even to chew. She barely has muscles to breathe and must rely on continuous oxygen enhancement equipment. She is fed through a tube. She can whimper and whisper a few words. She watches TV cartoons and sleeps. She is, in short, totally and completely dependent on others. Fortunately, she has a family that has dedicated itself to whatever support she needs. They have assistance from the medical authorities, which includes experts in this rare syndrome who have access to equipment which is donated to Pen’s family. There is no aspect of little Pen’s place in society that is “normal”. She is utterly unique. She is a little girl without most of the attributes of other girls. She is Thai with only the bare minimum of cultural accomplishments. She is a member of the family unlike any other member. She is a member of the community and wider society without prospect of contributing to it, or of benefitting from it in more than the most elementary ways.
Pen is utterly marginal to the social order. But she is a test. As long as the social order takes care of Pen adequately, however it does so, the social order is legitimized. The very moment society turns against Pen and decides she is extraneous, society is doomed.
Next week Payap University will turn over 68 rai of land to the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT). [On the right side of the highway in the view from above.]
Let the celebration begin. Payap University is EMERGING. “It’s a miracle.”
These are comments being made as it was announced that Payap University is on the move toward goals of reducing debt and recovering initiative, in only two months after Dr. Amnuay Tapingkae and his interim team took over leadership of the university on August 1.
On October 7, leaders of the Church of Christ in Thailand Foundation along with some 30 other church leaders and Payap University personnel will attend the signing of a historic memorandum of understanding that will potentially save the university and expand the ministries of the church at the same time.
“It’s a win-win situation,” Dr. Amnuay quoted the CCT’s legal negotiator as saying. [See Dr. Amnuay going over information about the deal.]
“Bear in mind that the CCT Foundation is the actual owner of all this property anyway, which was developed when Payap had prospects of being a large comprehensive university of 25 thousand students, it was thought. Our current size is about 2500. We are over-extended. Now the church will get this great tract of land to use in new ways while the university will still be a partner in its use,” an adviser to the president commented.
The deal is to transfer 68 rai (about 27 acres) of a total of 200 rai of underutilized land on the east side of the university’s main campus to the CCT along with all the buildings. They include the Faculty of Law’s “Leviticus” building and large assembly hall, the Paradonparp International House, Alpha Women’s Dorm, and Omega Men’s Dorm. In return, the CCT will compensate the university with enough money to cover its potentially devastating debt, as well as take over rehabilitation of the dorms to convert them into facilities at modern hotel standard. The Leviticus building will become the church’s main headquarters in the north and the center for all the church’s conferences and large meetings.
The law faculty will move into rooms in the Sirindorn Learning Resource Center where the law library is already located.
This will be a major step in helping Payap, the first private university in Thailand, rebound from declining enrollment, declining infrastructure, and declining status. Once the red ink of accumulated debts is removed, two tasks remain. One is to balance the annual budget by reducing spending on salaries and operational costs, and increase income through expanded traditional and non-traditional programs. Second, is to reorient the university toward current demographic realities and strengthen our unique position as the only university in our area that is truly international. “We are a Thai University with international degree and non-degree programs,” Dr. Amnuay explains. But we offer degree programs with instruction entirely in English which others are not doing. “We have a competitive edge.”
“People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” -- This was the headline quote on the world’s mass media within minutes after Greta Thurnberg emotionally addressed the United Nations “action summit” on climate change, September 23, 2019.
It has been a remarkable couple of weeks for 16 year-old Greta. After sailing across the Atlantic on a sailboat to avoid carbon emissions (and to make headlines), Greta spent her time going from one TV appearance to another, and then spoke at a US congressional hearing where she boldly presented Congress with copies of a UN scientific report on climate change which she suggested they read, as they should already have done, and then act. On Saturday as many as 4 million people in 150 countries joined the “Global Climate Strike” billed as primarily a young people’s movement, at least to begin with. Greta was the impetus for this worldwide “strike.” Greta addressed the crowd of 250,000 in New York City telling them, “Our house is on fire … it’s time to act.”
Greta began her activism a year ago by skipping school on Fridays and sitting outside the Swedish Parliament with a sign “Strike for the Climate”. She was joined by a few other students some Fridays, and then other students in other cities across Europe began to “strike for the climate”. Greta began to get world attention when she was invited to speak at the UN COP24 Climate Summit in Poland in December last year (2018). “Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago,” Greta told leaders at the summit. “We have to understand what the older generation has dealt to us, what mess they have created that we have to clean up and live with. We have to make our voices heard.” Her speech was remarkable in that she commanded climate change facts combined with strident assertions that it was time for the next generation to arise and act since the older generations were stubbornly refusing to do so. Shortly after that 3 Norwegian Members of Parliament nominated Greta for a Nobel Prize, to be awarded in December.
A number of things can be said about Greta Thurnberg, and they have been said by countless commentators. But I wish to highlight a few:
“Greta! Greta! Greta!” the throng of youthful strikers chanted in New York last Friday. A person has made it to the level above front page headlines when they are known around the world by their first name.
THE BINARY IS DEAD BUT DOESN’T KNOW IT YET
Every time I make a presentation about gender-inclusiveness in Thailand the question comes again, “But nature is divided into male and female. How can you deny that?” Of course nature is not divided strictly into male and female, but that’s usually not a satisfying reply. What we need to talk about is, “In what respects is gender and sexuality ‘both-and’ or ‘neither one nor the other’?”
Rather than defining the terms exclusively with words, I would like to present charts and illustrations, as I did in recent presentations at the university.
FIRST, SEXUALITY IS ABOUT PHYSICAL FACTORS
The factors include: chromosomes, hormones, genitalia, and secondary sex characteristics.
In a significant number of individuals these physical factors are misleading, and in others the factors are ambiguous. Most physical factors, of course, are clear and indicative of a birth sex, either male or female, and they become more pronounced when individuals reach sexual maturity.
SECOND, GENDER IS ABOUT MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL FACTORS
The factors include: fantasies, fascinations, self-understanding, preference for sex and romance.
It is commonly misunderstood that these mental and emotional factors are or can be controlled in accordance with social or religious requirements. Notice, please, that none of these factors are describing actions in response to the factors. Depending on circumstances, one can and often must refrain from certain actions. On the other hand, as psychologists know, sometimes when inconsistency between emotional conditions and social-physical action is resolved, obsessions disappear. On the whole emotional health is enhanced by correctly discerning “what is” and being at peace with that reality.
The spectrum is a continuum between Homosexual and Heterosexual. Increments along the continuum include, at the one pole, GAY (exclusively same-sex oriented for sex and romance), QUEER (very clearly same-sex oriented or definitely different in that regard), DARING (willing to explore options in search of excitement and satisfaction), CAUTIOUS (willing to deviate from narrow confines under very limited conditions of safety or anonymity), CURIOUS (open to the ideas that alternatives suggest while regarding those as uncommon), and STRAIGHT (exclusively oriented toward sex and romance with persons of the “opposite” sex).
THIRD, SOCIAL RESISTANCE IMPACTS ONES CHOICES
The spectrum extends from persecution to affirmation
In some societies it is a capital crime to be gay or to act contrary to the sexual mores assigned by society. At the other side of the spectrum are societies that value the unique perspectives and contributions of LGBTQIK members of society.
How we present ourselves depends to some extent on the freedom societies give us to express ourselves as we discern ourselves to be. Dangerous, oppressive societies often foster denial to such an extent that individuals dare not admit, even to themselves, their diversity.
The spectrum goes from PERSECUTION to PENALTIES to TOLERANCE to ACCEPTANCE to INCLUSION to AFFIRMATION
We who are LBBTK in Thailand experience these forms of social reaction as: PERSECUTION is sustained efforts to eliminate us through various sorts of suppression. This is rare and counter-cultural in Thailand, although some religious and ethnic sub-cultures exercise control that could swell into persecution. PENALTIES for being LGBT are imposed in the name of cultural normality. The most frequent are job ceilings in certain professions, or punishment for refusal to fulfill family obligations (such as producing heirs). TOLERANCE of sexual and gender diverse individuals is widespread. It is experienced as “being put up with” while those who put up with us are not pleased to do so. ACCEPTANCE is a milder form of tolerance, meaning in most cases that there has been compromise to achieve the absence of rancor and discord. INCLUSION involves the absence of all barriers to full participation in the social group. AFFIRMATION is active recognition of our unique perspectives and relationships. It is rare in this and most other societies at present.
FOURTH, SOCIAL IDENTITY
Social identity, how people are identified by society, is the conclusion that the majority of casual observers will draw based on two factors: the personal presentation choices the individual has made, and social sensitivity to their conclusions about what they see.
Presentation choices are of two types:
Sex markers (physical): facial features, breast and crotch, voice quality.
Gender markers (behavioral): clothing and accessories, vocabulary, movements / posture / gestures.
The stronger the social resistance to gender nonconformity, the fewer the markers that will arouse hostile reaction.
The more permissive the society, the more radical the markers must be to evoke a reaction.
The goal in establishing one’s gender identity in society is:
Either to pass unnoticed in society OR to elicit responses
A person’s satisfaction with their gender and status in society depends on how much effort (of all kinds) it takes to achieve satisfaction, and how much satisfaction is achieved.
There are four quadrants on the satisfaction grid.
The SOCIAL QUAD includes family, friends, and community primarily, but also the wider society where interactions take place.
The EMOTIONAL QUAD includes one’s internal turmoil or serenity, how one’s needs for appreciation are being met, and general happiness versus stress. One’s gender status is only one set of factors that impact emotion, of course.
The ROLE QUAD includes one’s labor, contributions to society, provision for those for whom one is responsible, and measurable accomplishments. If one’s gender has a negative effect on one’s role it takes more effort to achieve role satisfaction.
The PHYSICAL QUAD includes health and physique, as well as ability to function sexually. In some cultures physical development is a valued accomplishment or even a requirement for a satisfactory status and relationships. Health and freedom from disease and accidents aside, physical satisfaction comes from the ability to do what one wants to do. Therefore, it varies with age and circumstances as well as with such emotional factors as urges and goals.
What I have tried to illustrate is how nothing with regard to one’s gender, sexuality, and functioning in society are fixed or cut and dried. We are all somewhere along a number of spectrums.
[Thanks to Sirisak for providing a constant stream of advocacy for better understanding of gender diversity and ambiguity. Sirisak is the most photographed and recognizable LGBTIQK advocate in Thailand. Thanks also for the pictures above that Sirisak starred in.]
Essay #4 on SOCIAL ORDER
Expression vs. communication
“OMG this is awful” she exclaimed in bright red letters on Facebook. That was it, no explanation of the exclamation. No clue about what was awful. Within an hour 20 friends were sympathizing mindlessly and wanting to know more. For a day she refused to reply. I began to wonder whether she was just getting a kick out of messing with us, but I think something was messing with her. Compassion aside, what she was doing was not communication, although it is what passes for it these days of communication deterioration.
Internet Communication Technology (ICT) has changed the parameters of speech.
Expression was contained: private, personal, privileged
Communication was conversational, conventional, conciliatory
Media were moderated, managed, modulated
Everybody is the owner of their media
The right to express is being aggressively asserted (under the banner of “free speech”)
The effects of expression on communities (e.g. hate speech) are denied
The difference between expression and communication is blurred
How did we get into this loss of meaningful communication?
Not surprisingly modern philosophers have dedicated a lot of their speculation toward the subject of communication. The move to consider language as the basic philosophical issue began with Bertrand Russell, of England.
Bertie insisted, “a statement that purports to be about reality but whose truth or falsehood makes no observable difference to anything has no content, no meaning – it is not saying anything.” Only statements that are empirically verifiable are empirically meaningful; and the actual meaning of any given statement is revealed by the mode of its verification. The tool to sort this out is logic, a field in which Russell had excelled.
For example, using logic, we can sort out the truth or falsehood of the following statements, and if we cannot, then the statements are meaningless.
All the statements are in some sense false, but the reasons are different. The English throne is wooden, not iron (if by that is meant the “Coronation Chair with the Stone of Scone”). It is factually erroneous. There is no such thing as an American throne because the USA does not have any form of monarchy, so the statement is ridiculous. The Pope has a number of thrones, and any chair upon which he is seated is a throne if the Pope is performing official duties, but none of them are principally made of iron and, more importantly, the term “Papal throne” refers not to a chair but to the office. The throne in Kings Landing in George R.R. Martin’s books Game of Thrones, does not exist in reality and everything about the Iron Throne refers to a fictional object in a fantasy realm. However, within the realm of literature, the phrase would be true until the last episode when the throne was destroyed by dragon fire. The English throne can be metaphorically said to be made of iron, being durable as England is enduring. When an entity being discussed does not really in any sense exist, any statement about it is meaningless.
This distinction was picked up by Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell’s student and successor as the major philosopher of England, having moved there from Austria when the Nazis took over Austria. Wittgenstein was renowned as the founder of the philosophical school of Logical Positivism, a rigorous type of analytical philosophy. What the Logical Positivists sought to analyze was not the logic that Russell thought to be the key to what can be said to be true or false, but the content of the words being used. Wittgenstein insisted that words have only the content assigned to them. Words mean what the users intend for them to mean. Moreover, words derive their meanings ultimately from whole forms of life.
For example there is a whole world of scientific activity and scientific terms derive their meaning from the way they are used within the scientific world. There are whole worlds of military, political, religious, musical and countless other activities within which a term may have a specific meaning it does not have in another context.
For example. “head” in the world of fresh produce draws to mind something like a cabbage. “I’ll take that head,” she said to the green grocer. The head of a social structure would be the appointed leader. “The chairman is the head of this company.” In the world of physical anatomy the head means a complex part of the body. “Use your head,” his mother shouted. Whereas, for a sailor, the “head” most commonly means the toilet.
Logical Positivists rejected the idea that anything can be meant by a term unless its context is known, which provides the most important clue to what the term means to the person using it.
Michel Foucault followed Wittgenstein and went a step further to propose that the reason people use terms, whatever their world of discourse, is that the user wants to manipulate or control the recipient. In fact all narratives do this, but mega-narratives do it in a mega-way, by which those with social power seek, through the invention of stories and myths, to extend their influence and control. Foucault advocated the deconstruction of those cultural artifacts, and insisted that the smaller the narrative the less it needed to be mistrusted.
Foucault’s discursive analysis theories have the potential to revise the major political structures of the Enlightenment. At the same time the post-structuralist movement, until recently called post-modernism, has become the prevailing tone of voice of our times. Installing doubt about the intentions of all speakers -- without a positive counter-force -- has led to cynicism and a “me-mindset.” Doubt has morphed into suspicion and fear. The fragmentation of empires has led to the break-down of nations, the establishment of enclaves, and the embellishment of protectionism by ever-smaller socio-cultural units.
Enter the era of EXPRESSION rather than conversation. If all words are contextual and infected with manipulative intention, the words do not contain anything that matters. What is left are effusion, expostulation, and effect. That is now amplified by the development of technological ways of storing data and disseminating it. The local newspaper gave way to television which then relinquished its main purpose of broadcasting information in favor of entertainment. Even the “news” must be entertaining. Newsmakers must be valuable as attention-grabbers. Boring politicians is an oxymoron, or will be at the next election. Absurd and ludicrous are preferable to bland and rational. ICT has made possible hundreds of “channels” of TV, and every individual with a smart phone can be a producer.
In the domain of private discourse, too, meaning is not validated by content having a specific, consistent reference. Children learn this as an early survival strategy. Crying from hour one is just expression. By about day one it becomes more often expression of felt need. By year one the clever child has developed diverse ways to communicate felt needs. By year ten, mother, too, has acquired (or remembered from ancestors) skills in which “it’s not what she says but what she means.” “I’ve made your favorite dessert,” she says; but she means, “Congratulations on making it through that difficult patch, or passing that landmark.” Threats, as well, rarely mean what they say.
So we grow up and move on to become part of the social order. We belong to different groups, and we mean different things in each one. It can be confusing. It tends to be challenging. It can, at times, be exhilarating to be Grandpa in one context, pastor in another, community elder just outside the gates, and author of essays. As we grow toward senility, or at least some form of advanced aging, we have more stories to tell, but they mean less and less. Once, our story might have suggested a course of action. Then later, that same story could have been a cautionary tale. Now it is a nostalgic recitation.
But for every listener in this time in which we live, the task is to sort out what is true from what is meaningful. That is how our social order is kept from destroying itself and from deteriorating into irrelevance.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.