What do I as a white, Christian, male, American know about racism?
I have been told that I can know nothing about racism. My white male privilege blinds me to the reality. It’s impossible that I could understand it, so I should keep quiet and make whatever pathetic repentance I can muster.
Allow me to decline the full extent of the indictment, before beginning an indictment of my own about how alarming WORLDWIDE RACISM has become.
I am Caucasian, of European extraction, blue-eyed, and male. What’s more, I am American (of the prairieland type) which means I have privileges that were build on deprivation my ancestors inflicted on others, and advantages I take for granted. But I have been a recipient of enough racism to know about it existentially, after 36 years of residency as one of a tiny minority in Asia.
To be clear and fair, racism in Thailand tends to be so non-confrontational many insist it does not exist. As recently as 1967 the dean of an institution of higher education here declared flatly, “There is no racism in Thailand.” That was the year, however, that biracial babies began to be born to US servicemen and their wives. The Pearl S. Buck Foundation had to find adoptions for many of them because inter-racial children were unwanted. (I hasten to add that has completely changed to such an extent that recent Miss Thailands have been proudly biracial. The shift began with biracial models in advertising campaigns and on TV.)
Long-term residents in Asia testify to scores of assumptions made about us, based solely on our appearance. These assumptions make it difficult for us in many ways, every day. The difficulties include double-pricing based on the belief that all foreigners are rich. More subtle and pervasive is the assumption we are incapable of accurate insight into the heart of this culture, language, or religion. Recent opinion has developed that we are rude, arrogant, and insensitive. On the ledger of advantages, we will treat property with respect, we will cause little or no legal trouble, and we are worth having around in limited numbers.
Personally, I love being in Thailand, and I feel quite accepted and unharmed. But the point is that there is racism here in Thailand and throughout Asia. Skin color matters. It is not something I am too privileged here to know anything about.
Racism varies from culture to culture. In some parts of East and South East Asia it is assumed, based on my race, that I am culturally inferior. There are serious consequences to that if I were to try to live in one of those areas. In other parts of this continent I would be considered a cultural equal, but unquestionably an outsider. In some regions it would be taken for granted that I am culturally advantaged, and feared for that.
How real is race? A popular trope is that “there is just one race … the human race.”
But superficially race is real enough to be immediately recognizable. It shows up as skin color, eye shape, hair texture. It shows up in DNA. The other ways race may manifest itself are cultural signals like costume, language, and sometimes body treatment, or cuisine. These distinctions do not hold up under scrutiny, of course, because they are artificial indicating some set of characteristics that apply to only a fraction of those assigned to any particular race.
Assignment to one race or another might be imposed, inadvertent, or voluntary. Tiger Woods with African-American father and Thai mother chose to be American and therefore Black. That is, he integrated into American culture. He could have been Thai (he wouldn’t have been alone here as a bi-racial Thai person) and he would not have been thought of as Black. On his first trip back here as a sports hero he disappointed his sponsors and Thai fans by paying almost no heed to his Thai heritage. Barack Obama is Black, too, with a white mother and African father from Kenya. In the USA, the choice is not entirely free. In Australia there is a substantial group of mixed-race citizens who are oblivious of their distant aboriginal ancestor. Others know and are bemused or nonplussed by it; recently it has become a matter of pride. Mongol blood runs in the veins of a lot of Central and East Europeans.
Assignment may be calculated or capricious. “Red and yellow, black or white, we are equal in His sight…” so goes the Sunday School song. But the fact is almost nobody is really any of those colors. Almost all of us are some shade of brown, with tinges of pink or pallor. Hair color is more dramatic, and entirely unreliable as a racial indicator these days. Indeed, racial assignment is so haphazard that pseudo-races are simply invented. It is a red-flag warning when one of these terms emerges into acceptance. “Jewish” has been used for millennia, but when “Jewish race” began to be bandied about trouble was close at hand. When 19th century anthropologists began to try to differentiate types of Caucasians as separate races, they described the Alpine, Dinaric, Iranid, East Baltic and Mediterranean races. The Nordic race, they thought, was superior. Eugenics and racial harvesting were on the way. Just recently the term “Mexican race” has made its way back into the US national discourse. That will not lead to anything good.
This morning I was reminded of racism at its worst.
President George W. Bush's chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson wrote, “… I made the mistake of pulling James Cone’s 'The Cross and the Lynching Tree' off my shelf — a book designed to shatter convenient complacency. Cone recounts the case of a white mob in Valdosta, Ga., in 1918 that lynched an innocent man named Haynes Turner. Turner’s enraged wife, Mary, promised justice for the killers. The sheriff responded by arresting her and then turning her over to the mob, which included women and children. According to one source, Mary was 'stripped, hung upside down by the ankles, soaked with gasoline, and roasted to death. In the midst of this torment, a white man opened her swollen belly with a hunting knife and her infant fell to the ground and was stomped to death.' God help us. It is hard to write the words. This evil — the evil of white supremacy, resulting in dehumanization, inhumanity and murder — is the worst stain, the greatest crime, of U.S. history. It is the thing that nearly broke the nation. It is the thing that proved generations of Christians to be vicious hypocrites. It is the thing that turned normal people into moral monsters, capable of burning a grieving widow to death and killing her child.”
That’s what racism will do, and it’s on the rise. It occasionally rises to that crescendo, as in the pogroms in Russia, the riots in Nazi Germany, rampages in Bosnia, and the unfinished elimination of Palestinians in Israel. That’s what is at risk when US politicians play the race card in the run-up to the national election in 2020.
Racism is a cultural invention. It includes acts of appalling atrocity, beguiling paternalism, absurd disrespect, and sometimes abject neglect. But it is subject to cultural intervention. What a culture does it can stop doing, although it takes the power of a mass movement of almost consensus proportions to stop it. That or a catastrophe.
These are somber times again when sun alone is not enough to warm our frigid spirits.
How ironic we are cold when kings and presidents are ripe with malice that is crafted fire.
All around us anger boils about the migrants swarming in, ruining our peerless race. “Hell! Are all our elders blind?” a youngster yells with guns galore while hooded Klansmen clap and laugh. “Now’s the time to start the war that starts by killing all in sight and stirring up the will to fight.”
We, however, are not stirred. Sheltered in our vague despair we’re chilled within our thoughts and prayers. Though we scarcely fear or hate, and wear our humor as a cape, we’ll never be heroic. No! We are kind and gentle souls who stay at home and cool ourselves with hopes for better times ahead.
Leaders, heaven help us, order, “Burn the jungle. Spoil the soil and waste the water. What it’s all about is oil.”
Tundra thaws and glaciers melt while penguins, polar bears and whales begin to disappear in droves. “That’s a shame,” is all we pant. Because we live so far away we never really see a panther.
Strangely, we can stay so cool as global warming steams ahead of all those terrors that we dread.
ESSAY 3 ON SOCIAL ORDER
On Tuesday June 4 the New York Police Commissioner formally apologized for the actions of the NYPD 50 years ago when they raided the Stonewall Inn. We were amazed to read about it in the New York Times. The article stated:
On Thursday, as people around the world began commemorating the 50th anniversary of the clash, New York’s police commissioner took a step toward making amends, issuing an unusual official apology on behalf of the Police Department for the actions of officers during the Stonewall uprising. “The actions taken by the N.Y.P.D. were wrong — plain and simple,” the commissioner, James P. O’Neill, said during an event at Police Headquarters. It was an admission that gay rights leaders said was momentous and unexpected, if overdue. “To have the N.Y.P.D. commissioner make these very explicit remarks apologizing, it’s really moving,” said Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, who is gay and who had a day earlier called for a police apology.
The reason for the commissioner’s apology was that it was “a step toward making amends.” I take it this was in order to heal a rift between the New York Police Department and the LGBT “community.”
There must be a reason for the current trend to apologize for ancestors’ egregious behavior, and against refusals to do so. There are 3 categories of response these days: behavior done several generations or even centuries ago, recent actions for which amends are being made, and atrocities for which perpetrators’ descendants refuse to admit the facts. To mention a few:
These 9 examples represent 3 types of hundreds of controversial decisions. Elapsed time is often used as a qualifying factor or an excuse. But the debate is inevitably about what is the moral thing to do. Morality is about action. What action should be taken with regard to the separation of infants from their parents at the US border? What action should be taken against a 95 year-old stage-4 cancer patient who was found to have illegally entered the country after having been a brutal guard 75 years ago at a Nazi concentration camp? What action should be taken to recover from the ethnic cleansing of Croatians in Bosnia?
The rationale for taking action is what ethics is about. The right action is what morality is about. Logical speculation about principles is the main job of philosophy. Ethics is about speculative principles. Ethics is abstract and philosophical, presuming to be universal. And that is connected to the philosophical theory about how social entities are composed, sustained, and changed. Morality is measured by its consistency with ethical principles.
Before going on, please note that to say, “The reason for taking that moral action is because it is the moral thing to do,” is an illogical circular argument. Unfortunately, this justification for taking action is common. It is also illogical to say, “The reason for taking that action is because it is the right thing to do.” The word “right” either means “moral” (and so the argument is circular) or “right” refers to something else that is not being specified (and so the argument is a non sequitur).
Moral codes apply to specific social units. They can and often do take on the force of law. A nation may have no law regarding production or consumption of alcohol. A state may have a tax on sales of alcohol and a law about minimum age for purchasing. A community may have a law about public drunkenness or licenses for establishments that sell alcohol. A church or college may place restrictions on consumption by members of their communities. A family may prohibit consumption of alcohol by all members. Each social unit makes rules that are limited to that unit alone but must not contravene the rules made by other units. On the other hand it can be asserted, “If our rules apply to you, you are part of us.”
Moral codes are cultural decisions made by social and political entities. In fact, the decision about who is entitled to make a decision that is called moral is the main factor that determines the extent of a legitimate social order. The boundaries of a social group are stipulated by the boundaries to which its laws apply.
But what about making objection to particular laws on moral grounds? The rule of law does not allow immoral action, although when the law makes an immoral demand the imperative may mandate changing the law. (E.g. when slavery was legal it was illegal for slaves to try to escape, even though the law was immoral because it was ethically indefensible. The time came when the law itself changed because society deemed it immoral. The argument was that the laws adopted by slave-holding states were illegitimate because they were contrary to a higher law. That higher law was a humanitarian principle because no higher law at the federal level had yet been enacted.) When an individual is compelled to make an independent decision because it is the only moral option despite being opposed by society, either the individual or the society is wrong. If society is wrong it can recognize that error and reorient itself, either by exempting certain categories of people from the provisions of the law, or by changing the law. (E.g. when pacifists objected to mandatory military service the government exempted them before abolishing the draft entirely.) If a society does not do that, either the individual is expelled from the social community or if enough individuals successfully persist in defying the community’s moral code the society adjusts or it collapses and social order disintegrates with it.
Moreover, when individuals are incorporated in a society (no matter if that is by birth, choice, or force) all members of the society share the social identity and consequences of society’s actions. Individuals do not have the option of being beneficiaries of a society without being members who share accountability. In some cases merely being identified with a social or political entity is enough to count as a “benefit” even if one were passive or a victim in it, and is sufficient to hold one jointly accountable for the society’s actions. (E.g. citizens of Germany were accountable for what they knew or should have known about the holocaust going on. Following the war persecuted groups of Germans took great pains to establish the fact that they were either totally exempt or at the bottom of the levels of accountability. Operators did not get away with declaring they were just following orders (the law). Ordinary citizens did not get away with declaring they knew nothing. The new generation of Germans is also as accountable as those in other countries who are descendants of those who inflicted despicable acts.)
It is an ethical distinction without difference between those who defend (actively or passively) an immoral social order and those who oppose a moral social order.
In brief, actions against offenders of the moral order tend to be motivated by the decision to seek one of three things: revenge, recovery, or recompense. When none of those is considered to be valid, the action should not be taken. When there is some other action that would better achieve the objective, the better action should be taken without reference to the worse action. When the objective can be achieved by either of two actions, the simpler action should be considered first.
A distinction must be kept in mind between saying “we are not responsible for our ancestors’ actions” and saying “we have not benefitted from the outcome of those actions.” (E.g. “We did not kill any Native Americans”vs “We are not living on land stolen from them.”) In the first case the attempt is to divorce one’s self from society and ignore any relationship at all with the past. In the other case what needs to be encouraged is recognition that “even if we or our ancestors were victims who were abused and we are here today despite that horrific treatment, our present circumstances are not without compensations that deserve recognition and our situation can be improved within the existing social order.”
Reparations, a form of recompense, are based on the concept that injustice and unfair treatment is still going on. Payment is not to compensate this generation for the failure to adequately recompense ancestors in the past (which would be impossible, considering the extent of inhumane treatment they received). It’s not the argument that African American slaves worked for free, so pay up. It’s the issue that America is still unjust, unequal, and unfair to people of color, so we should allocate money to fix that.
In other cases what needs to be done is simply to return sacred land, or return cultural artifacts to the people from whose ancestors they were taken.
Apologies are about recovery. The issue is how to move forward in a way that we are not yet moving. What’s past is past, of course. The crimes of the past are done, but the consequences are ongoing. Confession is an outward sign of an inner transformation, but there is still more to be done beyond admitting shame and guilt, and even beyond “Truth and Reconciliation.” Hard work must be done to restore just social order. This is the principle behind public apologies that have become increasingly de rigueur. In many cases the motive of the political authority is to seek recovery of a sense of social unity, albeit unity in diversity or ex pluribus unum. It is an attempt to articulate the reality that a social entity does not fully exist in which there is “us versus them”. An apology is an exhortation to let divisions heal by recognizing that they can heal or have healed. Or in some cases the apology is to assert that “we no longer are in agreement with our ancestors who did that,” as when the Pope exonerated Galileo after 400 years (and he simultaneously disempowered whatever Vatican operations might still be hanging onto the rationale that validated Galileo’s conviction). Apologies, above all, recognize social continuity. Apologies of the type we are considering are predicated on the conviction that the social contract is intact.
The test of a moral code is how it punishes offenders.
The rationale for punishing those who break the law usually includes revenge. (1) One form of punishment is to inflict the law-breaker with sufficient unpleasant consequences so as to dissuade others from following the criminal’s example. The argument is that “if we put drug users in prison” others will refrain from using drugs. Countless studies have disproved that this works. It is not a good reason for putting law-breakers in jail. But societies agree to it because it makes them feel better. That is also the operative idea behind wars on drugs that take place when political entities sense that society is about to accuse them of being unable to maintain social order [or to deviously disempower a particular section of the population.] (2) The second reason to punish criminals is to prevent recurrence of immoral behavior. In behalf of a more orderly society some disorderly individuals must be restrained. A just system differentiates between sentencing offenders to hospitals where they can be provided therapy to get well, or simply incarcerating them until they show enough genuine remorse to be safely released. Even in these cases, sentences imposed are so erratic that only revenge accounts for the inconsistencies. (3) Sometimes, needless to say, the operative rationale is simply to subject particular offenders to enough punishment that society achieves emotional catharsis. For example, after the end of World War II war criminals were tried for crimes against humanity and executed despite zero chance they would repeat their offences. Still today, criminals on death row will be executed even if they show immense remorse and their crime is so terrible that there is little need to instill fear in others to keep them from copying the crime. The operative principle is indisputably revenge. The question is, of course, “Is the emotional satisfaction of others sufficient reason to punish offenders when any other benefits to society are lacking?”
It is essential that firm ethical principles underlie the moral order of a society. Ethics is the rationale for the argument that a moral code is consistent, comprehensive and compassionate. The question is “is this moral mandate ethical?”
Without the concept of an inclusive, durable social ethic, the whole idea of a social corporation fails.
This concept is being reviewed in our time. Two factors are driving this review: one is the expanding notion that the individual is dominant in all decision-making, and the other is that individuals are entitled to their emotional satisfaction. In its baldest form, the first concept is that I can ignore social restrictions I disagree with. The second concept is often stated, “I need what I say I need.”
These two widely-held concepts militate against social dominance at the same time as people are losing their ability to distinguish their own voice from the voice of their social group. This is the ethical paradox of post-modernism.
In opposition to the threat of social disintegration social sub-cultures are clinging ever more desperately to their moral codes. It is the destruction of these moral codes, those social communities contend, that threatens social order with chaos. Too often, however, it is just the moral code that they seek to maintain, forgetting about such inconvenient factors as the need for a cohesive social ethic based on principles that can at least conceivably be considered universal
We are confronted these days with the question, “To what extent should the church (or any other religious organization) enforce its moral order?” There are religious communities, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish, as well as Muslim, that assert the need and their right and duty to enforce morality as they see it. When they do this for their constituencies, who are free to agree or withdraw, one could hardly quibble with them. Very frequently the most adamant will try to impel neighbors of all religious persuasions to behave, on the presumption that infringement of that moral code will endanger the social order for everyone. The most radical religious communities feel justified to resort to violence to enforce their moral code.
Those radical groups have confused morality (conceived as rules of behavior) with ethics (speculation about the universal principles for moral behavior). Furthermore, they violate the contract that holds societies together. If a political entity, such as a nation, upholds the principle of diversity, seeking to include diverse communities, the enforcement of a limited moral code upon other communities is unethical. Every society needs a social ethic that unites everyone. But totalitarianism is the only political system that imposes a single moral code upon everyone.
That brings us to the issue of legitimate social communication which is the topic of the next essay in about a month. Previous essays on the subject of SOCIAL ORDER are:
www.kendobson.asia/blog/social-bond essay number 1
www.kendobson.asia/blog/social-contract essay number 2
THE CASE OF GERRY DYCK
Gerald P Dyck was a missionary sent to Thailand by the United Presbyterian Church (USA) at the invitation of the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT) from 1967 to 1971. Gerry’s assignment was to assist in the Church Music Department of the Thailand Theological Seminary. It was the smallest department of the seminary, and one with the least opportunity to make an impact on the future of the Protestant enterprise in Thailand. In theory, the church music department was to train organists and choir directors for local churches. After a hundred years in Northern Thailand the mostly Presbyterian heritage churches had hardly any musicians who could play a piano and the best that could be said for choral music was that it was traditional hymns sung enthusiastically. Gerry’s job was to teach classes and give personal lessons. This had to be dispiriting with students of so little talent, but Gerry saw potential. It was the age of guitars. That was the future of church music, according to the Moderator of the CCT. Gerry saw a completely different possibility, indigenous music. The foundation for this was modest in the church. Missionaries in Lampang had developed a hand-full of hymns using Thai melodies which were the most popular hymns in the Thai Hymnal. But Thai instruments were not used to accompany the hymns. Gerry began with that. It was an incendiary move. Conservative backlash against using pagan music was instantaneous. A lesser person would have desisted and probably apologized. Gerry persisted, working with those who were not offended, finding local musicians here and there who agreed. The results, 50 years later, are that indigenous instruments providing music in church services of worship is no longer controversial. That is not to say that the church adopted Thai cultural forms, or that new hymns have been written with Thai melodies. They have not. On the other hand, the little Church Music Department became the basis for Payap University’s College of Music, one of the most successful departments in the university, and one that has vastly improved musical quality and appreciation nationally. This, ironically, has provided musicians for the church whereas recruiting them untrained and training them to be church musicians did not.
I take it from this, that one role an ex-pat missionary can have is experimenter. “Let’s just try it and see.” In this case the experiment ran against the grain of Christians seeking the maximum distance from local culture. The Christian sub-culture needs to be distinct. Gerry was constantly testing the water with new forms of music education based on Carl Orff and John Cage, while also writing cantatas not unlike ones by Bach and promoting annual performances of Messiah by Handel.
Meanwhile, Gerry used his abundant free time exploring ethnomusicology, a special field of cultural anthropology. This undertaking has been more fully described in another essay: www.kendobson.asia/blog/gerry-dyck. I would like to mention here, however, that Gerry had no mandate to do this work, which turned out to be his most enduring contribution. He was permitted to do this, and eventually given modest support to design a recording studio in the seminary building. But church officials ignored this massive work Gerry was doing almost on his own. To this day, in fact, the church has ignored what Thai cultural preservationists have called the greatest contribution any single individual has made to Northern Thai musical history. Gerry is called “the father-teacher” and borom-ajan (illustrious teacher) by Thai musicologists.
I submit that Gerry Dyck was a model for missionaries, but one not easy to follow. The contributions that many missionaries have brought have often, indeed have generally, been over and beyond the job they were sent here to Thailand to do. In Gerry’s case it was about investigation and preservation of a disappearing musical heritage. Previous missionaries contributed dictionaries, architectural and construction concepts, and cultural studies. Sometimes those were imagined as an evangelical entré, but, as with countless parish priests in England, the church-worker’s hobby sometimes was the more significant. The church and mission organizations often lose something extremely precious by imposing narrow borders on their work. The employee syndrome is less productive than it is assumed to be.
In Gerry’s case, 1970 was a tough year. The Presbyterian Church came to the end of its funds for sustained overseas work. A board representative came to Thailand with a hard choice for the CCT: cut 20% of the mission workforce, or 20% of the subsidies for other work. Gerry was not a favorite son and his work was not adding things of immediate value to church programs, so he and his family were cut along with several other missionaries. It took nearly 4 decades for his most important contribution to be recognized.
Gerry Dyck died Tuesday, July 23, 2019 at his home in Assonet, Massachusetts, USA. His daughter, Kirsten O’Dell, informed us of Gerry’s death with her and her sister Heidi and Gerry’s wife, Helga beside him as he passed away peacefully. He had been in Hospice care for a few days. A memorial service will be held in September.
Gerry will be remembered by those of us in Thailand for his two periods of missionary service here. From 1960 to 1963 he was sent by the Mennonite Central Committee to do “alternative service” (as a conscientious objector to military service) at the Sampantakit Farm, a rural development project of the Church of Christ in Thailand, north of Chiang Rai where he helped with the church and school and developed a deep interest in Northern Thai culture.
From 1967 to 1971 Gerry, by that time married to Edy with twins Ilse and Heidi (Kirsten was born here at McCormick Hospital), returned to Chiang Mai sponsored by the Presbyterian Church, to teach at the Thailand Theological Seminary in the Department of Church Music. During those 5 years Gerry became deeply involved in investigating all aspects of Northern Thai music. He produced hundreds of tape recordings of music played by all sorts of instruments along with photographic records of how the instruments were made. These were archived in Los Angeles and eventually digitized. This trove of information has been pivotal in the preservation of these aspects of Northern Thai culture. The pin pia was rescued from near extinction, for example. His work in the Church Music Department with that of his colleagues, especially Mrs. Carolyn Kingshill, formed the basis for what is now the College of Music of Payap University.
“Students denied right to dress according to gender identity; petition National Human Rights Commission” thundered a headline on an LGBT news website from the July 17, 2019 edition of Prachatai English. The article attracted the attention of all of us who are concerned about SOGI rights, but it grabbed me even more because the students are in the university where I have worked for decades.
In summary the article reported that the students from the Faculty of Pharmacy of Payap University have been helped by Sirisak Chaited a prominent LGBT activist (who graduated from Payap University) to appeal a decision by the deans of Payap which denied the petition of each of the students to wear clothing indicating a different sex from the one on their national identity cards and university documents. The reason given is that “presenting as transgender is not appropriate in their discipline.” The article then notes that previous cases like this have been brought to the National Human Rights Commission and resolved when NHRC representatives visited the universities. Sirisak, the article said, hopes for a similar outcome, namely a change in university policy. The news article then mentions that this sort of discrimination is widespread in faculties of education and health sciences.
I have background as an administrator of universities in Thailand, and I have sat in discussions about this very issue of uniforms. I would like to suggest that it is not entirely in the university’s hands. In fact, a large number of matters are no longer entirely up to academic instructors and university administrations.
Universities have to be concerned about what happens to graduates. If they are going to be hired to be nurses or teachers, lawyers or engineers, physicians or diplomats the first thing after graduation is that they have to pass professional examinations. Prior to that, professional associations certify the education they have received, including clinical practice and the like. For those associations, appearance and capability both count toward the sort of pride and professionalism the associations aspire to maintain. As stipulated by those associations, universities require a variety of uniforms for students in classrooms, in labs, as beginners on site for practice, and as advanced practitioners. Those costumes are gender-specific although that changes over time (both male and female surgical nurses now wear the same garb, for example). Uniforms presumably conform to professional standards. But gender only matters for certain categories of students. All music students would dress according to plan for a concert, but a trans student could decide between a tuxedo or a long black dress. A student nurse does not have that freedom. That’s where the Human Rights Commission comes in.
As commencement time approaches the issue comes up again. For students in all departments the commencement ceremony is a major event. Two factors impact whether trans students can wear clothing of their choice. If a member of the Thai Royal Family is presiding at the commencement the stakes are higher. When a member of royalty hands over the diploma as the student’s name is announced it implies a royal validation of the person and the person's achievement. Even when someone else is presenting the diplomas, the list of graduates for every academic degree is approved by the Office of the Higher Education Commission (OHEC) of the Ministry of Education, and the name on the diploma must be exactly the same as on the list approved. Those lists still say "Nai" "Nang" and "Nang Sao" (Mr., Mrs., and Miss). In fact, the name must be exactly the same on all documents, and must be the same as on the student’s National Identity Card.
I have attended commencements, however, where the title prefixes were dropped, and only the given name and surname were announced (e.g. the picture above). In those cases the students decided whether to wear skirts or trousers. Perhaps Payap will do that, too. Our percentage of transgender and ambiguous students is substantial.
What needs to happen is for OHEC to drop the use of gender indicators and just use personal names on their lists and diplomas. It would be made much easier, as Sirisak said, if the government were to make it clear that gender rights are extended to all citizens as government policy and national law. No university wants to have its graduates invalidated by some government agent because of a technicality. An official policy would clarify this and help everybody feel safer. It remains to be seen whether the newly formed Thai Parliament will address this issue.
It has before it the related issue of same-sex civil partnerships.
This is not all about letting students express themselves. The issue is about understanding that identifying one’s gender is a matter of discernment of what’s real and not merely a matter of choosing items of clothing. At root this is an issue of human rights and how Thailand will dare to be inclusive. External regulations, whether by institutions, associations, or political entities, are always matters of choice between letting individuals decide or deciding for them.
[Note regarding the picture above: Maa graduated from her university wearing female attire, as she had throughout her bachelor’s degree program. Through high school this had not been possible. She considers college as her transition into authenticity.]
ESSAY 2 ON SOCIAL ORDER
The “American Revolution” was fought over John Locke’s concept of the social contract that exists between the governor and the governed. Thomas Jefferson enunciated this most famously in the American Declaration of Independence.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Locke and then Rousseau argued that people assent to be governed, that is to relinquish a certain amount of freedom in order to secure particular benefits, among which is an orderly society in which people can achieve their aspiration to the best of their ability and circumstances. It is the right of people to choose their form of government, these Enlightenment-era philosophers argued. They opposed the current concept that “Kings rule by Divine Right.” That is, that kings are appointed to their role by God.
In non-European courts something akin to Divine Right was incorporated into the foundational concept. In Thailand, for example, there is a subtle but important lineage traced back through history to the mythic origins of the universe. The King is a minor divinity as of his coronation.
Locke and Jefferson argued that there is nothing divine or natural about one form of government over another, and they can be replaced by the will of the people. It was the will of the people of the thirteen British Colonies to replace monarchical government with that of a federation of democratic republics (although the extent of federation was yet another difficult matter to be ironed out).
His Majesty the King, Rama IX, reiterated (in one case specifically to educate his family) that Thailand is a constitutional monarchy in which the King is under the law along with everyone else. One of the less-prominently mentioned changes that have come following the ascendency of King Rama X is to revise the constitution and functions of the King to be unassailable, no longer theoretically reigning at the will of the people, but in response to the need for firm institutions.
One basic contentious issue is whether people can legitimately choose to have a totalitarian form of government wherein personal freedoms are largely eliminated. That is the extreme on the right, so to speak. Those who would argue that such a form cannot be legitimate contend that it is both illusory in its self-justification and inevitably catastrophic in its outcome. On the other hand, such a form arises when a sufficiently large percentage of a population encourages or at least allows it to happen. The need for this group to suppress opposition through intimidation and force is considered expedient by those who support the totalitarian regime, and is considered proof of the illegitimacy of the regime by those who oppose it. Opponents think they take the high ground by pointing out that when personal freedoms are eliminated, the right to express opinions and agitate for a new social contract are among the rights that are lost. That automatically cancels the social contract.
To be blunt, there is no contract when only one party is consulted. If a point comes where the voice of any party to the contract is silenced, the contract is null and void.
Many of us have noticed that we are still engaged in what Lincoln called a great civil war testing whether the USA or any nation can survive that was conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal. The form of battle has evolved from armed slaughter to civil protests and from issues of physical enslavement to matters of equal access to the benefits of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But full achievement of lofty hopes is still beyond reach. In fact, we are still trying to establish how to carry on the battle. Are votes so totally manipulated as to be an impossible way for the people to reassert their voice? From time to time the results from elections and legislation are so frustrating that mass demonstrations are resorted to, and when those also fail armed violence is the next step.
The list of countries where these cycles of peace and violence are repeated includes almost every country in existence. The dynamic seems to be movement from decentralized social order into more rigid and centralized order, presumably in response to some threat. As central authority grows more powerful, balancing forces are weakened or delegitimized. Eventually “the people” decide to re-describe “who we are” and re-draw the political borders and how to defend them. All of this is assumed in the prevailing social contract.
An individual’s emotional preference does not essentially count, nor does one’s active protest dissolve the contract. But the collective will of the people to be governed counts for everything in a democracy (of whatever type), although not at all in an oligarchy (whether monarchical, militaristic, or economic). In Jefferson’s time in colonial America, at the time of the Thai Democracy Revolution against the monarchy in 1932, at the time of the Communist Revolution in Russia in 1917, and throughout the Freedom Movement of India against Great Britain, to name but 4, the issue has always been the right of the people to re-describe themselves and to choose how to limit their absolute freedom in order to secure a necessary amount of order.
Blessed are you when your government is not too big and not too little, but just right.
[The first essay in this series was published on June 5 entitled “Social Bond”. The next essay in about a month will be on “Social Ethics” and how society uses moral order to control people.]
50 years ago this week the now-famous Stonewall riots were erupting in New York City after police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay venue in the Greenwich Village. 50 years is a long time. It has been long enough to move me from “oblivious” to “activist”.
I may have been traveling from Thailand to New York City at the time, going through Cairo and Rome. That may be why I did not hear a word about the riots. There is no explanation, however, about why we did not hear about them when we arrived in NYC and stayed in Morningside Heights for 3 days at the end of June to visit mission headquarters at 475 Riverside Drive. I was oblivious.
1968-9 was a time of violent protests following the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy: Watts, Washington DC, Chicago, Paris, Chicago again, Berkeley, Columbus University. Those were massive insurrections against the establishment. Stonewall was small. Stonewall was also by and about being gay, while the “real issue” was civil rights for African-Americans.
Still, I have been pondering why I missed noticing the one violent event that set in motion a movement that changed my life. I think I have a handle on my personal trajectory of discovery.
1965 – I tried to find the best resources on homosexuality, and they all declared that it was a complex matter of choices. Diversion was the best response to those urges.
1967 – I realized in a blinding moment I was powerless over the urges, which “would destroy my career, my reputation, and my future” if I did not take the “only effective deterrent action” and get married.
1973 – The Presbyterian Church and medical societies began to publish studies that altered the view that homosexuality is a mental illness.
1990 – I found solid scientific confirmation of the view that being gay is not a matter of choice. At the same time none of the therapies had worked, not “prayer and fasting,” counseling, a 12-step program, nor any of several others.
2000 – I was put on a new track, not heteronormative, but not radical. It didn’t work. I entered a relationship with a gay man. That worked.
2003 – I “came out” as Kinsey 5, bi-gay, but decided I was too old and too far from the USA to fight for my job as a missionary-pastor without the Presbyterian Church yet willing to stand with me. So I began a new career as a university administrator. My opportunities for activities in the church evaporated.
2009 – My spouse and I got married in Iowa. We moved to our new home in a village in North Thailand, declared our house a safe-space for gay people to escape if needed. I began to write for a gay magazine and became active with LGBT advocacy groups.
2012 – I published a book of anecdotes and stories about gay experiences of Thai people. Pramote and I are part of the only identified gay group in our valley.
In my life I have been an enthusiastic Christian leader, a US civil rights activist, and an LGBT advocate. Two of the three at any one time are the most I have managed.
Meanwhile, since Stonewall there has been a huge change in the wider world. We can say that until Stonewall there was widespread agreement that being gay and lesbian was wrong. All over the world it was thought to be wrong and decriminalization was barely begun. How it was wrong and what to do about it were unclear.
About half-way through the half-century, opinion began to shift on the part of officials and authorities. Churches as well as governments began to come to grips with the reality that LGBT people are a valid, sustained, and significant minority. Opposition to this began to be energized.
Throughout the past 25 years LGBT presence and legitimacy has become the battleground in a world-wide culture war. That war has many fronts, but a lightning-rod drawing first fire on most fronts is something to do with us who are LGBTQIK+ … our right to be married, our right to be equal, or our right to be.
Still, that should not blind us to the fact that we have made progress. The world is immensely different since the time men rushed out of the courtroom where Oscar Wilde was being tried, to vomit in the street. Our humanity and our universal presence are widely recognized. The Pope insisted yesterday that we are people (that’s Papal progress for you). I won’t be pessimistic despite what’s going on in Russia, Kenya, or Indonesia. Killing has started again, but the opposition is losing more battles than they are winning. Their resorting to violence is a sign of their desperation, more than anything.
Pride month is ending. Some of the biggest pride events in history have taken place. More than a dozen cities had Pride Parades for the first time. India took stunning steps this year. Taiwan has legalized a form of gay marriage, the first in Asia. None of these things would have happened without Stonewall.
"What Makes Thai Buddhism So Strong," is the often over-looked participation of temple communities in community-wide celebrations and events. The most powerful ones are the deepest secrets of village temple culture. From a theological anthropologist's perspective they are secrets in that they cannot be fully explained except in mythic and symbolic terms, some of which are outside Buddhist doctrine.
The most persuasive examples of the strength of Thai Buddhist Religion here in Chiang Mai are ceremonial occasions that draw people from virtually every household in a temple community as well as a large number of people from elsewhere. Support for those events is dependable and consistent. At the same time, the rationale for the events is paradoxical, with accommodation for traditional suspicions and beliefs that have little to do with Buddhist doctrine and narrative, but have incorporated Buddhist priests and involve key Buddhist symbols and structures.
After decades of observing this, I have come to six tentative conclusions:
1.Thai Buddhists are instructed by narratives about incidents in the life of the Lord Buddha, which are re-enacted in Buddhist ceremonies in ways that edify and empower temple communities.
2.The most profound and best attended ceremonies also resonate with references to archetypes in the temple community’s collective unconscious.
3.In Thai Buddhist religious practices there is an embracing of life’s mysteries and realities along with a renunciation of them. This paradox is both mystifying and satisfying.
4.Funerals are the most frequent events to call forth community involvement, to mitigate the loss, and restore cosmic order.
5.Temples are both community gathering places, as well as axial columns in which representations of the Lord Buddha function in ways indicative of independence and dominance. That is, some structures are somehow alive and signify the Lord Buddha’s imminence.
6.The motivation to participate in events is that participation is expected and valuable, and merit is earned for oneself and can be transferred to express filial devotion.
[On July 4, 2019 from 9:30 to 11 a.m. I will provide a PAYAP PRESENTS illustrated lecture on this topic under the auspices of Payap University’s Institute of Religion Culture and Peace, in the International College building on Payap’s main Mae Kao Campus (right behind the chapel). The program is free of charge and open to the public, and you are invited to attend. Following that, a 16 page article entitled “Why Thai Buddhism Is So Strong” will be available on this website. You may request an e-copy now to be sent in July.]
We can choose what to believe about ourselves.
There come moments when we defy the boundaries in which we are cocooned. No matter how encumbered by gravity or circumstances, on occasion we soar. It does not matter as much that our flights will not last, as that they prove we are capable of astonishment. From our first weightless instant we are not defined by what we are bound to do almost all the time, but by the infinite capability we have to be astounding. The mundane does not give us meaning any more.
We can choose how to consider him.
Almost all the time he appears earthbound, poised, balanced and potential. He has amazing grace, but that is not the mode we remember. We know him little, not what are his dreams and what besides gravity he has had to overcome. But we know he can leap and for an instant fly.
We can choose to anticipate his plunge and splash or we can focus on his ecstasy.
He must have confidence that comes from knowing he can handle what comes next, but for an instant he is suffused with joy.
These are my people.
I am one of them.
James (I will call him) arrived in Thailand looking for a job and a place to live. Being a young college graduate “native speaker of English” with a willingness to integrate into an environment strange to him, he applied for a teaching position in several schools. He took the most attractive offer after wisely visiting the school and meeting his new bosses. As with any new career the learning curve was steep at first. Within a few months James reckoned he’d stay another year. Besides he’d met Oi, a colleague who taught in the same school and whose family lived nearby. During year 3, James and Oi decided on marriage. It consisted in a string-tying ceremony and wedding dinner and had no church service, which mildly perplexed James. It was just about then that James’s identity confusion began. It came into focus for him with a set of doubts about what and who he was NOT. He was not a native speaker of Thai, he was not a native of the place he was living, he was not a citizen of Thailand but an “alien” with a visa and passport, he was not sure he wanted to spend the rest of his life teaching English to children, he was not ready to be a father. On the other hand he was a husband and lover, accepted as a member of an extended family it was going to take time to get to know, a fast language learner, a successful and satisfied employee of a school with a good reputation, and he had his family’s admiration and blessing from back home. Resolution of the question of where James belonged came after year four when James realized he now belonged in two places. This understanding was greatly enhanced by the arrival of little Gai who, despite her small size, completely changed James’s life.
Refugees, migrant workers, asylum seekers, military, students, retirees, missionaries, cross-cultural married couples, adoptees, international business and industry personnel, foreign service staff, medical migrants, displaced persons, scholars, drifters, back-packers, tourists, researchers, merchants and sales personnel … what they may have in common is travel involving living apart from where they were born. A perplexing common experience is bewilderment about belonging. This can be compounded if the people around them are confused or anguished about the newcomers.
This essay reflects on ways people know they are part of a social group. I suggest it is good to remember these principles as we participate in discussions, sometimes heated unnecessarily, about who has a right to be among us, and where we have a right to be. This short series of blog-essays begins with a list of explanations about ways that social bonding happens. Note, the following definitions are not only about residency, but about membership in various types of social groups. Two more blog-essays are projected to follow, one a month.
Social membership is indicated by definition, description and designation.
Aspects of social bonding:
Physical presence – One indication that “These are my people; I am one of them,” is being physically present (e.g. resident or in attendance). Regularity and persistence reinforce this designation.
Physical presence is one of several indicators of membership in a social construction. It tends to be less deniable as time goes on. People are incorporated by longevity.
My residence in Ban Den Village tends to prove I am one of the people of this village.
A fellow from Europe built a house for his Thai family here in the village, but he is here only 2 or 3 months at a time. His identity is ambiguous for he is neither a resident nor a tourist. This does not seem to bother anyone. We all know him and have a category for him.
Emotional affinity – A sense of strong attachment and identification with a group is sometimes sufficient proof of one’s attachment and inclusion in the group. Similarly, a lack of emotional connection, especially if there is a lack of respect for the group’s values and traditions, is proof to the contrary.
One does not have to have unconditional love for everything and everyone in order to feel strongly connected. Significantly, more is needed than just psychological attraction to validate one’s belonging. Yet, without that, there is doubt about the authenticity and sustainability of one’s membership.
Our granddaughter feels so strongly attached to Thai people and culture that she would like to describe herself as Thai. She was born and grew to young adulthood in Thailand. Her passport asserts she is a United States citizen. It does not begin to tell the whole truth.
More than one ex-pat living here in Thailand fails this test of full affiliation. Profiling and stereotyping habits of speech are clues that bonding has not happened. What keeps such people here with people they neither respect nor trust must be other factors, among which are often convenience and economic privilege.
When I returned to my college alma mater it didn’t take long to realize I was a visitor rather than a member of that college society. The old buildings and pathways were familiar but the people were all new. A couple of my classmates had retained their ties to the college through visits, donations, and membership on boards, but my emotional affinity was severed. What I have left is nostalgia.
Shared endeavors – Participation in a group’s undertaking, particularly by sharing the group’s core activities regularly, is often adequate to constitute one’s link to the group.
There is no ritual to become a Northern Thai Buddhist; rather a person is a part of the temple fellowship by participating in temple events as other people are doing.
Alumni associations supposedly composed of all graduates of an academic institution are spurious unless there is actual response from alumni. The same principle applies to unincorporated villages and neighborhood associations. However, just being resident, conforming to minimal community standards (e.g. keeping weeds under control), and leaving other people alone may be sufficient to fulfill the definition of membership.
In our village there is an “onion growers’ association” comprised of only some of the onion farmers. The rest do not attend meetings or apply for benefits, so they are not members.
Genetic relationship – A major and undeniable indicator “that these are my people” is being part of the family and its associations, especially when the connection is genetic (by “blood” and DNA). Hardly anybody can be denied affiliation if the group is composed of people born into it. Therefore, being attached otherwise (as by adoption or marriage) generally involves specific rites or processes.
In fact, if people are selected for membership rather than inherit a right to it, the group generally has to specify that requirement, as Christian churches do. On the other hand, in certain religious traditions genetic issues take precedence over almost all others. It can be said, “Being born into a family (and the larger social constructs in which the family is included) prove one’s right to belong, by definition.”
Thai society is socially stratified and geographically segregated, but specified membership in groups is generally an imported concept. Examples are local Chinese Chambers of Commerce, Rotary Clubs, and the like. Attempts to form other types of associations, fraternities, and unions do not often succeed over long term in Thailand, unless there are over-riding benefits (as in the case of credit unions, military officer clubs, and golf clubs).
Sworn loyalty – The most common entryway into membership in a closed group is by making a pledge of affiliation. These oaths are formal.
Swearing loyalty and associated promises (often monetary) are control mechanisms used by groups to limit access of new members based on the group’s own perceived best interests (rather than the desires of the applicant).
In cases of citizenship, one generally needs to acquire a working knowledge of key patriotic symbols to display dedication and sincerity. It is expected that this loyalty will be strong enough that the new citizen will willingly make sacrifices equivalent to native citizens when called upon to do so.
One of the most “useful” filters of membership in “exclusive societies” is elevated membership fees. Throughout most of my time in Thailand, access to elite schools required a substantial donation along with the application form, followed by high tuition and other fees. This optimized the likelihood that children of the social elite would grow up with children similarly endowed. Exclusive clubs obstruct access by also charging exorbitant membership fees. Obviously, money is an alternative to other less concrete promises.
Legal designation – To preclude any question of validity, groups with constituted memberships and vested authority can, by various acts, designate who has rights and responsibilities of membership. Membership thus designated cannot be subsequently deprived except by the constituted group acting with the same authority. Even individual members must ordinarily take particular action to withdraw from membership.
Citizenship in a country (or a component part of a country such as a municipality), for example, is designated by law. Such laws are basically restrictive; keeping people out and limiting their prerogatives is the essential purpose. Other persons than citizens within the boundaries of a country are also subject to legal designation (i.e. as “travelers” / “non-immigrants” etc.).
One of the contentious issues of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is a general trend toward overruling local consensus by regional and national action. At the extreme, ethnic-cleansing and genocide are the result. Currently the USA is engaged in another round of authoritarian controls and restrictions of access. It is one of the bases of President Trump’s popularity with his political support group that he is building a wall, impounding alien children at the border, deporting “illegals” rather than facilitating their acquiring citizenship, and enacting surveillance never before endured except in time of declared war.
In Thailand the process of acquiring citizenship is daunting and often expensive, although recent recognition of residency over more than one generation, or pertinent genetic relationship to a Thai citizen have made it easier to acquire citizenship documents. When it was noticed that the boys trapped in the flooded cave a year ago were not Thai citizens, these provisions were called on to speed up their acquisition of citizenship and travel documents.
Community consensus – The most abstract but potent factor indicating a social bond is general agreement within the community about individuals’ affiliation.
An alien resident may be a vital part of a community if there is general agreement about that. On the other hand, some individuals remain “outsiders” despite fulfilling other requirements.
A key episode in the film “The Ugly American” shows South East Asian villagers protectively surrounding an American with whom they had bonded when a communist unit tried to abduct him. The power of community acceptance is not to be discounted, nor is it to be taken for granted. It is just as likely that aliens will be reported and abandoned when it is to the advantage of members of the community to do so. This happens routinely when tyrannical regimes attain power.
When a village treasurer “misappropriated” (i.e. stole) funds, the village consensus turned against the family, insisting they move away. To make the point, the village turned off water and electricity to their house. In other cultures, of course, such abuse of trust would be subject to legal prosecution.
Blessed are you if you have many ways of belonging where you are, and none conspire against you.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.