We decorate, but why?
Pramote is keen to decorate for Christmas. Every year we put some money and a lot of time into it. He was excited to get a box on Thanksgiving from daughter Julie in the USA that has some new decorations. We are the only household to decorate for Christmas in the six villages we have anything to do with. The easy answer as to why there is no other decoration going on around here is that Christmas is not a “thing” where we live.
There are other occasions for decoration here in Northern Thailand. Many houses are lighted and gateways festooned for Loy Kratong. Weddings call for flowers.
So, as we pull the sacks and boxes of Christmas decorations out of storage and get ready to see which still work without smoking, I wonder why it’s EXCITING, because that’s why Pramote is doing this.
Why do people decorate? Where does the “kick” come from? Here’s my initial list of reasons:
1. Decorations change conditions. They break the routine, add novelty, and alter the mood. The decorations kick us out of the mundane and into an environment that’s super. This has not been a good year for most of us. Marie said she put up her Christmas tree last week because she needed Christmas NOW. I see you nodding.
2. Decorations are reminders. The mall has a faux Christmas tree almost 3 stories tall. It must have thousands of lights – cost a mint. Why? Buy! It’s a commercial reminder of what this season is about according to the mall. But the reminders are not all about putting out money. Old ornaments remind us of Christmases past. Just going through the process of stringing up the decorations can do that, too. Sometimes decorating is about the heart-tug.
3. Decorations are declarations. Actually they are not mainly tribal, although they pretend to declare “we are part of this culture that has Christmas.” Even more, they declare individuality and independence. A Christmas display proclaims, “This is one acceptable thing I can do just because I want to do it.” Why else would some people go to such effort when so many of their tribe do not? These days almost everything ELSE we do that’s outside the box is socially unacceptable.
4. Decorations are attractive. People go to see decorations. The reason behind the reason people like us decorate is the satisfaction of drawing attention. It’s the reason writers write, young people Tik-Tok, needy politicians Twitter, and we count the number of “likes” we get on Facebook. Decorations attract attention that is gratifying. We need to be appreciated.
5. Decorations express value. These are tough times. Not everybody can show off with an ostentatious display of available funds. New Christmas decorations would be near the top of the list of things to scratch if need be. Not having decorations says something about our priorities and situation. So, sensitive people might cut back on decorations this year, even if they have the means. Community displays, on the other hand, might be worth the effort in order to signify, “We think you might enjoy some color and fantasy in times like this.”
Have I missed anything?
Nalong rose from the dead, they say. Everyone agrees he was certainly dead on November 2. He was not breathing and his heart stopped for a long time. The village ambulance would take too long so a neighbor drove him to the hospital where they failed to resuscitate him and sent him to the regional medical center while applying CPR.
Against all odds he recovered.
So, the family did the next thing to offset such an inauspicious event. They conducted a sub jata ceremony to counterbalance the effects that seem to have accumulated. Who knows what malign power tried to destroy Nalong’s life – or maybe did what it intended to do by nearly scaring him to death? Who knows what benign powers are available to reorient influences? People in our village are not especially fastidious about theology. A sub jata ceremony is one of a set of ceremonies that one does when pernicious strangeness has emerged. When in doubt call a chapter of priests to chant about the certainty that life is fraught and undependable but it is important to reassert stability, durability, and immutability.
All the elders in the village went. When people die around here it’s usually permanent.
Notes about the pictures:
1. Ken and Nalong – for the record.
2. Tying strings while sitting under a tripod loaded with traditional necessities for an abundant life is the heart of the ceremony. The tripod represents an axial tree where we reside between the elemental earth and the spiritual heaven. The benefits of the service are symbolically carried through the strings that attach the affected family to the Lord Buddha, and to the chapter of priests chanting. This transforms the circumstances by altering the powers involved.
3. An auspicious number of priests is an odd number, in this case five. I was assured that the stanzas chanted for 29 minutes are a standard set for this type of ceremony. The service started at 9.29 a.m. That could have been coincidental, but it was auspicious.
4. Mae Pawn, Narong’s wife, carried pots of silver and gold back into the heart of the house at the end of the service. The family’s economic prosperity was re-established.
I have posted essays about sub jata ceremonies associated with house blessings, life threatening circumstances, and birthdays. Here are links to these blogs: www.kendobson.asia/blog/subjata and www.kendobson.asia/blog/subjata-2018
Payap University in Chiang Mai Thailand is holding its 43rd commencement service Saturday evening, November 21, 2020. The commencement service will serve the purposes of all commencement events, but this year there are significant differences. Payap is still observing necessary pandemic precautions and government policies. So, there will be a reduction in the number of participants. Graduates will be seated with wider space between chairs than previously (see the picture from the dress rehearsal). Family will be limited to one per graduate inside the commencement arena, but other family and friends will be allowed outside on the grounds. Faculty will not be in the procession or seated in the arena, only some senior administrators and representatives of the Board of Trustees will be participating. The service will be broadcast live via the Internet and on FM radio. This year’s graduating class is composed of 701 graduates from the 29 departments of Payap’s 6 faculties and 3 colleges.
This is the second graduation service of the week for Payap. Following tradition, the McGilvary College of Divinity held a service Wednesday evening to conclude its 131st year. Seminary students are expected to quickly enter Christian service careers as they leave McGilvary. The graduation service is essentially a dedication service in which graduates are given symbols of ministry. Services of ordination are entirely separate. Seminary graduates will be awarded diplomas in the Payap commencement again this year although plans are underway for the McGilvary College of Divinity to become a separate degree-granting institution on its own as soon as arrangements are completed.
At this time last year Payap University was facing the most serious financial crisis of its history with costs far outstripping income and enrollments falling. A number of extraordinary measures were considered, including selling some of the university’s excess land, agreements with the government of China to receive up to 300 students, developing plans with private and government enterprises, and consolidation of programs to centralize the use of buildings. The COVID-19 emergency ended any thought of expanding our outreach at this time to include students from China and the epidemic stalled sales of land as the Thai economy began to fall. At the same time, enrollment in Payap’s Thai and International programs rose as some students found it expedient to stay in the country rather than trying to go overseas as they had considered doing. The sense at the present is that Payap has stabilized. (Previous blog essays have discussed this: www.kendobson.asia/blog/mcgilvary-college and www.kendobson.asia/blog/amnuay-tapingkae ).
The university is now able to reorient itself toward a post-COVID future. 2021 will be better.
Theology is done by theologians, and only a few of them are professional at it. It is the result of something that happens to them. What makes this happening “theology” is how it causes “connections.”
Stephen Bevans explains that one set of connections is a theologian’s experience of the past and present. In the past is a sacred story transmitted by traditions which has become meaningful to the theologian. The theologian also has to experience the present as connected meaningfully to the past. Bevans says there are at least 4 contexts (aspects of the present): (1) human experience such as a health crisis or presidential election, (2) one’s social location as a person of a certain gender or age, (3) one’s cultural identity as a Black American or Thai Buddhist, (4) and change that is going on in one’s context – globalization, collapse of civilization.
Theology is also affected by both external and internal factors. (A) External factors that impact theology include the consensus that all cultures are good and are valid sources for theology. (B) Factors within Christian theology that impact how theology is done these days are acceptance to the implications that God is incarnate always and everywhere, that God can choose to transform whatever God chooses into a sacramental object or event that mediates God’s saving presence, that God’s “revelation” is not conceptual but God’s very self in society and history, that theologies must be in dialogue with each other, and finally that theology must be in dialogue with the particular.
Theology can be judged as legitimate, despite being based on experiences in contexts that are always unique. Four standards apply: (1) inner consistency, all the conclusions work together, (2) theology (including Buddhist and Muslim theology – all of them) must be in the language of worship, (3) the theology should lead to the practice of justice, peace and holiness, (4) a theology should be open to correction by the wider faith community and at the same time (5) have the power to enrich theologies espoused by others in the faith community and beyond.
Stephen Bevans’s best-known concept is his models of contextual theology.
There is one Truth and happiness comes from knowing it.
The central concern of theology done following this model is to preserve the original tradition when it is transferred into a new context. Divine revelation is propositional and prioritizes what it identifies as the supra-cultural Gospel, or revelation that is unchanging from culture to culture. Therefore the supra-cultural Gospel may be separated from culture and the Gospel may be inculturated in a host culture without being influenced by that culture.
…we are concerned with translating the meaning of doctrines into another cultural context – and that translation might make those doctrines look and sound quite different from their original formulations. Nevertheless … there is “something” that must be “put into” other terms. There is always something from the outside that must be made to fit inside; there is always something “given” that must be “received.” [Bevans, pp. 32-33]
Note: This is a conservative and defensive model even though it intends to change others while remaining true and unchanged.
If you listen carefully you can hear God speaking, saying the same things in every culture.
Divine revelation and culture are inherently related. “God reveals Godself in every culture and thus the revelation of God impregnates every culture” [McLean, p. 35]. Theology, done according to the anthropological model, “seeks to preserve the tradition by mining it for new developments and expressions that come out of a particular context and can enrich the entire church” [Bevans, Contextual Theology, paragraph 10].
This does not mean that the gospel cannot challenge a culture, but such a challenge is always viewed with suspicion that the challenge is not coming from God but from a tendency of one culture to impose values on another. [Bevans, p. 48]
Note: a challenge to culture is suspicious, because the one making the challenge may be assuming cultural superiority and therefore domination.
God is in the midst, wherever life is going on, and most discernable as one becomes most involved with where life is most challenged.
This model includes the insights that come from the practice of faithful living. Action leads to reflection which leads to plans for more action. Theology flows from an identification of divine revelation with the active presence of God in history.
God manifests God’s presence not only, or not even primarily, in the fabric of culture, but also and perhaps principally in the fabric of history. [Bevans, p. 63]
Consequently it prioritizes theological action over theological reflection. The central insight of the praxis model is “…theology is done not simply by providing relevant expressions of Christian faith but also by commitment to Christian action” [Bevans, p. 65].
Note: Theological validity (i.e. truth) is constantly assessed and subject to challenge, but so is the cultural context.
If you listen you can hear God telling you new things that God has revealed to these others.
The synthetic model draws these three models together. “Christian doctrine has developed in a dialogical, synthetic way as various circumstances in history and in the church’s life call for clearer articulation of Christian faith.” [Bevans, Contextual Theology, paragraph 12]. Every culture has elements that are unique to it and elements that are held in common with other cultures or contexts and so intercultural dialogue is beneficial. This model sees value in being respectful of other cultures where divine revelation may contribute to an understanding of God.
In terms of theology, it will be recognized that it is not enough to extol one’s own culture as the only place where God can speak to a particular cultural subject. One can also hear God speaking in other cultures. Attention to one’s own culture can perhaps discover values in other cultures that these cultures have never noticed before, and attention to others … can transform and enrich one’s own culture and worldview. [Bevans, p. 83]
Note: Cultural superiority prevents valuable new insight as well as the opportunity to effectively communicate.
God wants to change you.
This model recognizes the importance of religious experience: divine revelation may only be “known” as it is experienced. It is primarily interested in the process of inculturation that occurs as an individual experiences God. “…theology happens as a person struggles more adequately and authentically to articulate and appropriate the ongoing relationship with the divine” [Bevans, p. 99].
Emphasis in this model is not so much on the content that is produced, but on the process of theologizing itself. When one theologizes as an authentic cultural subject on the one hand and as an authentic person of faith on the other, what will be produced will inevitably be a theology that is rooted both in a particular context and in Christian tradition. The transcendental model proceeds by a method of sympathy and antipathy. One listens to or reads a particular theological expression and it may trigger an appreciation of aspects in one’s own context that can contribute to genuine theologizing. [Bevans, Contextual Theology, paragraph 13]
Note: One acquires theological insight through concentration on the subject at hand. The change to be sought is one’s own insight.
God wants you to be a change agent.
More recently, Bevans has added a sixth model for doing theology. Context is taken with utmost seriousness and also with the greatest suspicion. Theology must confront context with the truth of the gospel, calling it to be transformed by the life-giving power of God’s grace and mercy. This is the prophetic tradition in Christian scripture, adopted by the likes of St. Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther King, Jr. [See Bevans, Contextual Theology, paragraph 14].
Note: Dire circumstances call for bold responses. An adequate theology instructs what must be said. Contextual awareness tells one how to transform those words into powerful symbols to bring about change.
1. The first portion of this essay is based on an article entitled “Contextual Theology” which Stephen B. Bevans wrote for The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, which is forthcoming.
2. The second portion of this essay is based on references to Bevans’s book now in its 7th printing, Models of Contextual Theology, Faith and Cultures, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books 1992, in Patricia McLean’s 2002 thesis Thai Protestant Christianity, for the University of Edinburgh.
In 1959, at the height of American self-confidence after the decline of status of Old World countries, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. described what he saw as “Our Ten Contributions to Civilization.” Using Schlesinger’s list to begin with, what can be observed about the health of American civilization in 2020?
1. THE RIGHT OF REVOLUTION
Schlesinger listed the success of the American Revolution as the final proof of the principle that people can free themselves from regimes with which they wholeheartedly disagree. Such regimes are NOT established by God, but by people. The American Revolution was the first of the great colonial insurrections. The right to revolt was one of America's contributions to modern civilization.
It must be admitted that Southern States attempted to exercise this right in 1860 and were successfully opposed. Apparently the right is not inherent, but must be asserted through power.
2. THE PRINCIPLE OF FEDERALISM
The principle, Schlesinger explains, is that of a partnership of self-governing commonwealths with an overall government capable of protecting and promoting their joint concerns. Prior to that, states were independent, without a workable network, much less a functioning partnership. Mother countries also protected her chicks without paying much attention to their concerns, and certainly not in a partnership. America agreed to a better way and showed it could work. This encouraged a whole new way of making countries and alliances.
America has long since traded federalism for nationalism, and subjected the 50 “commonwealths” to such reduced authorities that states cannot even set up their own banks (the Bank of North Dakota may be the only exception) or control their borders -- even when those borders are with other “self-governing commonwealths”.
3. THE CONSENT OF THE GOVERNED
The USA rejected monarchy, nobility, and a hereditary legislative chamber in favor of government of, by, and for the people, from top to bottom. Schlesinger observed, “The underlying philosophy was not that the common man was all-wise but only that he can govern himself better than anyone else can do it for him.” [In 1959 inclusive language was not yet a major issue.]
Surely we can agree that this concept has morphed into something the founders never expected and even Schlesinger seemed not to have anticipated. There is no agreement about what has happened to government, but it is not what Schlesinger described (1) if the people are not as important as are sponsors, contributors and lobbyists, (2) if politicians can gain invulnerability to majority will, and (3) if policies cannot be presented from the grassroots with any hope for consideration. If democracy no longer exists in America this great contribution to civilization is lost to us.
4. THE STATUS OF WOMEN
Schlesinger looks back into history and reports that one of the things that impressed visitors and immigrants was how women were safe, compared to other places in the world. In the very beginning women were to be “protected, respected, supported, and petted.” He argues that due to being better off to begin with women in America began earlier than elsewhere to strive for equality. That had not come by 1959, but the organized feminist movement was one of the contributions to civilization worth noting. Schlesinger was proud of the way America has been in the lead.
It is our tardiness that is unforgiveable. There is much to do. In fact, the USA no longer has an irrefutable lead in the area of women’s status, nor in efforts to improve the situation. By this measure of civilization there is no room for pride.
5. THE MELTING POT
It is the scale, the thoroughness, and the rapidity with which new populations are absorbed into America that sets us apart, Schlesinger gloats, “and the fact it was done by peaceful absorption.” No civilization before has done this as well as have we. He then goes to considerable lengths to account for one of the glaring exceptions.
“Our most tragic failure has involved our Negro citizens,” he wrote in 1959 as the US Civil Rights Movement was just beginning to make progress. After admitting, “…this ill-used race has been a standing reproach to our professions of democracy,” Schlesinger asserts, “Nevertheless, even these injured people have not been unwilling Americans … they have only been unwilling to be halfway Americans or second-class citizens.”
For a while, in the intervening years since Schlesinger wrote, he might also have observed that “civil rights and human rights” have also been one of America’s contributions to civilization, if not in principle, then at least in scale and breadth. Many groups joined the march toward better treatment, equal rights, and fair justice. They included Native Americans, migrant workers (especially Mexicans), and now in the forefront are LGBTIQA+ groups.
The question before us is, “Are we still contributing to civilization in this regard?” What is the USA’s voting record in world forums on human rights? How do we treat people coming to escape inhumane conditions where they were born? Are we moving backward from our previous advocacy of greater human rights? What have our recent elections told the world about us in this regard?
6. FREEDOM OF WORSHIP
“Religion by choice was the natural counterpoint of government by consent, and, contrary to Old World belief, the separation of church and state did not in fact weaken either but strengthened both.” So, separation of church and state was one of the US’s contributions to civilization.
How are we doing here in 2020? Is there a strong consensus that religion by choice is everybody’s right in America? So far, that is the principle we talk about. But when we are talking about other things we tend to be forgetful. Anti-Semitism has not been snuffed out, but is on the rise again as part of the rise in American Supremacism. Since 9/11, 2001, anti-Islamism has taken top spot in what Americans are against in terms of religion in America. Christian leaders have been included in White House inner circles if they are advocates for “Christian America.” We are moving away from separation of church and state.
7. THE PUBLIC SCHOOL
Schlesinger proudly insists, “Probably America has conferred no greater boon on mankind [than government supported public education], for popular education is the seedbed of virtually all other human aspirations.” In the Old World education was held to be a privately financed undertaking for the upper classes, the rank and file supposedly having little need for any….” The implication is that “the rank and file” is to be kept from aspiring to be otherwise. To keep the rank and file in place, simply limit what they get from being educated.
These days two movements are in effect: one is to reintroduce the principle of private education, and the second is to assure that it costs so much that the rank and file are prevented from getting it or are saddled with such debt if they do that they must take rank and file work to pay off the debt. Meanwhile, the goals of education have been modified downward as well, away from developing people with vision to producing workers. America’s educational standing in the world has dropped dramatically.
8. VOLUNTARY GIVING
In 1959 Schlesinger could still laud American philanthropy after a century as the world leader in voluntary giving to schools, churches, foreign missions, colleges, hospitals, charities and other projects for human betterment. He credits this spirit as the motive behind such gigantic programs as the Red Cross, CARE, and the Marshal Plan, which provided funds from the government coffers. This has “no parallel in history,” Schlesinger raves.
These, however, are the very things that have become targets. Any mention of foreign aid which transformed European nations from adversaries to partners after World War II is met with outrage that American tax dollars are being spent on others rather than people at home. Whole political campaigns are waged against philanthropy abroad. At the same time churches, colleges and hospitals have become self-supporting or have closed.
By technology, Schlesinger means the development of industries. American inventions transformed life for Americans as well as for people everywhere.
I think he would be appalled at what has happened to technology. On the one hand, it has continued to make marvelous advances, none more dramatic than in the field of communication technology. But, as with medical technology, the trend has been away from spreading the benefits to the ends of the world to making as much profit as possible before something better is invented or the patent expires. On the other hand, the centers of technology have migrated away from the USA. It is no secret that even in areas of aerospace and computers new cutting edges are being developed, especially in Asia. Most astounding of all, is how the sciences that lie behind all these technological developments have been devalued, disempowered, and denounced in the USA.
And that brings us to capitalism.
10. EVOLUTIONARY PROGRESS
“One of our proudest achievements has been the creation of a system of controlled capitalism that yields the highest living standards on earth and has made possible a society as nearly classless as man has ever known,” Schlesinger exclaimed. This happened by trial and error, an “evolutionary” process. There was a time, Schlesinger admits, that “unprincipled businessmen had first to be brought to heel by government restraints and the growing power of organized labor before they came to learn that they must serve the general good in pursuing their selfish interests.” He goes on to say that the US has taken on the characteristics of a welfare state, but it is “the legitimate object of government to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but cannot do at all, or cannot do so well, for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities.” Schlesinger contrasts this trial and effort struggle for balance in economy to the dogmatic plans of the USSR and China, as well as to the free hand given to banks and magnates in other industrialized nations. This “controlled capitalism” we have developed is “one of our proudest achievements.”
So, how are we doing with our system of controlled capitalism? Arguably, this is our most troubled area. There is no scale by which the USA now ranks as having the highest living standard. This year, 2020, the USA ranked 15th in quality of living by US News and World Report. All our systems are plummeting. Furthermore, if evolutionary progress is still imaginable, we are in a downward dip in terms of being nearly classless and in bringing unprincipled business to heel by government restraints. We have a rapidly growing group of homeless people, and the US now ranks 2nd in the industrialized world behind France with 177 homeless per 100,000 population. Those who have jobs are finding many things worse than their parents, including income versus cost of living, ability to afford or access health care, loss of retirement security, and reduction of leisure time and funds. Indeed, it is attacks on the “welfare state” that are leading the erosion and destruction of support networks and humanitarian aid systems.
Either “evolutionary progress” is in a disastrous downturn, or this is another contribution to world civilization that America has abandoned.
[Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s article “Our Ten Contributions to Civilization” appeared in the March 1959 issue of The Atlantic]
The most famous ghost story in Thailand is the tale of Mae Naak Pra Khanong แม่นากพระโขนง. This horror story is said to refer to an incident in the time of King Rama IV who reigned in Siam from 1851 to 1868. The story is that Mrs. Naak died in childbirth while her husband Mak was away at war. But when he returned he found her there with her child. Neighbors were killed who tried to warn Mak that his wife and child were ghosts. Mak accidentally learned the truth and managed to flee. Mae Naak chased him until she was subdued by a priest who was an exorcist who encased her in a bone fragment of her forehead which he kept in his sash. It is said that this is now property of the Thai royal family. In 1899 Anek Nawikamul, a Thai historian, investigated and wrote an account to set the record straight. Nevertheless, for decades one of the most popular personages in Thai culture was Nang Naak whose selfless devotion surpasses even her death. To this day women seeking easy childbirth make offerings at a shrine in the Suan Luang District of Bangkok [see (above) the picture of her shrine in Wat Mahabut near the Pra Khanong Canal]. More than 20 films and TV versions, as well as one opera, have been made of this romantic ghost story.
The story of Mae Naak Pra Khanong has everything that Thai people love. It is a lurid ghost story; Nae Naak murders her neighbors in a vain effort to prevent them from exposing her real nature as a ghost. It is a tender love story about the supernatural lengths romantic love might go. It is about people who really lived – and, importantly, died. On top of that, the story has royal connections having been retold by no less than Prince Damrong, a son of King Mongkut (Rama IV), whereby the relic possibly came into the possession of the Palace. Just as significantly, the story’s satisfactory ending involves Mak taking refuge in a Buddhist temple, and a Buddhist priest capturing the ghost and (in one version) pacifying her by promising her reunion with her husband. Aside from the story, traditions have developed that encourage continued veneration of Mae Naak Pra Khanong as a granter of petitions.
There are countless ghosts on the loose and in literature, but Mae Naak beats them all.
NOTE OF THANKS This blog essay is our 427th as we conclude our 8th year online with weekly essays from northern Thailand. November 1 begins our 9th year.
“Woke is a political term originating in the United States referring to a perceived awareness of issues concerning social justice and racial justice,” our amazing online reference resource, Wikipedia, informs us. “It derives from the African-American Vernacular English expression ‘stay woke’, whose grammatical aspect refers to a continuing awareness of these issues.”
I’m guessing a few million of us became aware of the word “woke” during the events following the murder of George Floyd when protests arose and expanded from anger about that single injustice, to that sort of injustice, to what police do, to the danger of white supremacy, to the racism of some national heroes (Columbus, Churchill, Woodrow Wilson, Gen. Paton, Robert E. Lee … and Edward Colston – you’d know who he was if you were a woke Londoner). The protests were a “Woke Movement”.
The question that quickly follows when one is woke is what to do about it. And that sometimes leads to our second jargon of the year Cancel Culture.
“Cancel culture refers to the popular practice of withdrawing support for public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. Cancel culture is generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming.” Thanks for that definition, Pop Culture Dictionary.
Before this year I would have associated the term with, say, a TV show being cancelled when the ratings dropped. Then came the ruckus about J.K Rowling, the author whose books I have read and written about more than any other in the last 20 years. Timorously, a group of alarmed celebrities (including Piers Morgan of the BBC’s “Good Morning Britain”) have tried to help us understand that cancel culture attacks can become exaggerated, as when a group of Vegans intruded into a British steak restaurant and interrupted everybody. They were out-shouted by a spontaneous group of diners chanting “Red Meat, Red Meat!”
As I understand it, social media (and by that many observers mean TWITTER) have raised the stakes. For some targets, such as Rowling with her millions of pounds in the bank, being smeared and vilified online and having her popularity dimmed is more of an inconvenience than a danger. But for people of lesser means, just being accused of not being a strong enough supporter of a cause can result in the end of a job or being physically attacked.
Stay woke, cancel culture, and virtue signaling, which are moral issues, have a sinister potential to turn into a purity spiral, which is a competition.
Nathan Taylor, a gay guy who loves knitting started a hashtag aimed at promoting diversity in knitting. What happened was what Gavin Haynes in a BBC documentary called a “purity spiral” in which the online “discussion” intensified into moral outrage. Haynes insists that “the spiral often concerns morality, it is not about morality. It’s about purity — a very different concept. Morality doesn’t need to exist with reference to anything other than itself. Purity, on the other hand, is an inherently relative value — the game is always one of purer-than-thou.” What happens is that people who are involved feel the need to defend their purity as more pure than other’s. They list examples. The knitting group began talking about the books they were reading to prove they were pure of the racism the knitters were being accused of. The books were found to be racist by other knitters. Knitting businesses began to become targets. But those accused could also benefit by agreeing with the thought leaders. Saying, “We just sell yarn!” could lead to death-threats. But agreeing that “We knitters have been deeply remiss in our failure to acknowledge the pain we have inflicted on struggling Black and indigenous people of colour,” [a paraphrase of a comment by a Scottish knitter quoted by Haynes] might get one by until rants began that “just feeling sorry is the very essence of white privilege.” When Nathan Taylor tried to calm things down the attacks intensified so much that he had a nervous breakdown.
Purity spirals can have those outcomes. They happen when a purity spiral turns mindless and destructive. But purity spirals contain their own demise in the way they form. Pressure to be purer and purer leads to posturing and defensiveness that are unsustainable. Timur Kuran, Professor of Economics and Political Science at Duke University, calls this ‘preference falsification’. His theory relates to things like the fall of the Soviet Union, where almost no one saw the end coming, because they hadn’t realized that an entire population was falsifying their experience to each other. That’s what happens when one tries to win in a purity spiral. Eventually the effort simply becomes too much.
Before that happens it can get very ugly.
Persistence is the word that most characterizes the protest movement in Thailand. Events of the last couple of days have made the front pages of newspapers worldwide. Those who read carefully may know more than I do, here where my access to news is limited by the self-censorship of the media and my distrust of them. However, for friends and family who have been wondering, here is my brief interpretation of what is going on.
Beginning with the military-controlled government’s liquidation of the main political party opposing them, students began protests to call for constitutional reform to restore democracy and to call for the Prime Minister to step down. That call expanded to include reform of the provisions in the constitution relating to the monarchy and release of people charged with undermining the monarchy or the government. But movements evolve.
In the past, criticism of the monarchy as an institution and any members of the royal family was against the law, the rationale being that Thai culture rests on three pillars: the state, religion, and the monarch. The previous King was held in high esteem. Criticism of him was quite unpopular. But as of 4 years ago his son has become King. He has not cared for popularity. The protest movement about 6 months ago began the previously unheard of practice of calling for the King to return funds to public control which he had taken over. The movement took the form of large gatherings of students and young adults on a frequent basis, often in symbolic locations. Thai ex-pats began to draw attention to an additional list of grievances including the fact that the King and Queen spent most of their time in Germany without appointing a regent to act when the King is not in the country.
Until this weekend the government has permitted the students to gather and say pretty much whatever they wanted. But the King and Queen have now returned, not just for a brief holiday, but for 7 weeks or longer. They have resumed public activities such as audiences and presiding at university commencement services. The government (meaning the central part that includes the Prime Minister as well as senior military leaders) would like very much for the young people to “go back home and attend to your business.” To underline this demand, twenty or so “leaders” of the student movement were arrested. But the demonstrations have continued.
Crisis times came and passed without violence. Police have kept royalist counter-demonstrators separated.
But it appears that now the government has decided to “up the ante” to use a gamblers’ term. Following an incident yesterday where the Queen’s motorcade was obstructed when it drove unexpectedly onto a street blocked by a group of demonstrators, last night police in riot gear put up road blocks and sprayed the crowd with a high pressure water cannon using water mixed with blue dye and a caustic substance (called tear gas by one source). A “Severe State of Emergency” was declared restricting public gatherings to no more than 5 persons. In defiance, thousands of students gathered Saturday at five locations in Bangkok, and other locations around the country including a packed crowd at Chiang Mai University.
October is a deeply symbolic month. It is the month two previous student movements for democratic reform were put down by the military, killing hundreds (perhaps thousands). Once again it is the young adult generation that is persisting in challenging the powerful elite to include the people. “It’s our money!” the protesters shouted at the royal motorcade. The young people have changed the words of the national pledge, too. It used to be a pledge to uphold “the nation, religion, and King.” Yesterday they were shouting, “Nation, religion, people!”
Here’s a little exercise to see if your vision is 2020.
Insert first pic
1. Make 4 dots at random.
2. Connect the dots with 4 uninterrupted lines.
Insert second pic
3. Find the middle point on each line.
4. Connect the points.
Insert third pic
5. This will always provide a parallelogram.
Does this theorem have any application? I do not know of any, but I do not work with geometry or physics any more than I have to. Nevertheless, I do not think this odd fact should be discounted quickly. I would not be surprised if Pythagoras or Paracelsus has considered this phenomenon. It’s the sort of thing that might have popped into Einstein’s head to open an avenue of thought about space, time, and gravity. Somebody COULD decide that this example of random irregularity resolving into regularity has profound significance.
So far I have only gotten far enough to feel that thinking about this is a relief from almost everything else that 2020 has brought so far.
As the USA gets close to the national election on November 3 the rhetoric has tended to get hot. One Trump supporter appealed for reducing the name calling. He objected to being called a “nationalist” which was equivalent to “supremacist” or “racist”.
He said, “Perhaps people vote for Trump, blacks and hispanics included, that believe: late term abortion is wrong, a strong economy is good, critical race theory is racist and teaches children to hate America, BLM is a radical, Marxist terrorist organization, antifa is more than an idea - they murder burn and loot.”
I’d like to reply to him. I think we can be reasonable.
Let’s agree that some voters are issue oriented. Let’s identify their issues as (1) late-term abortion, (2) economic growth, (3) racism that teaches children to hate America, (4) Black Lives Matter is a radical Marxist terrorist organization, (5) Antifa advocates murder, burning and looting. Let’s even lay aside the notion that those who most fervently hold these concerns are nationalists. These concerns are exaggerated out of proportion to reality. But we can even postpone that debate although that is at the heart of this.
What cannot be so easily ignored is the result of these concerns. The issues lead to actions. The action being supported to address some or all of these is the matter being contended in this US election. What those voters advocate amounts to this: In order to prevent late-term abortions all abortions are to be prevented. In order to permit economic growth almost no limits should be imposed on industries. In order to promote patriotism narratives concerning past humanitarian errors and slavery must be toned down. In order to keep America secure radical black as well as anti-Fascist movements must be seen as organizations and suppressed. As the danger of these things is exaggerated so are the actions in response to them.
Since America is not a pure democracy in which every issue is decided by a referendum, but is a republic where representatives meet to do that, the election is our main recourse. We can ask the candidates what they believe about these issues, and consider how their answers line up with our understanding of justice and sustainable progress. But then we need to ponder how trustworthy the candidates are and whether we believe they will take action when elected that stays consistent with what they say they will do. Our power as citizens is limited. We can do almost nothing but consider the character of the people standing for election and then vote.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.