What would happen here in Thailand if an international student wore a classical Thai dress to a prom, or a tourist from China was seen wearing an ethnic tribal costume she had bought in the Night Bazaar? Would the reaction be as “viral” as was the case when Kezia Daum of Salt Lake City, Utah wore a Chinese dress to her prom in April 2018 and was attacked on social media for exercising “cultural appropriation”? Some of her critics agreed (178,000 responded to this tiff on-line) that she was an example of “the embodiment of a system that empowers white people to take whatever they want, go wherever they want .…” Then the argument got nasty. But the majority was just baffled.
Cultural appropriation hit social media and mainline media like the Washington Post this spring when Bruno Mars won 3 Grammy awards for his singing in African American styles. He is the son of a Filipina mother and a father who is half Puerto Rican and half Askanazi Jew. The singer reportedly always gives credit and appreciation to his African American role models, but some critics are simply not happy with his “racial ambiguity” being used to “help him pass as Black” and “rape our cultural heritage.” Just a month ago (22 June 2018) African American outrage was again making headlines in the Philippine press and on Facebook.
There are two major issues that go back long before Kezia’s prom dress. (1) The issue of inappropriate use of sacred religious and cultural symbols out of context and in ways that are derogatory, sacrilegious, or blasphemous. (2) The issue of use of costume or conspicuous consumption to designate social status or rank.
The re-emergence of this at a time when people in western countries a couple of generations younger than me are increasingly keen about it, has got me thinking about whether Thai people are alarmed about cultural appropriation. I think Thailand definitely has boundaries that should not be crossed, although wearing a brocade Thai silk dress to a formal dance might not be one of them. [I admit to being an “outsider” on this matter, even though I have been hired by the Thai Culture Ministry in the past and know my way to the 14th floor of their office tower in Bangkok, and I covet my reputation as a theological anthropologist. The following is, therefore, tentative. Consider it an invitation for discussion.]
Boundaries not to be crossed as established by law:
Boundaries not to be crossed without risk of negative consequences:
Boundaries that have disappeared or been greatly reduced:
Boundaries that never were more than identity indicators:
What these lists show, I think, is that while there is cultural freedom there are rules and customs with regard to culture. They are designed to preserve the “three pillars” of Thai culture: religion, King and country. Religion is about the preservation of holy space where divine-human encounters occur. King, and by extension all royal family members and their ancestors, is about preservation of the space where divine-human encounters are expanded to include the whole culture and around which society is organized hierarchically. Country is about preserving the functioning of factors of livelihood for the benefit of all with the effect that everyone cooperates in those endeavors that are for the general well-being.
In other words, Thai people are not overly concerned about restricting access to unique aspects of Thai culture. The prevailing attitude is pride that such things as Thai silk, Thai food, and Thai boxing are popular around the world. Alarm signals ring only when it is suspected that Thai cultural identity is being threatened through an erosion of dedication to one of the three cultural pillars. The danger is that Thai people will no longer know who they are.
So far that is not felt to be a serious threat.
Popular western culture imported by such powerful conveyances as Hollywood movies, are hardly ever targeted by Thai culture monitors, unless the movies refer to Thailand directly. But Thai movies are scrutinized to insure that the public is being appropriately informed about Thai culture and values.
I believe, thanks to discussion about Kezia Daum and her Chinese cheongsam worn to a prom, that one big difference between Thailand and many other countries these days is that so far Thailand lacks a “victim culture” attitude. In the words of one interpreter of moral culture, One of the key components of victimhood culture is its projection of collective guilt, social offenses between individuals are no longer about the actual people involved, they are about “one social group harming another.” Thailand, in some ways, feels pushed around and bullied but the country is not yet widely affected by the concern that there is one social group trying to harm another.
However, there are danger signs.
The other day I was transporting a carload of Buddhist abbots. Their conversation was about how Islamists [sic, not Islamic fundamentalists] are trying to undermine Buddhism through slanderous accusations of widespread financial corruption. The idea that Buddhism is under attack is not far from the notion that good Buddhists are in danger of being victims. It is extremely significant, I take it, that this sense of victimization has not fully developed, yet.
More pervasive is the belief that there is a privileged elite social group who live mostly in Bangkok and who are trying (successfully and ruthlessly) to harm the agrarian social sector who live everywhere else. These two groups are being held apart, like two gangs on the school playground, by the military – so the military peace and order council says. To most observers, it seems that the military are highly partial to the privileged elite and also have no concern for the rest of the country. But neither group has managed, yet, to morph their grievances into a full-blown sense of victimization.
So, for the time being, the political-economic tension that has gripped Thailand for decades has not escalated into a culture war.
[Thanks for permission to use the pictures on this blog to granddaughter Siree McRady who feels completely Thai when she dresses to perform Thai dances in Tennessee, and when she used Thai cloth (with a bodice from India) to make her prom dress.]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.