Just this week alone my in-box brought me stories of how significant cutting hair is in Thailand.
Hair represents possession, attention to self, and control. The intention when one adopts a hair-style is to express one’s individuality and unique personal identity for all to see. Hair is a social demarcation.
As with almost all aspects of Thai culture, haircutting is unique only with regard to the degree to which it is meaningful. Many religious orders around the world prescribe tonsures, shaving heads, or letting hair grow. Here, it represents loss.
There is no shame in it. It’s not as if a shaven head is a mark of derision or a symbol of guilt. It is about humility rather than humiliation. It is a step toward abjection and suppression of ego.
The step beyond cutting one’s hair is portended if not actually intended.
The distraught mother has cut her hair both in protest against the injustice she feels her son is receiving and in solidarity with him in his hunger strike. If her son should die of his hunger strike in custody, I’d predict that his mother’s next step would be to shed her clothes and take the white robe of a nun. Suicide or self-immolation could be her ultimate step. In Vietnam, which is culturally very different, that would be a bit more likely than here. But cutting hair is a type of self-mutilation meant to express loss.
Thai monks shave their heads and eyebrows to remove their most identifying aspect and to merge into the collective priesthood of disciples of the Lord Buddha. But an anthropologist can see this cutting as a form of disfiguration that is undertaken in other ways in other cultures.
Post-Enlightenment Western cultures have abandoned physical forms of ritual humiliation, but residue can be found just about anywhere. Some of them are obvious, as in hazing, bullying, tattooing, fasting and other such measures. But the West has specialized in cunning forms of mental and emotional “conditioning” as well.
In short, when Thai persons cut all their hair off their heads the action and results are spiritual as well as social. It is an act of defiance expressing willingness to relinquish something personal in order to achieve a higher goal.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.