Students at a leading Thai university made the news this week with a display of cultural insensitivity during a bout of several other kinds of insensitivity classified as hazing (also known as “kids will be kids even if they’re old enough to incur astounding educational debts”).
Briefly, what the students did was dress up in Maoist costumes of the disastrous Cultural Revolution era and get their group picture taken executing Nazi salutes.
International staff members at that university expressed outrage that two of recent history’s most horrible atrocities were incorporated into the students’ play. Thai staff members reportedly did not share this outrage, which disgusted the international staff even more.
Meanwhile, yesterday’s news via the world’s largest social network brought a posting by a colleague from Russia living here in Thailand for decades, showing a shocking video clip of a young man beating up on two small children, throwing them into a trash can repeatedly and then hanging them by their feet. My friend appealed for Thai viewers to identify this beast and have him arrested. Without public support the likelihood of official attention being given to a case of domestic violence is slight.
Much more attention was being given in the same media to a Thai court’s guilty verdict against a British investigative reporter who broke a story of slavery of seafood workers. The reporter was found guilty of defamation of character but no charges have been leveled against the characters who own and operate [ongoing present tense] the seafood canning empire. International comments throughout this trial have focused on two standards of justice one for the rich and another for the poor, but Thai opinion separated the cases and tended to interpret defamation as a disaster to those defamed that is not that much less serious in its impact than being enslaved in a prison-like cannery.
There is hope that social network coverage will draw so much attention to these matters that they will be corrected. Some of my friends sincerely believe that reposting clips of abuse will cause consciousness about it to be raised. Other friends in the USA think so, as well, with their persistent posting of abused animal pictures or clips of police murdering innocent people. Maybe Internet coverage CAN do some good.
The aspect of this that engages me today is the matter of exposure. Intuitive wisdom for me and other ex-pats here, is that “the truth will set you free.” Evil behavior needs to be brought out into the open. Nothing will get better as long as people can get away with corrupt or despicable behavior. So, the university students’ bad behavior needs to be exposed. That’s one kind of exposure advocated. The other kind is that they need to be exposed to images and facts about how unspeakably inhuman were the Nazis and the Cultural Revolutionaries. The students need to be sensitized to what they have played about, and that, inevitably, involves them being made to feel ashamed for what they have done in their light-hearted play.
That is the sticky bit.
Even after 50 years of contact with Thai culture, I still tend to forget how dreadful it is to subject someone to shame. Very much will be tolerated and ignored to avoid doing that. Shame is a toxic cloud that kills and maims everyone who has anything to do with it. It is absolutely incapable of bringing about corrective understanding. To shame, disgrace or defame another person is culturally unforgivable.
A distant relative was caught for the third time selling illegal drugs. His extra-judicial execution while in police custody was ignored because of the shame the guy had brought on the family. Besides, his karma caught up with him.
I hope karma catches up to that bastard who was beating his little children. Let karma do its thing. I would like for the Thai seafood industry to feel karma, too. But I digress.
Shame is a counterproductive approach to behavior modification in this culture. Nevertheless, behavior modification and consciousness-raising are not impossible. They work if they are indirect. They will not work if they hint, “We think you need to hear this.” Of course, the down side of indirect ethical or moral education is that it can come off as irrelevant. “If we do not need to hear this why are you telling us?”
Is there anything about the Nazi Holocaust or the Red Guards rampaging during the Cultural Revolution that Thai Millennials will recognize as relevant? Perhaps not. They think the only relevance is that previous generations got stirred up about those things, whereas the symbols resonate authoritarianism. So, the university students felt they could accomplish two objectives at the same time. They could signal their independence from those previous generations, and therefore their own authority in this generation, by ridiculing symbols that got those old people all excited. Besides, the upper-classmen wanted the freshies to feel intimidated one final time before “freshy initiation” ends.
Initiation of incoming freshmen is said to instill a respect for SOTUS (Seniority, Order, Tradition, Unity, and Spirit). This informs students about the social hierarchy of the university and reminds freshmen they are at (or near) the bottom of that structure. Critique of the very idea of SOTUS is growing, as it militates against independence and critical thinking. But in practice the hazing sometimes becomes humiliating and abusive, leading to injury and trauma. That level of hazing is illegal and universities are urged to guard against it.
The matter I am addressing is how to prevent shameful behavior without resorting to shame-filled name-calling.
If it is worth the effort to sensitize the oncoming generation to historical realities that involved their great-grandfathers, there are ways to do it that do not imply shame. I hasten to add, it may well be worth that effort because the dynamics of tyranny have evolved and remain potent. Initiating US youth to the benefits they have inherited by their forebear’s genocidal treatment of Native Americans can potentially be effective if the current generation feels the injustice is being unaddressed as long as every new generation continues to operate as if the genocide never took place. In Thailand it will not work as effectively to force young people to feel they are inheriting guilt and the ill-gotten benefits that came from it. The German and Chinese atrocities are even more remote. But what might work better is for victims to become associates. If tyranny is current then its victims are contemporaneous. They are not far away.
Can elements of the Thai higher education system be tweaked to move students out of their comfort zones into association with the disadvantaged? Nothing has advanced the Gender Minority Movement faster than people opposed to it finding relatives who are gay. The elite and those in authority tend to move victims out of sight. It is unlikely that the whole educational system can be transformed to include cultural sensitivity training. But the higher education system already includes mechanisms for outreach into communities where disadvantaged people, ethnic minority communities and even prisoners can be accessed. It is not unexpected for students to “do research” or to conduct “academic service”. I know from several years of taking student groups into communities that it builds respect and mutuality. Once a relationship is established, reality shifts. Then it is much easier to draw unthreatening parallels between, say, children in refugee camps and children in Auschwitz.
Outrage and shame do not build affective bridges.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.