Everyone who travels is bound to notice the differences in the way people live their lives in different countries, say the way the Greeks are loud at lunch or the fact that the Thais make no use of a kitchen. Some will even get into a cultural skirmish, say raise their voice inappropriately in Asia or make a gesture they did not think was offensive and end up in trouble with the recipient. Cultures abound globally and frankly it is what makes this world interesting and beautiful. It is, however, what sometimes makes the world the darkest of places, an uninhabitable space of rage and death, and no I’m no channeling the Rotary Peace Center’s cooking lady, who upon being yelled at a supersonic sound level by an American fellow on the absence of knives at the table is now insisting that everyone of us carries one whether we need or not! I am talking about those instances where you find yourself wondering whether a more thoughtful approach to human interaction can vastly improve results, for you and those around you. Since I have been to Thailand there have been several occasions where I observed cultural scuffles and though, oh my! There is surely a better way of doing this!
Back in my graduate school days I had some time to think about culture and its effects on human behavior, for example I learned that I could categorize people according to their behavior;1 there are fatalists, egalitarians, individualists and hierarchically motivated people. Fatalists have very little say in what their lives are like, since they are controlled from without, living a life within the prescribed norms set by someone else. An individualist, on the other hand, is the opposite since his behavior is not prescribed by anything else but by his own action. Most social barriers are subject to negotiation for a person such as this. An individualist is free from the control of others. Meanwhile, the egalitarian and the hierarchical cultures are both based on group dynamics which are ill defined and thus make it hard for individuals to exercise control or judgment in any given situation. Conformity is, one way or another. an expected outcome in societies set up as egalitarian or hierarchical and thus the individual tends to be lost in the group dynamic.
I learned about this grid a long while ago but I have been thinking about them lately in regards to my studies in Thailand. Besides the very original and sometimes very thought provoking seminars I am part of on a daily basis at the Rotary Peace Center of Chulalongkorn University, I went to see a rather interesting documentary on Thai politics, titled “Paradoxocracy.” I was told the documentary was created by one of Thailand’s most famous directors and to my surprised it included a famous Rotarian whom I met a few weeks prior, Noraseth Pathmanand. I had no idea, although I should have known better, that Past Rotary International Director, Pathmanand was part of the student activists that brought democracy to Thailand. Yet, it was the way the documentary talked about the issues that was of greater value to me. First of all, this was my first experience in outright state censorship, in which, what I believe were just simple reference to the highest office in the land, i.e. the Monarchy, were completely redacted no matter how innocent. I had much to think about while watching in the documentary my political science colleagues from Chulalongkorn and Thammasat universities being censored. I can’t even contemplate a situation where my comments to the press would be redacted in the US. The choice, of course, to keep the redacted statements in blacked out spaces on the screen did not escape anyone in the theater, mostly attended by young university students who laughed out loud. Secondly, the filmmaker himself was skirting the limits of the law in this film bringing the issue of the Monarchy to the fore, in a country where any reference to it is met with a variety of measures ranging, obviously, from censorship to imprisonment. Thirdly, and most profoundly disappointing to me as a recent observer of Thai politics, was the absence of a meaningful discussion of the former Prime Minister of Thailand. Currently in exile after his conviction on abuse of power and his overthrow by a military coup, Thaksin Shinawatra still dominates Thai politics. Although the film touches upon the first term of this larger than life communications tycoon turned populist politician, any comparisons to Silvio Berlusconi should be avoided do to the fact that Mr. Shinawatra was not nearly as depraved as Silvio, it does not go into any depth on his role in Thai politics. In fact, the movie ends with a commentator arguing that the movie should not waste its time on Thaksin and the up roaring of the young audience.
So which grid does Thai culture fall in? Well, my answer as a novice observer would be; it depends of which Thailand you are talking about. The officialdom of Thailand is certainly a hierarchical place with very strong restrictions on the individual and a prescribed understanding of public behavior but the young crowd in the theater did not seem to follow along. In fact, if I had to guess, I would say, the younger Thai’s are inching away from traditional culture and moving towards the individualist quadrant quickly, of course, then the question, we are all facing here in Bangkok, is; will the establishment allow for a transition? I can’t talk about this lest my blog be entirely redacted.
1 Mary Douglas a British anthropologist is the author of this typology, please see her writings for further information Mary Douglas, In the Active Voice, London: Routledge, 1982.