Editorial: May 2018
I have revelled in great education and been stifled by bad. While each were at polar opposites in terms of facilities, teachers and curriculum, the real difference was that one opened up the mind, encouraging it to push boundaries and explore unknowns while the other corralled and tempered.
The most memorable class I ever attended was when I was 16 and studying the Second World War in a classroom of 16 students from 13 nationalities, including German, Japanese, American, British, Spanish, Chinese and Indian. Over the Christmas holidays we were tasked with interviewing our relatives, mostly grandfathers, returning to school to share our stories. What ensued was a dynamic term which explored and eventually painted a global portrait of the war from so many angles, and biases, we were forever changed by the experience. Empathy and understanding were the two things I recall most about that time, not dates and deaths. Not one of us, on discovering that our grandfathers likely bombed or shot one another a mere two generations ago, felt offence or anger at what we learned, instead it reshaped our worldview and allowed us to see the war from different perspectives…surely a sign of great success for any history teacher (Thank you Mrs. Harwood and Mrs. Maxwell!)
It’s a paradox how our world feels both more expansive and compressed at the same time. As we have more access to information and differing viewpoints, we are also easily able to find the likeminded and sympathetic to reaffirm our own beliefs, however wrong. But as we share our every thought with a mere click-clack of a keyboard and meet people from all walks of life, conflict is bound to follow. After all we are all products of our cultures, societies and upbringing, and our beliefs and moral scales all differ through life experiences and social constructs. The natural result of such conflict is in the increase in the giving and taking of offence.
But frankly, whether we live in a small village with the same 200 people our entire lives or are active citizens of the world, we are all capable of giving and taking offence. I find myself offended on a daily basis: when someone puts ice in my beer or salt in my orange juice my internal hackles rise; when I see plastic-wrapped bananas at 7Eleven or a tourist with half her butt cheeks hanging out of her shorts strolling down Tha Pae Road, I feel aggrieved; when I read of yet another corrupt policeman or I hear another politician wax empty promise, I feel the bubbling of indignation; when I see a tourist slapping a young waiter on her bottom or a rich housewife hurling insults at her maid, I find myself outraged. On a daily basis, to some degree, I am offended.
I also offend. Unintentionally of course, but my words and actions have been known to cause offence. Whether it’s to my poor mother who has never reconciled herself with having failed to raise a proper Thai lady; to my staff who have to grimace through yet another ribald joke at the office; to my neighbour, whose arbour I sloppily park on; to my friends whose world views don’t align with my own. And then of course there are the thousands of words I have spewed out in these pages over the past two decades, many of which I am sure have elicited more than a raised eyebrow.
What I must constantly remind myself of when I find myself bent out of shape, is that offence is personal and idiosyncratic. What offends me doesn’t necessarily offend another. Any feelings I have through perceived transgression is frankly of absolutely no concern to anyone else but me. Because I have chosen to take it, it is mine, and no one else’s. It’s called a narcissistic injury, I read somewhere.
After all, slights, pet peeves, outrages and offence are things even the most sophisticated legal systems in the world aren’t able to regulate or legislate. The sliding scale of offence is so subjective, many legal systems have thrown off the burden of judgment to those set by ‘community standards’ – whatever the hell that means. I have lived amongst multiple communities and sub-cultures, none of which would agree on many standards within the realm of law let alone the many shades of grey unseen by Lady Justice’s blind eyes. The other problem with any regulation of offence is that it can inadvertently increase the number of offensive incidents simply by allowing for and even creating an environment whereby offence-taking sensibilities can grow. There are people out there who are almost professional at taking offence; not only taking it, but acting on it. And like most things in life, they range from those who chose to channel their feelings into activism for the greater good to those who conduct witch-hunts, using their outrage as a tool to suppress and condemn. Go to any online forum and you will see these types of people; they seem to spend their lives scouring texts for subtexts, whether intended or not. Each perceived slights ending up being used as a tool by the intolerant.
It is these people who shout “J’accuse!” at every mockery and who demand retribution following every slight, be they uber-liberal activists or Islamic fundamentalists, who do us all a disservice. Because it is they who are the real culprits here. It is their manipulation of someone else’s intention which is leading to one of my greatest concerns as a writer, and that is self-censorship. We all edit ourselves in everyday life, controlling what we say and how we behave, out of concern for others and the understanding of social boundaries. But the more we do so because we are afraid to speak up, the harder it will be for us to have reasoned debate, essential to any society’s development and growth.
What was offensive a century ago wasn’t offensive fifty years ago. What was offensive ten years ago, is no longer offensive today. One offence after another has been discarded through the ages because of enlightenment, experience and education. While there will always be those who set themselves up as guardians of whatever beliefs, traditions or culture they hold dear, kicking and screaming against any perceived insult, the tide of progress will eventually prevail. With greater understanding of the complexities of the world we live in comes greater empathy and compassion. Life is so interesting not because we know what we know, but because we grow as we know more.
I have had experience recently of inadvertently causing offence. Honestly, I don’t feel sorry for what I did because I had no intention of offending and never knew that what I did would cause offence, but I happily and genuinely apologised to those who were offended because I empathised with them and know that their grievances, to them, were real. It would have been even better had we been able to start a dialogue about the subject matter, because then they could have allowed me to explain my point of view, perhaps even finding it in themselves to understand, empathise…and dare I say, learn.
This is my longest editorial to date but this is a matter which is of huge importance to me because of my recent brush with the consequences of unintended offence. What happened to me was a direct result of narcissistic injury felt by people who were unable to see that other people’s differing opinions may have validity, and while hurtful to them personally may not be malicious in intent, nor worthy of legal action. Had they been in Mrs. Harwood and Mrs. Maxwell’s class that term, perhaps they too would realise that while we may disagree, we should still attempt to listen and accept.
I wish to continue my dialogue with you all without fear. But I fear that that is too much to ask for.
But frankly, between you and me, I am offended that people got offended…oh dear.
Citylife this month:
We love our intern season! And the past month we have been blessed with some seriously talented young writers. Fulbright Scholar intern Mike Brier writes a fascinating story about how the criminalisation of a relatively innocuous ‘drug’ is being used as a tool for political suppression and intern Ainee Setthamalinee shines a spotlight on the shady business of Thailand’s shadow education. Other stories from our many other interns will be published over the coming months.
While I took a lovely break from life last month, our own writers didn’t simply sit on our intern’s laurels. Tus Werayutwattana spends time with four fascinating people, each from very humble beginnings, who have turned their backs on the bright lights of big cities to return to their roots to develop successful businesses within their communities. She also visited INA House a fantastic nonprofit project and restaurant serving up indigenous local cuisine and selling local products. And Aydan Stuart interviews a local celebrity recently emerged out of Lampang’s haze, an Australian man who spends his summers fighting fires.
See you next month…and breathe easy.