Morality Crisis

 |  April 1, 2011

In the name of morality the medieval Christians created ‘the rack’, modern America freed Iraq and Thailand consistently teaches its citizens ‘goodness’ via government ministries whose ancillary operation is to search for and censor forms of ‘badness’. The aegis of morality has enlightened us and to some extent helped free us of tyranny, though conversely, it has been/is used as a tool of repression. Moral systems have been put in place by all societies, and most of these systems have the same fundamental rules: we shouldn’t kill; we shouldn’t steal, etc. But morality is supremely complex and (accommodatingly) versatile, as is the law of which morality is supposed to be the foundation. Social transgressions or incorrect behavior might not be unlawful; nevertheless every culture has a code of conduct written into its fabric. This code has continually been a facet of governmental control in Thailand (driven by propaganda and a tightly controlled education system). Some individuals think that morality is relative to cultures, tribes, or the particular circumstances of a person(s), that there are no universal moral laws, just an infinite number of situations that all need to be addressed anew. Though governments are not usually ‘moral relativists’, they stand quite firm on what is right and wrong, and in Thailand expend large amounts of resources disseminating the ‘truth’ about goodness. Moral authority nonetheless is prone to hypocrisy or double standards by dint of its ostensible sanctity.

Since the Victorian era Thai royals and nobility were often sent to England to study. They returned to Thailand and helped advance science, economics and also brought news of differing moral systems and legislation. Within the nobility circle European values were gradually fused with traditional values, King Mongkut initiated education reforms, and the “modernisation of Siam” began. This advanced many aspects of Siam/Thai society though it was localised within an elite structure and sub-structure. Traditional, rural Thai society, some might – and have, including prominent politicians – say is irreconcilable with the ‘higher’ values embodied by the elite class. Society has become categorically divided while in most cases the hi/lo identity is inescapably married to the expectations, stigmas and generalisations of each class. Cultural domination (hegemony) in Thailand, perpetuates the ‘us’ and ‘them’ paradigm which, arguably (depending on whose socio-political philosophy you read), cannot exist within an enlightened society. A Social Darwinism can occur, when one class, often calling itself the enlightened class, maneuvers further and further away from the class it sees as inferior or less evolved – political policy, if it deems necessary, can see to it that the system stays rigid. This kind of social schism is certain to breed contempt and fear, though as Plato recommended in his Republic, the elite may create ‘noble lies’ (religious and political propaganda – this became a universal political model) to hold society together. Even though distinctions in wealth and education might grow organically through effort, you could argue a more contained development simultaneously takes place, those that seem to have the upper hand can easily maintain their home advantage with enough political chicanery and cronyism. In our present situation in Thailand, can the privileged class fully understand the significance of being poor and therefore understand the needs and values of that sub-stratum of society? French philosopher and political scientist Marquis de Condorcet asked in his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit (written whilst he was imprisoned during the French revolution) if the intellectually impoverished mass cannot ever understand the grand ideas of the educated elite then how can society as a whole ever be reconciled and enlightened? How can morality, fairness, equality exist without social mutual recognition?

Double Standards

If a moral system is put into place by an enlightened elite, its survival and efficacy balances on fairness and an indiscriminate way of effectuating that system. If the system seems corrupt or unfair, the people who have been told to obey it consequently lose faith. In Thailand there seem to be many instances of double standards in the ‘moral’ system. This is of course a matter of opinion, polemic, and gossip, but what is irrefutably true is that people are making these accusations.

When government leaders are ‘appointed’ and not ‘elected’, then how might democratic citizens feel about this aberration within their democracy? The government has been accused numerous times of applying double standards in emergency decree implementation. The UN, writes Pokpong Lawansiri (human rights advocate and researcher) in a paper entitled ‘Thailand must Transcend Rhetoric’, is currently waiting for overdue reports from Bangkok that address Thailand’s “unsettled” Human Rights commitment. He adds that the The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), have both surpassed their deadlines (Jan 2011 and Oct 2010 respectively) on the investigation of the ‘crackdown’ that saw many people killed. At the same time red shirt leaders are being arrested and rights groups are questioning the “standards of impartiality” in the government. These alleged double standards are just some of the many shards of a fractured society that currently severs ‘us’ from ‘them’.
In sexual inequality we can find many examples of double standards: If a celebrity is condemned as being unethical, forced to do community service, and banned from TV for wearing revealing items of clothing, a stern moral message is being sent to the Thai people. Chotiros Suriyawong caused “moral outrage” and was indicted by the Ministry of Culture et al. in 2007 for being unethical and un-Thai like. At the same time festivals, promotions, newspapers use the bodies of women and their inferred sexuality for most of their advertising. Bodies of women are a commodity. The bodies of women consistently prove themselves to be valuable when those bodies meet the standards that men approve of. Female students are often exposed in the media as un-Thai for subjecting themselves to wearing scant uniform attire, but you might argue that their patriarchal society objectifies them, and expects nothing less than cute and alluring whilst they click-clack down their catwalk of youth. Sexual misdemeanors, such as underage sex or premarital sex are socially outlawed. Prostitution is deemed as unethical, it’s illegal, and it is not only part of mainstream culture, but an essential source of income for those working in its market place, for the government itself, the police, and the leaders of industry. How un-Thai can female sexuality be?

Often we read of ‘big’ people committing crimes (daughters of policeman, sons of Miss Thailand models, off-duty cops) and paying for their misdemeanors with less than harsh demands on their freedom. Since the inception of the internet viral public outcry usually follows these instances, and subsequently we hear a resigned collective afterthought: who you know can keep you out of jail. Should morality be contingent on financial circumstances? Money constitutes a new faith. Buddhist philosophy is unavoidably at odds with this kind of piety. Craving leads to suffering says the philosophy. Nevertheless most Thais will admit that there is a questionability inherent to modern merit making, which has become inextricably linked with the lottery. If you went to Major Cineplex over the last year you’d find a very compelling commercial featuring W. Vajiramedhi, a famous monk. He candidly condemns craving for goods, tells the people how unhappy they’ll be if they strive to attain more material wealth, and then you find out at the end of this long moving clip you’ve been watching a convoluted ad for Isuzu!

A hierarchy that is corrupt and seems insuperably unfair might encourage a ‘learned helplessness’ in its citizens, or as Orwell puts it “[the citizen] so far from endeavouring to influence the future, simply lies down and lets things happen to him”. In Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche’s ‘Genealogy of Morals’ he writes, less sympathetically, of what he considered helpless European societies of his day, “…it seems to need nothing as much as it needs stimulants and brandy: hence also the tremendous amount of forgery in ideals, this most potent brandy of the spirit…” If people feel they cannot affect their society, not even with a vote, the people will undoubtedly be forced to adopt a more selfish attitude. The divisions in society might also amass, and take arms against each other.

Dog Eat Dog

I visited Dr. Tanet Charoenmuang, an outspoken political critic who has written prolifically and given speeches on such things as double standards in Thai society. In his office at Chiang Mai University’s Political Science department where he is associate professor, he waxed political, directly and indirectly, and aired his views on the genealogy and present state of Thai morality.

“I was sent to do my MA in the US, and you know what subject?” he says smiling, “Russian Area Studies,” and he explains that at the time there weren’t any political scholars at Chulalongkorn University studying Russian politics. He was sent on a scholarship to be “indoctrinated” about Russia – American style – so he might bring his wealth of knowledge back to Thailand and disseminate what he’d learned. His critique of education, and the way it is propagated in Thailand, will be his cause célèbre during the interview.

His initial critical challenge concerning morality is to the ‘appointment’ of governors throughout the country. “They take orders from their superiors and they receive guests,” he says adding humorously, “they cut ribbons and hit gongs.” His plaint is that governors know nothing about the provinces over which they preside and that “they know full well that they will be transferred.” The problems of a province, social conflicts, corruption, poor planning, he attests, will be “swept under the rug” when each governor leaves. “No one wants to rock the boat,” he says, and with this state of affairs he doesn’t see how problems can be solved. “It’s not the problem of the governor,” he accepts, “but a problem in the system, it’s a system failure.”

“They have to move the governors around because they don’t want them making too many friends in one place, having too many gik! When they have vast political economic social connections it breeds nepotism.” A patronage system, he explains, is a “good example of double standards, it makes life difficult for people with no patrons. Democracy is the only way to solve this problem.”

On gender inequality he explains: “In 1870 American missionaries came to Chiang Mai and found only two literate women. The men studied in temples and the women didn’t study. Women in Thailand were told not to read or write.” This order, he explains, was devised and marshalled by the patriarchs for the simple reason, “men just didn’t want women writing letters to other men”.

“In the feudal system girls were told how to behave. It was the custom of the feudal lord to choose any lady. Before the lady had to dress properly so the feudal lord would be the first one to ‘see all’…the feudal culture in Thailand has not been destroyed. Text books still today have feudal laws and principles and the teachers and leaders of society still have the mindset from these books.”

The ajarn’s critique on education is nothing but forthcoming. “The ministries,” he says wryly, “write in these books about the rich, wonderful, virtuous, nice Thai traditions.” Books that are written in the same place in the same city with the same thing in mind: “dissemination of central policy.” Local Chiang Mai students, he says, must learn about things like the famous winds of Bangkok, though their own ethnography and geography they cannot know anything about. “It is a repetition of the same knowledge,” he adds, “even now teachers are told to use that book – don’t rock the boat!” He follows this critical flurry with a story about a Chiang Mai Demonstration School teacher who decided his students should learn something of the nature surrounding the Ping River (not in the textbook). The parents of the students soon complained to the administration that he was teaching their children things “not in the exam”. His contract was not renewed.

“Before the red/yellow split there was the central government, and 100 years before that Thailand was not a country” he says on how diverse Thailand once was. “It was the central government’s initiative to annex all the parts. But centralisation weakened our areas. We don’t know ourselves. We have no pride, no feeling of belonging. We don’t care. There is no spirit, just indifference.” He mentions that during Thaksin’s tenure social health care improvement and million baht hand-outs to towns gave the people some hope, some sense of belonging, though he warns now that disunity in Thailand has never been more intractable. “There was a sense of hopelessness after the coup,” he tells us.

“I’m not a socialist,” he says, “I believe in democracy. Thailand is not ready for a social welfare state. It is not as rich as European countries with these systems. But I believe in no double standards, freedom of association, freedom of press. I believe in an elected government. After a coup d’état we shut up,” he says of political thinkers, but adds that “in Thailand the intellectual progressive thinkers stay inside the country, not like in Burma where they are crushed if they stay.”

“Society is becoming more enlightened. There have been events [expunge/redact] that have happened that have changed the perspective of the people. People are now becoming more politically involved…

“What are the factors behind all the inequalities? Slowed down political awareness; late revolutionising process; late democratisation. It’s a long and torturous road ahead, I’m not sure how long it will be, but I know it will be a difficult time.”