I’m reading an excellent edited volume on the aftermath of the political turmoil of Bangkok 2010 published in 2012 called “Bangkok May 2010: Perspectives on a Divided Thailand.” There are chapters from Thai and foreign scholars including the familiar names of Pasuk Pongpaichit and Chris Baker, Duncan McCargo, and Pavin Chachavalpongpun. It’s quite a smattering of different opinions with many things to chew on.
Something that struck me in my reading during my lunch break today were these words by Thammasat University Professor Chairat Charoensin-o-larn:
“One cannot today criticize the Red Shirts without being branded a Yellow Shirt or ammat supporter. At the same time, one cannot comment on the Yellow Shirts or on the government without being called red or anti-monarchy… Not only has the tolerance for different views diminished, but ‘free speech’ has been supplanted in Thai society by ‘right speech’ or, to use a phrase popular in the West, by ‘politically correct’ speech” (p. 93).
At Payap University in my courses, I struggled to get students to discuss openly their thoughts and opinions about politics in Thailand. In my thinking, the university is the perfect place to reflect upon and share ideas about politics. It’s a safe place under the blanket of learning, discover, and academic freedom to grow as citizens.
However, most of my students were unwilling to share their views. I asked the class why we could have such riveting discussion about human rights, economics, and ethics but we couldn’t talk openly about politics. They told me they didn’t feel comfortable. “People will label us and gossip about us.” Others mentioned worrying about not having opportunities available to them if someone heard (or misunderstood) their ideas.
This trend is becoming increasingly true in America as well. Partisanship is killing politics in Congress and political correctness is hurting dialogue in university classrooms. In America, it was a trend this graduation season to protest commencement speakers based on their political views like Condoleezza Rice who abandoned speaking at Rutgers due to student protests. In response to such trends, I was impressed with this quote by Michael Bloomberg at Harvard that was highlighted in this NYTimes article:
“Intolerance of ideas, whether liberal or conservative, is antithetical to individual rights and free societies, and it is no less antithetical to great universities and first-rate scholarship. There is an idea floating around college campuses, including here at Harvard, that scholars should be funded only if their work conforms to a particular view of justice. There’s a word for that idea: censorship. And it is just a modern-day form of McCarthyism. Think about the irony: In the 1950s, the right wing was attempting to repress left-wing ideas. Today, on many college campuses, it is liberals trying to repress conservative ideas, even as conservative faculty members are at risk of becoming an endangered species. And perhaps nowhere is that more true than here in the Ivy League. …
“Requiring scholars — and commencement speakers, for that matter — to conform to certain political standards undermines the whole purpose of a university.”
We’re becoming increasingly blinded by our groupishness and it’s negatively affecting our ability to discuss important matters and listen to the ideas of others. To some, overcoming these trends is a matter of critical thinking. To others, it’s a matter of spirituality and not being attached to temporal ideas and fleeting emotions (especially one’s own.) For me, it’s simply about relationships and learning and developing as global citizens.
My vision for my life and the lives of my students is to drop titles and labels whenever possible and to search together for truth, goodness, and beauty through discussion, questioning ourselves and others, and being open to wherever the journey takes us.