Let’s discuss! How groupishness and labels are hurting conversations

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.


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12 Responses to Let’s discuss! How groupishness and labels are hurting conversations

  1. Is the problem really groupishness and labels or something deeper? What is it?!!? How can we grow together as diverse communities?

  2. Rustam says:

    Ozzie, great post. However, you have simplified the complex issue that is deep within the core of this society and didn’t really provide a way to deal with it, only pointed out that it is an issue.
    First of all, at which point do we consider other people’s ideas as simply different and not an imminent threat to the way of living. What about the absolute truth(s) one is holding and wants to protect it?
    Secondly, what exactly is considered tolerance or intolerance to other’s ideas? Answers may differ form person to person. At what point does tolerance become an acceptance?
    I might have not made myself clear, I am in a bit hurry, but I will elaborate more.
    Love you Oz, continue to spark discussions.

    • Thanks Rustam! Always like when you comment 🙂 Yes, I realize I cracked open the door to a massive issue that has dimensions across disciplines of psychology, philosophy, culture, etc. I don’t mean to be reductionist but sometimes simplifying issues is a good way to start chewing on them and asking questions. I definitely don’t feel qualified at this point to offer any conclusive solutions to the “Us and Them” problem but here’s some thoughts in response to your points:

      1. There does seem to be a natural inclination to believe that difference is a threat to the way we understand things. I think that’s actually true (i.e. it is a threat the way we understand things!) and also a good thing. We should welcome threats to our way of knowing and probably our way of living, too. Unless, we have the hubris to say we are living the perfect existence with perfect knowledge, we should welcome differences that will help us to question ways we can improve (or see things differently). As for absolute truth, I would say that no one can “hold” or “protect” absolute truth. By definition, if it is absolute it is beyond the reach of anyone to hold it or possess it, and it is beyond the need to be protected. It just is. Nothing can change it, harm it, add to it, or take away from it. You also can’t “believe” in absolute truth as I commonly hear people say. It is what it is regardless of whether or not someone believes in it.

      2. That second question is very theoretical and hard to think about apart from specific cases. Firstly I’d say I’m not sure tolerance (or acceptance) is a golden ideal we should aspire to. I do think we need more tolerance (and acceptance) generally in our human societies but those aren’t catch-all solutions. I think there are plenty of things in life that we as humans should see as unacceptable and that we should be intolerant to (that list however should be consistently questioned and nuanced). How we choose to act on our convictions is another issue. That’s more a matter of being strategic, humble, and empathic.

      Would love to hear more of your thoughts! I used to check your blog all the time but you didn’t update very often haha…

  3. holson09eidi says:

    Have you heard of the spiral of silence? It’s the idea that as one opinion appears to be dominant, those with minority opinions become less willing to share their views, making the one opinion appear more dominant than it actually is. It seems that it’s the social repercussions of labeling that people fear.

    • That book/idea sounds awesome! Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve definitely experienced that in my classrooms. It’s one reason I shifted to more small discussion groups where each person shares in a rotating order of 4-5 people.

  4. Wow, Ozzie. Great thoughts and exposition. Seems to me that by creating space where there is a limited ability for new or different ideas, the dominant paradigm is merely reinforcing itself. As Vonnegut said, the rich and powerful are converting money to power and power to money, and we in the 99% feel the pain.

  5. Rustam says:

    you are making good points.
    Its hard not to judge. I think thats the reason I stopped blogging, I just wanted to point out how people were/are wrong. Aside from the fact that writing isn’t my best suit.
    love, Rustam

  6. Brad W says:

    I’ve long wondered why people don’t ask themselves, “why do I do what I do?” (Or in this case it might be better to ask, “why do I think like I think?”) Most people seem to operate on the genetic code. It seems to be a base desire for humans to acquire. Acquire more positions, acquire more money, acquire more power. It’s exceedingly rare to find someone who has acquired power, money or status and routinely discusses things outside the mainstream.

    I can’t find a quote, but I remember Noam Chomsky saying something about what things could and couldn’t be discussed in modern politics. Certain things are on the table to be discussed and it doesn’t seem to matter much where you fall on the issues, but you’re only allowed to discuss these issues. If you start on something not in the realm of discussion, something not on the table, you’ll be branded a weirdo and excluded from the group.

    And that seems to be the root cause of all this “groupishness.” Most people are so afraid of being alone, they’ll do or say anything to be apart of the group. In private they’re intelligent, creative and capable of deep thought. In a group they’re afraid of what others will think, they’re afraid of being ridiculed, or worse, afraid of being sent away.

    I think a pop-culture referecne is in order: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kkCwFkOZoOY

    I fear I might be dragging us into the philosophical deep-end, and I’m not a strong swimmer. So I’ll stop before I drown.

  7. เรากำลังอบรมมัคคุเทศก์ที่มหาวิทยาลัยเชียงใหม่ ซึ่งแน่นอนเนื้อหาไม่ได้เกี่ยวกับการเมืองเลย
    ผู้เข้าอบรบทั้งหมด80คน ส่วนใหญ่อยู่ในวัยรุ่น ที่พึ่งเรียนจบ
    ทุกครั้งที่ครูถามคำถาม เพื่อทำการทบทวนว่าผู้อบรมเข้าใจเนื้อหาที่สอนมากน้อยเพียงใด เหตุการณ์ที่เกิดขึ้นคือส่วนใหญ่จะนั่งเงียบ ไม่มีใครตอบคำถาม… เราก็เกิดคำถามกับตัวเองเหมือนกันว่า เพราะเหตุใด เพื่อนๆจึงไม่ตอบคำถาม
    – ไม่ตอบคำถาม เพราะว่ายังเด็ก พึ่งเรียนจบ ไม่มีประสบการณ์ ไม่รู้จะตอบอะไรจริงๆ
    – ไม่ตอบคำถาม เพราะ ไม่ได้ถูกสอนให้คิด ไม่ถนัดกับการถามตอบ (อัตนัย) แต่ชอบที่จะตอบแบบมีตัวเลือก (ปรนัย)
    – อยากตอบคำถาม แต่ไม่ต้องการอวดตัวว่าตนเองเก่งกว่าคนอื่น ซึ่งเป็นผลพวงจากวัฒนธรรมไทย
    แต่ครั้นอบรมเสร็จ จะมีหลายๆคน บ้างก็ไปถามคำถามกับครูเป็นการส่วนตัว บ้างก็ถามกันเองกับเพื่อนข้างๆ
    ทำให้ได้คำตอบอีกหนึ่งข้อ คือ อยากตอบคำถาม แต่กลัวว่าถ้าคำตอบของตนไม่ถูกต้องจะดูไม่ฉลาดและเป็นการเสียหน้า
    ดังนั้น ปัญหาไม่ใช่ คุณถามอะไร แต่เป็นเพราะคุณถามที่ไหน

    Below is a rough translation for those who don’t read Thai:

    I’m enrolled in a class to become a licenended tour guide along with 80 others, most of whom have just graduated. The teacher will often ask questions to make sure the students understand what was taught, and everyone is quite. A few people will answer, but not many. It made me wonder, why does no one like to answer?

    -Is it because they are still young, have just graduated, have no experience and don’t know what to answer?
    -Is it because they didn’t learn how to think, and are uncomfortable with open ended questions (preferring the more common multiple choice question)?
    -Or maybe they want to answer, but don’t want to seem like they’re more clever than the others? A posture rooted in Thai culture.

    But then after class, people will ask their friends or the teacher for clarification, so it seems they really didn’t know the answers. They were afraid to answer incorrectly and be embarrassed in front of the class.

    So, the problem is not what you asked, but where you asked it.

    • Yes. I have come across this a lot. There seems to be a deep fear (not just with Thai students but everyone) of being exposed, of other people “discovering that I really don’t know much about anything.” I think a lot of us say to ourselves things like, “Oh, if only other people knew who I really am…they would know I’m stupid.” We’re scared of not knowing the right answers.

      I think a lot of cultures and societies tell people that it’s not okay to not know something (even basic things.) Just the other day someone was talking about the vegetable taro. It is a very common vegetable. However, for whatever reason, I didn’t know what it was so I had to ask, “What’s a taro?” My friends responded with something like, “Are you serious?!?! You don’t know what a taro is? And you’re American? Wow…” basically making me feel like an idiot… But I stand by the principle that if we don’t know something we should be honest and open about it. That’s how learning happens. And we shouldn’t let people make us feel like idiots if we don’t know what taros are… haha
      Thanks for the comment!!!

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