A lesson in ignorance and cultural sensitivity

At a convocation in a University in Thailand, a mural artwork done by students was put up to congratulate the new graduates. One of the figures on the board was Adolf Hitler.

It is mind-boggling how Hitler and the word ‘congratulation’ can conceivably go together and, yes, it demonstrates the level of ignorance some Thais have for world history. It is quite appalling to find that ignorance in a University where, presumably, is an institution that promote education.

As a Thai, I can tell you it is actually pretty conceivable. To be aware of other cultures and ways of thinking, we need to be exposed to them. Some of us, like myself, is in better position than others and therefore are able to expand outside the box we have been raised in. It is not a matter of which box we live in but rather of how big is box.

The box for Thai students can be rather small, and they are not entirely to blame. Here are the contributing factors to the size of that box:

  1. Thai education system does not promote understanding and awareness. The curriculum tends to focus on the facts than the thinking or the people that are related to those facts. This kind of education does not promote empathy or sensitivity, not only for what is going on in the world but inside its own society.
  2. A lot of Thai students cannot adequately communicate in English, which is now the lingua franca, as well as they should. Why that happens is a good question I do not have an answer to, but the effect of it is, without doubt, the somewhat self-absorbed mindset due to infrequent and inadequate communication outside of the culture.
  3. Opportunities to travel and live abroad is very rare due to monetary issues. Expense for traveling outside the country is very high compared to the living-expense and income rate, not to mention that students don’t generally have employment in Thailand. The opportunity for students to do so in a country like Canada is way, way better due to available programs, higher income, and better employment opportunity. This limits the first-hand exposure to other cultures, which is usually the best way to eliminate ignorance, to about null.

Because of these, the only explanation I have for the billboard art and for the girl posing in front of it is pure ignorance — they did not mean anything by it. It is not portraying Hitler as a hero as some headline might suggest despite the other hero characters on the same billboard. They are just that, characters, nothing more. Thailand as a whole did not have as traumatic an experience in WWII as many other countries, limited to mostly being bombed by the Allies and occupied by the Japanese. Those were traumatizing, obviously, but it was nothing close to the horror of concentration camps in Europe or the battle of Nanking in China. Therefore, the Thais’ reaction to anything related to WWII is generally not as strong as anybody else.

And I am not saying this is okay. I am just saying this is an explanation that I can conjure to what had happened based on my first-hand experience to what it is like to be a Thai student which is the group of people that is responsible for the artwork.

An image of a war criminal on a convocation billboard is, I think, globally appalling. But if the artists do not know how terrible the character is, which means the character has no specific meaning to them, can you claim that they are culturally insensitive?

I do not want to defend the students. On the contrary, I think they should be called out for not researching the characters they were using enough which is not a proper thing for artists, professional or otherwise, to do. This is not only because of cultural significances a character or a symbol might have but also for copyright reason. We at least have Wikipedia as a portal now. There is no excuse for not spending some time making sure everything is in order. And precisely because the world is shrinking, there is now need to think about what in a culture and history should be respected and what can be borrowed.

I am raising this issue because we cannot be fully empathic to another culture. A culture implies a way of thinking and therefore we cannot expect people from other cultures, from other ways of thinking, to fully understand what we are and we have been through. And maybe we should not for the sake of maintaining the diversity of thoughts and world views which has help us survive thus far. But we cannot go on being ignorant either, because that way lies conflict and, in an extreme case, the possibility of another mass extermination as we have seen in the concentration camp in WWII, in the conquering of North and South America, in the killing field of Cambodia, and in the civil wars of Africa. I think we all agree, world-wide, that it has been humanity ultimate sin.

But where ignorance ends and insensitivity begins is a matter for debate. And as a debate should go, it should be done among a fairly large group of people. So what I am going to do is putting my version out there and see how it goes.

The case of the Thai student and image of Hitler is ignorance because it can be cured by facts and by interpreting those facts properly. While we will never feel the same horror as the people and cultures who were directly affected by the terror of mass extermination, it is not beyond the ability to empathize if the people and the emotions involved are included in the education. We are always going to be ignorance to a certain degree, and we have to be aware of that.

Cultural insensitivity, however, is not curable by facts alone. Cultural insensitivity is placing judgement on values and identities of another culture using values and identity of one’s own and refusing to respect the fact that people do not operate on the same set of ideas.

Now,we have been doing that in the entirety of history, haven’t we?

A specific example that I found really offensive is in CNN’s interview of Jay Chou, a Taiwanese musician, as they were talking about him living with his mother past the age of thirty (if you’re interested, here’s the clip from about 21:30 on). The interviewer’s reaction borders on condescending and insensitive to one of Asian’s core family value — to take care of your parents as they have taken care of you. Taking care of your family is not a crime in any other standard which means other people have no place judging that value. Jay was actually nice about it and provided the explanation regarding the cultural difference because, as he demonstrated to the point of being annoying, he is quite aware of that fact.

This is not the same as the case of honour-killings that happened in Canada among the people who immigrated from the regions where such practice still exist. While I do not condone honour-killing anywhere on the globe, I understand that for some cultures in some places in this world, this is part of how their society operate. It would be out of bound for someone else to try to run their houses for them, not to mention that trying to impose a set of values on people who do not subscribe to them generally yield really bad results that last for a long time. The only thing we can do in that case is promoting the value that leans away from allowing honour-killing, maybe applying political pressure if we have any power to at all, and hope it ends. But in Canada, honour-killing is killing. It is a crime. Therefore, I think Canadians have the right to condemn honour-killing on their soil and it will not be cultural insensitivity. It is defending the shared value of the people living there from an idea that condones a crime.

Ultimately, I think both ignorance and insensitivity are curable. Ignorance is curable by proper education that not just focus on the fact but the people and emotions involved in those facts. Cultural insensitivity is curable by understanding that there are time and place that one should refrain from placing judgement on the values and identities of others. You might not believe me, but that is actually most of the time.

Because people who are ignorant and insensitive are annoying, but so are touchy people who live only on their own moral high ground.

  1. You are making the point for me, honour killings are not common, they make headlines because they are murders and are dealt with in exactly the same way as any other murder. That right wing media tend to focus on the culture of the person/s carrying-out the killings, and consequently the whole thing tends to suffer from media bias. But that doesn’t change the fact that a. honour killings are carried-out by a tiny minority of Muslims and b. you cannot assess multiculturalism on the basis of those perpetrating criminal acts. It is the equivalent of the whole of white British males being judged on the actions of Ian Brady and Fred West.

    • Hi, Ann. And thank you for the comment! I, too, find some media treatments of honour-killing quite disturbing, especially in associating it with Islam which, as you have pointed out, is not true. It just happen to be practiced in certain areas where people happen to be Muslims. I have a feeling that a lot of us often forget that correlation doesn’t imply causation and readily jumps to conclusion when it fits our perception.

      I found that media everywhere like to do two things when reporting news, which are often not good to begin with, relating to another place or culture: over-simplifying it and/or over-criticizing it. I think that is why negativity got so much publicity when there are many good things we can also be talking about. I think that is why a lot of people judge others poorly especially when their only source of learning about another country is through the news.

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