Thursday, September 03, 2015

An egalitarian in a hierarchical world.

Will Barratt, Ph.D.
Roi Et Rajabhat University

I have spent most of my life as a majority member of the US majority culture.  I learned equality as a young person and I positively reinforced equality as an adult.  I embrace the US axiom that no one gets to be special.  Even academic titles and ranks bothered me when I was a Professor.  I came up during the 60s freedom marches that emphasized that equality was a matter of law and of culture.  At least my assumptions about equality in law and culture is what I believed about myself.  Being outside of my own culture I have a chance to highlight some of my own culture and my participation in the rituals of prestige and privilege.

I now live in Thailand and work as a Professor at Roi Et Rajabhat University, a provincial campus in the north east.  Being a Professor is both a social roll and an academic position here and in the US.  My current social role and academic position are much different than my life as a Professor in the US.  

Thai cultural behaviors, reflecting Thai cultural values, act to reify a system of social stratification.  I am old, so younger people must pay me respect.  I am a Professor on my campus so people must pay me respect.  This is all attribution, it is what others think of me and this is central to most of my relationships.  This is what I have referred to as attributed social class, what others think of us.  As a result of valuing my age, academic rank, as well as my national origin Thais have a set of behaviors to go along with these attributes.

The Wai is a greeting with raised hands, and always given from youngest to oldest. It must be returned. This is a cultural imperative.  I have seen mothers and fathers raise a toddlers hands to Wai me.  The formalization of a hierarchy based on age through this gesture is one of the central facets of Thai interpersonal interactions.  It is a conditioned response here.  I occasionally get it wrong and I am the first to Wai others and I often Wai younger people because I have US ideas of politeness that come from a different culture.  The Thai people I work with are forgiving of my cultural mistakes, at least for now.  Tolerance for others is also a Thai cultural value.

There is a doctoral student in my department who is a serious player in the current Thai government.  In my US frame of mind I need to respect him for his accomplishments and earned prestige.  Here, he is obligated to Wai me because of my age.

The meeting with him was a delightful moment for me because it highlighted cultures in conflict.  There was a momentary contrast between what I felt obligated to do based on US ideas of privilege and hierarchy, and what he felt obligated to do based on Thai ideas of privilege and hierarchy.

A second set of behaviors related to hierarchies of privilege occurs here in professional settings. When we, my wife is also a Professor here, go to conferences or when we give workshops, at lunchtime we are segregated from attendees in order to dine with presenters and honored guests, like Deans and campus Presidents. This segregation makes the two tiered class system visible.  Vonnegut referred to people being given status as stars and the rest of us as bit part players. While the division of stars and bit part players can be experienced in US culture these two groups are formalized and ritualized in obvious ways here.  Perhaps I notice this two tier system here because I was never invited to the head table at meetings in the US.

Coming from a democratic culture that celebrated equality this Thai age and prestige hierarchy is a personal challenge. While hierarchies of prestige and privilege dominate US culture, and I have all manner of earned and unearned prestige and privilege, the open recognition, the ritual in basic behaviors, bothers me here. While I, and nearly everyone I know in the US, participate in the rituals of privilege and hierarchy in the US seeing these rituals in another culture is seeing them anew.  Twain was right that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness”.  This experience with hierarchies here helps me highlight the rituals and assumptions of hierarchies of prestige and privilege in my cultures of origin.  

I participate in these rituals here because this is not my culture and I try to honor the cultural practices here.  To seek to change the culture here is cultural imperialism.  So, to what extent should I cease to participate in these cultural rituals of prestige and privilege in my own culture?  Affecting my own culture is not cultural imperialism.  What can I do as an ex-pat?  I can help point out how we all participate in co-evolving inequality.

In the spirit of equality and respect for autonomy, you go ahead and do what you want. And please be mindful of how your life affects others’ lives.