My generation remembers when this Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western was released in 1966. It was the time of the Cold War. Good guys on our side, bad guys on the other side. They were also ugly. The idea of ugly is an old one. Wikipedia has only one sentence to define ugliness: “a property of a person or thing that is unpleasant to look at, listen to or contemplate.” That’s it. A word so revolting the editors of Wikipedia don’t want to spend time contemplating in its presence.
While beauty has multiple entries that goes on and on. Wiki explains beauty as follows: “The experience of ‘beauty’ often involves an interpretation of some entity as being in balance and harmony with nature, which may lead to feelings of attraction and emotional well-being.”
Ugly and Beauty are words for a certain sensation, a feeling, how our gut instincts act with our rational deliberative mind shunt down. Ugly brings to mind feelings of disgust, revulsion, and avoidance while beauty is a feeling of being uplifted, admirable, desirable.
In the recent anti-government demonstrations in Bangkok starting on 13th January 2014, under the slogan “Bangkok Shutdown,” I spent some time at Asoke intersection on Sukhumvit Road checking the crowd and their banner with slogans slagging the government. In the photo below, I found a Thai woman holding a sign that read: “YINGLUCK you are SO UGLY.”
I had found my replay of childhood Cold War fear and hatred. It was like a 1966 version of Clint Eastwood had appeared squinting and chewing a cheroot his hand over the gun in his holster.
The banner was aimed at this woman: Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Maybe I am shallow but I’d be very hard pressed to describe the woman in that photograph as “ugly” or to understand how anyone else could think that the word “ugly” and this woman could be used on the same sign. But there it is. My filter for beauty sees something the protesters don’t. What explains this divergence in perception?
This wasn’t an isolated banner. Here’s another female anti-government, protestor holding a Thai sign: “I am beautiful and smart to boot. The bitch Pou is hedious and STUPID to boot.” (‘Pou’ is PM Yingluck’s nickname.)
Photo credit: @P4ikunG
Aristotle taught that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I understand the point that beauty and ugliness are perceptions seen through filters. What you think is beauty is just you filtering that image through a cultural lens. We all wear this lens every day of our life. It is impossible to slip on someone else’s filters and see the world through their lens. All you can do is find evidence that explains how the filters works for those who have them implanted from childhood.
This got me wondering what Thai cultural alchemy has the power to turn (to my eye) a stunningly beautiful into an ugly woman. Let’s start with the old, well-used stand-by: abject hate. If there is a person, a group, a nation or state that you hear and hate, your subjective experience in visual images and contemplating of such images will stir strong negative emotions. Blacks, homosexuals, women, Jews, and peasants have a history of being the object of hate, made ugly, undesirable, less than fully human.
It is a rare modern political culture, which doesn’t have negative campaigning against an electoral opponent. You defeat the enemy by dehumanizing him or her, turning the person in an object of scorn and ridicule, reduced to the perceived state of being incompetent, corrupt, stupid, or unpleasant. Who would want to elect such a person?
When you dissect our filter for processing good and bad, beauty and hate, you learn something about the relationship between programming and emotions. Our emotional, irrational side is tuned into an easily programed subjective experience into the binary code of either good or bad. A series of one’s and zeroes, on-off switches, propelling us to evaluate a person, event, or policy as good or bad. We are programed to search and capture the good and to avoid and punish the bad. Nothing has changed much in the way we process values of what a group we identify with has decided is good and bad.
In the world of emotional rage there are no fifty shades of grey. There are no shades. Period. You have your basic pitch black (ugly) and pure white (good).
What smears and mud-slinging seek is to destroy the element of trust in another. We trust the ‘good person’ and distrust the ugly one. The systematic use of hate language is condemned by the press in most countries and is unlawful in a number of countries, though not in Thailand. It is gasoline poured onto a fire. Hate, in politics, is a call to war. Think of the killing of half million Indonesians in 1965 to 1966 to understand the potential scale of damage and death. Hate is a poison well. Reform drawn from a well filled with hate leads to a road of slaughter.
What makes the anti-government protest in Bangkok more like the Cold War than political posturing is that the leaders are seeking to disconnect the Bangkok middle-class and traditional elites from the democratic system of one-man one-vote. Prime Minister Yingluck represents the face of electoral democracy and the protesters and the Democrat Party, which has given the appearance that they are political arm of the Peoples Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), has failed to win an election in two decades.
The career politicians who are leading the street demonstration are election losers. They blame democracy for returning a majority in Parliament to govern the country. They distrust democracy. To justify distrust we need to bring in hate, and to hate democracy isn’t going to bring out a large mob. You need a face or a number of faces for that. Like Russia was America’s existential fear during the Cold War, Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Prime Minister Yingluck are, for the PDRC faithful, feared and hated for their existential threat. A threat against what the PDRC believe is Thainess and traditional alignments in the political, economic and social life.
Yingluck is transformed into an ugly person for the protesters as she represents the face of what they fear most—a new political arrangement that pares down their 76% share of the pie will confiscate what has always been their cut. Even if you have more than half of the pie, you are going to have less than before. Khrushchev was the face of the evil Russia. He was bad. Khrushchev was ugly. And his banging his shoe at the UN suggested he was unstable and crazy enough to make us fearful.
Unless you can put on those lens that let your hatred a full reign to feel revulsion at how ugly that person who threats us is. How could anyone trust anyone so ugly? If you can’t trust someone, then they should be kicked out of office, their assets seized and they expelled into exile. The way to get rid of a problem is to assign a leader with the ugly label, rally a mob to take to the streets, demanding she resign and her entire clan leave the country. Protest leaders have suggested this avenue for Khun Yingluck. Living in Bangkok during the past few weeks has been like returning to the ancient past.
Once we commit to a group, our subjective experience of beauty, good, bad, and ugly has a group setting, one that plays on survival. Life and death. Never compromised. Defeat your enemy. Make those horrible ugly people grovel at your feet. This works on a number of levels. We wish to belong, to receive approval, to be accepted, and a shared subjective experience is the membership card. We also suffer from many biases.
One of the most common is What You See Is All There Is (Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow) Here’s a good example of WYSIATI. Susan Boyle who appeared in 2009 before a large audience and a panel of expert celebrity judges at Britain’s Got Talent.
Most people who saw her (including me) would not have thought she was anywhere close to a description of beauty. Our minds recoiled at the very idea that she would sing. We held our breath. And then Susan Boyle sang and the camera panned the faces in the audience and the judges. They were dumbstruck. People were crying. I was crying. The whole world cried as WYSIATI has biased us to judge her before we heard her.
Our biases don’t normally allow us to hear beauty coming from the ugly. But at that evening people around the world subjectively adjusted to a new way of perceiving beauty.
Perception can change quickly. The Susan Boyle incident is a lesson in overcoming bias. It helped that we knew nothing about Susan Boyle the first time we laid eyes on her. We’d never seen or heard of her before. Suddenly she was on our TV screen. That first moment was our only cue to hang our bias—her appearance. Her appearance carried no other baggage. But in politics, whether the Cold War or the Street of Bangkok, people are subject to non-stop hate programing on cable TV and radio, they sign up for social media enclaves of hate sharers, and read the literature and newspapers of hate. Hate becomes a 24/7 cycle filled with cherry picked information to confirm and deepen the hatred. Orwell in 1984 had Big Brother’s 2 minutes of hate. Yingluck is on the other end of 24 hours of hate every day. You want to know how strong filters and bias are? Here’s your case study: Yingluck appears to the anti-democracy demonstrators through their filters as a Susan Boyle lookalike standing on the stage at Britain’s Got Talent, on that they would never open their ears to hear Yingluck sing.
The anti-government protesters don’t have a monopoly on hate. On the pro-government side, you don’t have to go far to find those who live in alternate hate universe. Inside this place you’ll find lots of images where their opponents are seen as ugly. In the photograph, you can witness the extreme of that hatred with a noose around the necks of Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban.
The current protest and demonstration has been a battle between beauty and ugly, good and bad. As I wondered among the demonstrators, I saw many of them taking selfies.
They marveled at their own beauty and the beauty of their friends. Everywhere along the Asoke and Sukhumvit Road intersection I witnessed this scene repeated many times.
The beautiful and good people on the night of 13th January 2014 turned out in large numbers in front of a stage erected at the Asoke and Sukhumvit intersection.
Asoke-Sukhumvit Intersection, 1st day of “Bangkok Shutdown” (January 13, 2014)
By the fourth day of the so-called Bangkok Shutdown, the same intersection looked different.
Asoke-Sukhumvit Intersection, 4th day of “Bangkok Shutdown” (January 16, 2014) Photo credit: https://twitter.com/threefoldutopia/status/423626828947804161
The good and beautiful people had gone back to work. They needed to recharge their cellphone batteries, shower and eat. You can’t really sustain a high pitch of hatred unless you are unemployed, dirty, hungry and hopeless. Once you have your SIM card filled with selfies and a cool office to work in, the hate switch is turned off. At least until after work, with recharged cell phone, a new and cool outfit with patriotic accessories, and fresh makeup, they can return to the streets to demonstrate.
No question that Thailand’s political system is at a crossroad, and no question there is genuine anger and fear. No question that there is a real need for reform. Thailand one day could have a half-dozen mega-cities. Yet, it is doubtful that the existing Bangkok elites and power structure would co-operate politically for a system that expanded the possibility of additional rivals. They want things to be the way they’ve always been, despite new and much changed reality.
I also have grave doubts whether a centralized democratically elected government would be the system of choice that would govern a country with multiple mega-cities. A new political arrangement would be required. One where the existing sense of space and location experienced as a physical place is superseded by a digital space, where voting every few years is replaced with a more calibrated system representing consensus about extracting wealth from some citizens and distributing it to others, a new political system, in which the notion of citizens, rights, and benefits are finely tuned to ride the rapids of large scale change. At the same time, it will take a democratically elected political system under rule of law to allow for the next transition. That’s how I see electoral democracy, an incubator to give birth to a new way of governing when our current perception of space and time and change are fundamentally upended. In that new world the idea of ‘reform’ will be built into the political system to allow for continuously updating. I am not certain if we are quite ready for that reality but several generations down the road will likely have a very different opinion.
Imprisoned by my own filters and biases, I know that they prevent me from experiencing anything more than a subjective reading. These psychological filters don’t reach far into the future. That, however, is the future that is at stake, and how coalitions of people, powerful institutions and leaders can put in place a democratic system that will prepare the country to walk free of the good, the bad and the ugly and into a place where they hear Susan Boyles’ voice and for the first time feel themselves inside a world where they know What We See Isn’t All There Is. There is much, much more.