The Price for Being Different
I have lived in Thailand the better part of 30 years and hardly a year has passed without an article, opinion piece, or letter to the editor about the dual-pricing practice. Entrance fees to national parks, temples, museums and the like have two prices. The non-Thai price can be as much as ten fold the price charged for Thais. I’ve heard all of the arguments against this practice.
The Usual attack on the dual-price system falls in several categories: (1) fairness; (2) discriminatory; (3) harmful and a public relations disaster; (4) inconsistency—foreigners pay the same auto tax and VAT for example; (5) arbitrary application or enforcement—at some venues, on some days, with some staff a Thai driver’s license or work permit is enough to allow the foreigner to receive the Thai price; (6) mutuality—Thais going to public venues in other countries are charged the same price as everyone else.
None of the above arguments have moved the authorities for all of these years to change the policy, and are met with a number of counter arguments to justify the different price structure: (1) Thais pay taxes, foreigners don’t; (2) Thais are poor and foreigners are rich; (3) Thais go to places to make merit, while foreigners go for other reasons; (4) most countries impose higher prices for a number of services on foreigners such as university fees.
The deeper question is why does the dual pricing system prevail given the amount of bad feeling and ill-will it generates, not to mention the negative publicity that circulates each time this practice finds its way into the press or on social media?
I have a couple of ideas to explore. Dual pricing is an effect. It emerges from a psychological attitude, a social construct of long-standing. One that is durable, immune from rational argument, and like Teflon, isn’t scratched no matter how many logical bullets you fire.
Dual practicing doesn’t exist in isolation. Foreigners in general are seen as an outside group. They work as slaves on fishing boats, on rubber plantations. History books in the schools demonize the Burmese and Khmer. You start to understand a pattern, which arises from a strong In-group Bias. This bias teaches that one should always prefer a certain racial, ethnic or social group; and that membership of the group defines identity. That identification leads to excluding others from the circle of being in the in-group.
In Thailand, the in-group bias is coiled inside the DNA of ‘Thainess’—definitions to which are a work in progress. Of course there are Thais who see the bias for what it is—an effective way to control a population by appealing to their identity as group based. The bias is hardwired in all of us. History is overflown with examples of xenophobia, ethnocentrism and nationalism. Geography or ethnic background plays no difference. The precise expression draws from local traditions, customs, language, myths—the usual machinery to construct communal and individual identity. In times of crises, sizable populations in many countries retreat to this core myth of tribal identity by default. But we are no longer bands of a couple of dozen people. When millions of people chant their in-group truths like mantras, like a weather report of a major storm heading your way, you should notice the strength of how these emotions cascade.
For the Americans (and sadly Canadians, too) this irrationality caused the government to relocate ethnic Japanese to detention camps during World War II. These Japanese-Canadians and Japanese-Americans lost their citizenship rights based solely on their ethnicity. Americans had no trouble slaughtering native Indians at genocide levels or enslaving blacks. South Africa used apartheid laws to separate blacks and whites into different communities with different rights and opportunities. In-group bias has cut a bloody and ignoble path throughout the history of most cultures. In recent times the ethnic cleansing based on ethnic, religious, or ideological in-groups left a trail of carnage from Bosnia to Cambodia to Rwanda. More recently across the border in Burma the Rohingyas have been persecuted for their religion and skin color. There is no end in sight.
What makes the in-group bias invidious is how it operates without outward expressions of intention or an awareness that the person is acting automatically. It would be the rare person who stops and considers that what he or she is thinking is an act of irrational prejudice. I suspect most Thais would be highly offended if they felt a foreigner considered the dual pricing system based on racial prejudice. But racial prejudice is part of the manifestation. If you happen to be an ethnic Chinese, Burmese, Khmer, Japanese and can speak good Thai the chances are good that you can slip through the Thai line and pay the ‘Thai’ price. As I said at the start, dual pricing is only a minor irritant. The danger of in-group bias is the way officials can use it to manipulate the emotions required to ramp up xenophobia, ethnocentrism and nationalism.
Group Think is the second feature that accompanies and sustains in-group basis. When a foreigner questions discriminatory pricing he or she is criticizing not a bug but a feature of group identity enterprise. That places him on dangerous grounds. The arguments are irrelevant. The emotions are stirred by and outsider’ who is perceived to have attacked a basis of communal membership. There are plenty of Thais who are uncomfortable with and seek to overcome this bias. But they are the exception rather than the rule. Agreement and consensus forms the basis of esprit de corps.
Groups which value consensus discourage its members from questioning its official doctrines, assumptions, and myths. Those in the group are taught that conformity is highly prized and those who seek out contradictory evidence to show flaws or ways of improving an idea or process are possible troublemakers to be discouraged. Facts or evidence are monitored for inconsistency or contrary positions, and those who transmit them punished. Disagreement and evidence of inconsistency or hypocrisy are ignored. The challenge is to ensure all communications go through a single pipeline in order to allow access for monitoring, evaluation and disposition. It’s not just people who are marginalized, it is their access to information that may adversely influence the official consensus.
Philip E. Tetlock author of Superforcasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, wrote:
“Groupthink is a danger. Be cooperative but not deferential. Consensus is not always good; disagreement not always bad. If you do happen to agree, don’t take that agreement—in itself—as proof that you are right. Never stop doubting.”
A high value is given to consensus in Thailand. Consensus, harmony and happiness are actively promoted. Those who disagree are viewed with suspicion if not hostility. Questioning the wisdom of the group is a kind of betrayal or disloyalty. When groupthink weds in-group bias the children of ideas coming out of that union will likely be inward thinking and emotionally attuned to the need to quell the noise of outsiders. One way to accomplish such a goal is the creation of a single-gateway for all Internet traffic into the country. As a way to protect groupthink and patrol the boundaries separating in-group and out-group, such a system becomes attractive much like the idea of building the Great Wall of China.
Dual pricing is the tip of the cognitive iceberg shimmering in the tropical monsoon season. Isolate it at your peril. It is a symptom of something far more important to understand about a culture and political system inside that culture. When a culture sanctions in-group bias and groupthink, and makes policies with strengthening these cognitive defects, it is not cost free. A price is paid. How do we measure that price? This is for the experts to examine. I would wager that the cost on the ‘whom’ is much higher than the cost on the ‘who’ and below you will see there is an important divide between the two.
The cost is not so much the much higher amount that a foreigner pays to gain entrance to a national park. Price based on ethnicity is a crude (and emotionally damaging) way to express the difference between in-group and outsiders. The political price is another matter. Setting a higher admission price because the person doesn’t look like us is repugnant to many people. It is in the same category as a price of admission based on height, weight, shoe size or color of eyes. There is a feeling such features should be sanctioned by government as a basis for price discrimination. We don’t accept the argument that making tall people pay more than short people and justifying it on the basis that tall people have a better view. By opening the group to other ideas and encouraging an exchange of conflicting ideas, and learning to question not just the other person’s idea but the strength and weakness of your own, ideas can be improved, repaired where flawed, discarded as no longer workable, or merged with other ideas gives such a group an edge. The goals is to search for truths that have a broad general consensus and not to be distracted by the myths to spin a spider web of comfortable illusions to sustain in-group bias.
A problem yet to be resolved in Thai culture is the fear of disagreement. In the Thai way of thinking it is often assumed that disagreeing is a form of violence, the sign of a troublemaker, rather than a healthy curiosity. Most of life is a puzzle and the pieces never fit and new pieces crop up. Life is confusing given the amount of noise we are subjected to. The main lesson is that the search for perfection, certainty and predictability is a search for a unicorn. The incompleteness of evidence is normal. Cognitive biases teach us that our thinking process must be nudged to discover errors and mistakes in our theories, ideologies and ideas. The heart and soul of modern science is the recognition our most cherished theories never rise above the beta level.Inevitably the theories will change. The aversion to change is creates a strong negative feeling. Add groupthink and in-group bias and you ask whether a cage constructed from such constructs are the highest and best way to preserve cultural identity.
Tetlock has a catchy definition of politics: “Who does what to whom?” Our definition of the ‘who’ and the ‘whom’ is never settled. Factions of the ‘whom’ will be unhappy with a particular ‘who’ no matter what is the basis of their legitimacy to act. The interaction between the two indicates that the ball is always in play. When the rules of that game are expanded to allow and encourage questioning, debate and different points of view, the ‘who’ find themselves accounting for their policies to the ‘whom’. To stigmatize disagreement guarantees tyranny. In the larger scheme, being a perpetual ‘whom’ in this equation, and a foreign ‘whom’ to boot, I acknowledge my bias—the ‘who’ doesn’t have my best interest in mind and I am powerless, like all outsiders where in-group bias prevails, to change the order of things.