Rights in democracy, the naked truth
What the 23-year-old female contestant on Thailand's Got Talent painted with her breasts was a mess. It wasn't art. The performance was crude and tasteless, cheap and tawdry, appealing to the lowest common denominator. Be that as it may, she had every right to perform, with the appropriate blurring of images, of course.
Last Sunday's performance on the popular reality TV show definitely made an impact. The audience cheered. The two male judges loved it. The lone female judge walked off the panel.
''This is degrading to Thai culture!'' That's the most frequently invoked cry against any speech or expression deemed ''un-Thai''. But according to this logic, wouldn't Thai culture then be narrow-minded and intolerant, incapable of embracing the differences and diversities that come with freedom and democracy? I hope not. I find narrow-minded intolerance degrades Thai culture.
Civil rights is a double-edged sword. It's liberating, but also corrupting. It frees individuals, but also divides society. To embrace civil rights is to be, if not accepting, then at least tolerant, even of the hopelessly stupid and the downright idiotic.
Society is divided over the scandal. The conservatives are appalled. The liberals say it's art. The always ultra-fragile Cultural Ministry is shocked. The National Broadcasting and Television Commission (NBTC) fined Channel 3 operator Bangkok Entertainment Company (BEC) 500,000 baht for failing to censor ''inappropriate content'' according to Article 37 of the 2008 Broadcasting Act.
Meanwhile, the girl and her parents were pressured to offer public apologies.
News stories have it that Work Point Entertainment, producers of the show, engineered the topless performance for ratings, that the girl was hired for 10,000 baht and that the judges were even in on it. However, this has not been proven, even if we believe reality TV capable of such treachery.
As a writer who can trace any issue to the democratic development of a nation, I'd like to look at the performance in this light.
Civil rights are a class of rights that protect individuals' freedoms from unwarranted infringement by governments and private organisations, and ensure one's ability to participate in civil life without discrimination or repression. The right pertain to life and liberty, speech and expression _ the right to make art, even tasteless art, and not be discriminated against or repressed by the establishment.
However, there are limits to these rights, such as when a saying or doing something can cause harm. Yelling ''fire'' in a crowded theatre and causing a stampede is not exercising one's freedom of speech. Rather, it is criminal negligence.
The breast baring did not cause a stampede; all it did was offend the fragile sensibilities of the conservative public and members of the traditional establishment, who instead of exercising their freedom of choice by clicking to another channel, invoked their authoritarian mind-set to discriminate and repress.
In every society there are the right-wing conservatives and the left-wing liberals _ the yin and the yang in balance. Let them debate and argue, it can only benefit society's democratic advancement. Leaning too far to one side would upset the cosmic balance and the yin might miss the yang.
However, while Thailand is democratic in theory, in practical terms the cultural and political mindset is still entrenched in authoritarian values. Hence, instead of debating, the default response is to discriminate and repress, with government agencies interfering and infringing, in this case the Cultural Ministry and the NBTC. Let there be Fox news and let there be MSNBC news. Let there be a yellow channel and let there be a red channel. However, let there not be government discrimination and repression. The blurring of the naked breasts, since it's free TV, should be an acceptable compromise to both sides.
When government agencies discriminate and repress, it sets a standard whereby we only have rights if they meet with the approval of the morals police. That is not democracy. That is authoritarianism, control and conformity. And that is backward and dangerous.
To appreciate freedom, democracy and human rights, one must understand that humans have different natures. We are martyrs and morons; saints and scumbags; geniuses and idiots. We should appreciate the former and tolerate the latter, as long as they don't cause a stampede or the like.
But let's bring balance to the yin and the yang, because we should not let the liberal faction have their heads too far up in the clouds.
The argument that painting with bare breasts on national TV is an artistic expression is moot and mundane. We live in an age where one could throw faeces on a canvas and call it art.
The concept of art is highly subjective; everyone has his or her own interpretation. My own interpretation is that the naked, painted breasts of the show's female judge, Pornchita 'Benz' na Songkhla, on the cover of Image Magazine, is art _ beautiful art, in fact, simply because she looks good.
The painting created by the Thailand's Got Talent contestant, however, is not art to me. It was just messy colours on a canvas; I could do the same thing with my bare feet. Had she painted the Last Supper with her bare breasts, then I would have been impressed.
But that is just my opinion. No one has to like it. No one has to approve of it. And I don't force my interpretation on anyone else _ acceptance and tolerance are key.
So when I clicked onto a Bangkok Post online article that showed the fashion photo of Benz's painted bare breasts, I went ''Wow, let's have another look,'' and was tempted to click ''like''.
On the contrary, watching that particular episode of Thailand's Got Talent, I was not really interested, though I did watch the whole thing through. But the point is I could have just switched the channel.
In fact, both pairs of breasts were used in an exploitative fashion. One pair just so happened to look good, while the other made a mess.
Freedom is not an easy thing to handle. It begs for an open mind. It requires hard work to cope with. It makes life more difficult, because instead of being blissfully blind, deaf and dumb through censoring, we are exposed to the realities of the world, both good and bad. We can choose to either resist it or to learn from it, becoming more intelligent in the process.
The difference is the stagnation versus the advancement of a democratic society in Thailand.
Of course, painted bare breasts on national TV which children can watch makes parenting difficult. But that's what TV ratings are for and that's what parenting is _ teaching the child, not censoring. Freedom isn't for the narrow-minded and the inept. You take the good, you take the bad, that's a fact of life.
This is not because we love bare breasts (although we do), but more because we love freedom. In aspiring to become a democratic society, we must embrace civil rights. However, we should not exploit those rights. The failure of democracy is true and certain if we intend to corrupt democratic values for fame and ratings, power and profit _ both in the political and social spectrums. So if it proves true that Work Point Entertainment purposely engineered that inartistic breast painting display, then that's public fraud, worth a civil lawsuit, because it is good old corruption.
There must be a balance struck between conservative and liberal forces, reached through reason and decency, not discrimination and repression. This means the balance will never be reached, since we should know better than to expect reason and decency out of any society, not just this one. But we do aim for the heavens, so that we might get to the stars. For if we aim low then we're stuck in the smog and pollution. While if we don't even make an attempt then we struggle in the gutter.
I for one think Thai culture is open-minded and tolerant, embracing the diversity that comes with freedom and democracy, appreciating civil rights and individualism. But this will only be a delusion if society at large does not agree with me.
Contact Voranai Vanijaka via email at email@example.com.
Bangkok Post columnist
Voranai Vanijaka is a columnist, Bangkok Post.