Let's stop laughing at the misfortune of others

Let's stop laughing at the misfortune of others

The term politically correct has no Thai translation, which is not surprising seeing as Thai politics is so far from being correct it had to go and live in Dubai.

Seriously though, being politically correct is not something that we Thais put much thought into. It's not that we don't find some issues too offensive; it's more that when we are not personally involved in a situation, anything is game for a laugh.

We are not even consistent with our hissy fits of moral outrage. Sexism in the media and politics are not generally frowned upon. Rape in soap operas is normally a catalyst for true love and male politicians regularly make offensive comments about their female colleagues.

A woman using her breasts to paint being shown on TV is, however, madness in a Thai's eyes.

The show Thailand's Got Talent is no stranger to controversy. That's what these kinds of shows thrive on. So the fact that anyone is surprised that the programme decided to air footage of, what some are claiming was, an autistic man acting awkwardly is quite perplexing.

Why wouldn't they exploit this opportunity? I bet they wouldn't air the clip if nobody wanted to watch it. Unfortunately Thais find the strangest things funny and so the show's rating improve.

I am not condoning the use of a disability to draw an audience; I just think the people criticising the show should take a step back and look at where they live.

Obese children are regularly used as comedy elements in Thai shows.

Homosexuals are consistently depicted as flamboyant exaggerations.

The late "comedian" Sayan, who suffered from Down's syndrome, made frequent appearances on variety shows.

Another now deceased fixture on Thai television was a man who suffered from ectodermal dysplasia and was affectionately known as "Eddie the Friendly Ghost".

I once watched a comedy show that featured an African guest - the host of the show asked him to smile so that everybody could see his face. The audience found that very amusing.

Where were the critics when this was going on?

An argument could be made that Thais don't find racism offensive because there is no horrific history attached to it here. Or that homosexuals have never been persecuted to the point of violence and probably get a better deal here than in most countries, so laughing at them from time to time is just harmless fun.

These are not implausible arguments, but I think it goes much deeper than that. Thais suffer from an almost innate tendency to respond to situations that we do not understand with laughter. This laughter is more curious than malicious and is, I believe, born out of our own lack of self-confidence and insecurity.

This trait is most likely a result of our rigid social system and unwavering adherence to the illogic of face-saving. To us Thais, laughter is a coping mechanism; in a society where admonishing someone for failure is frowned upon, laughter has replaced rebuke.

We know making fun of someone is wrong, it's just we don't know how to go about stopping it. And we've been doing it for so long it is now the norm.

Take for instance the case of a foreigner trying to speak Thai to a local. It is a scientific finding from the University of Made Up Statistics that 99% of Thais will laugh at a foreigner speaking with a funny accent or saying cobweb instead of grandma because tones are a stupid invention.

But if you ask those very same Thais to speak English, all you'll get is a very shy look on their face. "Why won't you speak English?" you may ask. "I'm shy, I might get something wrong. They might laugh at me," will be their reply.

Evidently the idea of hypocrisy is stranded at the airport with political correctness waiting to come to Thailand.

To change these behaviours and eliminate offensive stereotypes and exploitation of those different from the social norm would mean a huge overall of our social structure. While the critics of Thailand's Got Talent are clearly in the right and should be commended for sticking up for the weak, their anger is misplaced.

If we work to facilitate a society where constructive criticism is encouraged instead of frowned upon, we may yet make progress towards becoming a country that understands political correctness and stops laughing at the misfortune of others.

Arglit Boonyai is Digital Media Editor, Bangkok Post.

Arglit Boonyai

Multimedia Editor

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