An Unsuitable Article
Every society has its shibboleths.
My childhood was blighted by a fear of foreign food. Except that wasn’t what we called it. Foreigners didn’t eat food; they ate ‘foreign muck’.
Garlic was the worst. I’d never in my life seen any, but I had been taught that if once the tiniest sliver somehow got into the kitchen, the whole house would stink, we would trail a pungent scent wherever we went and our home would have to be fumigated, to the family’s everlasting shame, as if we had bedbugs or fleas.
Curiously, spaghetti wasn’t considered foreign. In those days it came out of a tin (like much of what we were fed) and could be served on toast, like other mainstays of the British diet like baked beans and poached eggs. Foreign muck was never served on toast. But for years I worried about that spelling. It didn’t look very English to me.
It took a while to figure out the big Thai shibboleth. I learned the hard way, on the carpet before the Head of Department. Speaking in the muted tones of someone inquiring about an embarrassing bowel condition, she wanted to know if I’d moved the chairs in a classroom.
I’d always moved chairs in classes. I’d seen lots of teachers do the same. I’d been to Ministry meetings where the inevitable small group discussions involved moving chairs. I was sure it was in the ‘how to teach’ books. I felt I was on safe ground.
Yes, I cheerily admitted.
She sighed and looked at the floor.
Then I thought I saw the light. The classroom in question was equipped with bulky wooden chairs, each with a whacking great flat arm for writing on, but tilted so you couldn’t. They looked like the product of an occupational therapy group trying to use up a rather large job lot of confiscated timber. Each could easily accommodate 2 Thai students of average size.
Moving them about would have been easier with a block and tackle or forklift truck, but having neither, the students had dragged them along the floor, momentarily almost equalling the decibel level of the tuk-tuk queue outside the window.
I apologized profusely for the noise, and promised that in future I would have each chair lifted noiselessly by teams of 4 and put back in place by the same method.
The Head of Department stared as if I were insane. Yes, she agreed, moving the chairs did create a bit of a racket, but, in a department that had equipped every teacher with a portable sound system to amplify their lecturing, this was neither here nor there.
The real problem was that moving chairs was … ไม่เหมาะสม — unsuitable.
This is the supreme verdict against which there is no appeal. It is futile to reason against it, because it is based on no reason. Someone in a position of authority decides, on who knows what criteria, that they don’t like something. So they stop it, ban it, put an end to it. Because it is unsuitable.
The court verdict that means a convicted criminal has oversight over this column found her guilty of allowing ‘unsuitable’ comments to linger too long on this website.
And then a young woman earned her 5 minutes of fame for painting with her bare breasts on TV. Before Benz walked off in the highest dudgeon that a talent competition judge can muster, she declared the performance to be ‘unsuitable’.
It’s the catch-all condemnation available to anyone in authority who wants to get their own way and can’t really be bothered to come up with a cogent argument to justify their personal prejudice.
But, I hear you say, a head of department and a criminal court judge of whatever competence and impartiality are clearly in positions of authority. But a celebrity moonlighting as a talent show judge?
Ah, but look at some of the comments on articles that pointed to the apparent hypocrisy of chocolate-covered-boobs-and-naked-black-men Pornchita deciding what is and is not suitable. Her stance on the higher-than-thou moral ground is correct, say her adoring fans, because she is a good person. Whereas her nemesis wears colours on her upper torso and only did it, according to the anonymous source the Bangkok Post decided to believe, because she was paid to. That sounds familiar.
The idea of unsuitability is a tool used by the fundamentally undemocratic hierarchies in Thai society to cement the authority of ‘good’ people over the rest of us. They are the guardians of what is right, moral and suitable and therefore have the power, nay, the responsibility to make society conform to their ideals, even if their own conformity is spotty at best.
Ah, but what makes these people ‘good’?
Sorry. Can’t answer that. The question is unsuitable.