In a traditional regime, “Yes, Sir!” is the appropriate (and expected) reply to someone with power, status, and rank. Civilization was built on those two words. The great marvels such The Great Pyramids, Angkor Wat, The Great Wall of China, Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the other wonders of the ancient world are relics of ancient Yes, Sir cultures. The Seven Wonders of the World were not built by liberal democracies.
Classical antiquity was the result of citizens being consulted and voting on these projects. Wonders weren’t connected with popular approval or consent. If citizens had objected, it is doubtful that voice of dissent lasted more than a couple of lungsful until the shouting was extinguished. Brutality, oppression and the ownership of wealth had the capacity to produce not just atrocities and misery but also incredible wonders. America, a liberal democracy, developed and dropped the first atomic bomb, invaded several middle-eastern countries, used drones to kill people who waged local wars against its international values and ideals. That needs to be said. While the role of authoritarian regimes compared with democratic ones is a history of shades of gray rather than black and white, it doesn’t make the system equivalent. The rulers were defined by their indefinite political tenure.
Both democratic and authoritarian systems can be brutal, heartless and irrational. The role of opponents, their political space, and their civil right are vastly different. Both pedaled their own versions of Lake Wobegon to their population. In 2016 both systems are showing system fatigue. No apparent replacement is on the horizon, meaning Lake Wobegon has slipped into a dystopia, where people are arming themselves, adjusting to a new emotional terrain knee deep in the scurrying vermin of anger, bitterness, hatred and greed chewing wounds into their hearts.
In a book titled Heart Talk, which I wrote a quarter of a century ago I focused on how the word for ‘heart’ in Thai was pervasive in the language.
After three editions, I found 750 jai phrases in the Thai language. The longest definition for all the jai phrases was for Kreng jai. The phrase translates literally as ‘Awe Heart” and here’s part of my definition:
“The phrase reflects a rich brew of feelings and emotions—a mingling of reverence, respect, deference, homage and fear—which every Thai person feels toward someone who is their senior, boss, teacher, mother and father, or those in a powerful position such as a high-ranking police officer. Anyone who is perceived to be a member of a higher social class is owed kreng jai. In practice, a person with ‘awe heart’ would be inhibited from questioning or criticizing such a person.”
Kreng jai is the Thai cultural cornerstone of the Yes, Sir culture. This is the round cultural hole that Thais have tried to fit the square peg of democracy into. It should come as little surprise that with all the hammering the peg still doesn’t fit.
To continue the machinery metaphor for Yes, Sir requires a look at the lubricant to keep the system functioning; like a good malt whisky kreng jai is aged in vats built from concepts such as obedience, loyalty, respect, fear and hierarchy. This works best when the social space is physical, geographically specific. Analogue space is much easier to patrol, monitor and enforce. There are practical reasons for this relative ease. The social relationships and bonds are limited to those who are near. People who are far are not part of the analogue bound person’s relationship. People had social relations with their family, neighbors, school mates, work mates and those shared an interest in gardening, cooking, reading, sports, religion or gambling.
In the last thirty years technology has redefined social space by creating a digital meeting place. People could exchange ideas, photographs, and information with people who were ‘far’ as easily as they could with people who were ‘near’ and that has caused a revolution as the boundary between insider and outsider blurred without the restraint of a physical geographical location in common. Of course, it would be false to suggest that cyberspace has created a vast tolerant, humane and democratically-minded community. The Yes, Sir devotees may aggregate in digital cubbyholes that confirm their biases, just as the system challengers reinforce their value and belief systems inside the comfort of their own digital communities.
The point of the digital space accelerating in importance is that control over social relationships is more complex and far more difficult to administer for those running a Yes, Sir regime. Adding to the administration problem is the nature, source, and control of information. A Yes, Sir regime places controls on the media and press, what can be said and cannot be said, and what can be printed in textbooks, shown in cinemas, on TV and online. In democratic system the controls are less obvious but nonetheless effective to ensure that large commercial interest can shape the cultural message that reach most people. Information has been freed from the traditional constraints and can be accessed, stored, shared, discussed and debated even though it contradicts the narrative produced and promoted by powerful interests.
In theory, the ability offered by the Internet to plug into a vast information grid should be liberating experience. Instead, it has imprisoned millions of people up to their eyeballs in Lake Angry. Part of their anger arises from information in the digital world that triggers feeling of distrust, cynicism, and suspicion about official narratives. Many look up from their computer screen and feel they’ve been lied to, manipulated by the very institutions and elites their parents and grandparents had placed implicit trust in.
One result of the disillusionment is endless conspiracy theories and paranoia by those unwilling to employ the scientific method. The rational mind in cyberspace is less engaged in the information binging, but more in searching for an emotion kick from a clickbait about a sex scandal, violence, terrorism, murder or official abuse. It has been the walk on the irrational side; in the digital world is like watching millions of drunks, staggering from lamppost to lamppost looking for the lost keys to the city gates of the old Lake Wobegon.
Our social networks and information networks no longer support the Yes, Sir ideology; and they no longer support a democratic system featuring voting every four years. If you lose control of the social and information networks, you’ve lost the traditional basis of power. Where does that leave us? We are in between systems that can explain their role inside these networks. Without such an explanation that is credible, testable, verifiable, and editable, the legitimacy of those claiming the right to exercise power over others and the environment will continue to be attacked.
There is more to the digital space and network affiliations formed in that space that is at issue. The scientific revolution started in the 17th century but it is only within the last hundred years that the fruits of that revolution have engaged to the larger population. What science brought to the table was to introduce a new method and process for testing what was true and what was false. This new method was based on opening into an inquiry as to what the reality of a thing, process or event and how to accurately describe it, reproduce it, and give an explanation as to why the description should be taken seriously. The dawn of science was the dawn of investigations into what was the basis of nature, biology, chemistry, mathematics, cosmology, and physics. Previous explanations were religious conjectures based on gods acting as agents and creators. We can be smug about the pre-scientific system but that would be a mistake. These stories were foundational for Yes, Sir systems, and to question them threatened their legitimacy and survival. If the official narrative was false, then the elites had told lies or were stupid in believing in their own lies.
Science is an open system of investigation that follows a certain process and method. That is radical in itself but pales in comparison with the most radical idea of all—everyone can be a private investigator, and challenge a received truth. Anyone regardless of status or rank who can find an alternative explanation that better fits the current level of understanding of reality can overthrow an established theory. Someone who seeks to overthrow Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity has a tough battle but won’t be burnt on the stake as a heretic (though he may be dismissed unless there is powerful evidence for his claim as a lunatic). Science changed the rules of the ruler’s game. Rather than oppressing challenges to official narratives, scientist were encouraged to probe the weakness of a narrative looking for flaws, gaps, inconsistencies, and updating theories with additional information that could be replicated by others who carried out tests.
Science introduced the idea of editing and updating to the story-telling about how things are they way they are, and that no one had a monopoly on the truth or facts, and anyone regards of position could challenge the prevailing ‘truth’ or ‘facts.’ That is the base of a revolution that spilled over to the political realm. It was a small step to go from challenging the age of the earth to challenging the legitimacy of a ruler’s decisions about education policy. Planting the scientific inquiry seed into digital space and a new garden has flourished.
The Yes, Sir crowd sees weeds growing out of control in this digital space that should be pulled out while others see a field of flowers. If a bright young, commoner at the bottom of the totem pole, for example, investigates and discovers official misdeeds and shares those finding in digital space the official response is immediate and predictable—the person is a traitor.
And indeed in one way that is true. Anyone who challenges an official truth whether it is the place of the earth in the solar system or the place of a dam on a river is challenging the interest of those who are vested in the absolute truth. The truth and position are indistinguishable; like a treaty of mutual interest, truth and position march together, and to challenge of one is to challenge both.
The new role of millions of private investigators equipped with access to huge data exchanging information has destabilized the old alliance between truth-telling and ruling. It can never be quite the same again. Social, political and economic networks have broken out of the old analogue models. The horse has bolted from the stable. Where it will go next is anyone’s guess. But catching that horse with riders galloping after it from the Yes, Sir system or from the Liberal Democratic system is proving difficult. This digital rodeo is just starting. And it is one thing to round up the occasional straight stallion but when millions breakout there aren’t enough cowboys from the analogue world to rope them and drag them back to Lake Wobegon.
Christopher G. Moore last book of essays is titled The Age of Dis-Consent.