Saturday, July 16, 2011

Setting a Low Bar

Tibet is a topic about which most Americans, and presumably most people world wide, are extremely ignorant. A recent religion poll showed that less than half of Americans knew what religion the Dalai Lama, who is currently in Washington DC, is. I've met American private school seniors who asked me whether Tibet was in Europe or Africa. I think it's safe to say that many, if not most, Americans could not find Tibet on an unmarked map or explain what "Free Tibet" means.

You won't find the invasion and occupation of Tibet in a high school World History textbook and, even at a large university, you will be lucky to find even one class about Tibet (although a Buddhism course will surely cover at least a little bit.) The resulting ignorance creates a glut of issues. From an information standpoint, the biggest issue is that the majority of non-Dharma Tibetan resources available to non-Tibetans (who do not speak Tibetan) are written by a very small number of people. The intentions of some of those people is enough for another post entirely, so I'll save it for later.

This wide spread ignorance has set the bar for knowledge incredibly low. Almost anyone who knows the basics of the Tibetan situation, or I should say almost anyone who seems to know the basics of the Tibetan situation, is practically an expert and can play themselves off as one.

However, many have spent very little time in Tibetan communities, can't speak Tibetan, and only have a knowledge based on hearsay or a bit of reading, and a good deal of misunderstanding.

I know because I was one. I hope I'm not any more, but I definitely was one just like this in the beginning. It's embarrassing for me to think back on it and the misunderstanding I propagated in others by saying things that I thought, based on my comparative knowledge, were true.

I don't think it's done out of bad intention or a desire to misrepresent, but just because the bar is set so low that almost anyone can be an "expert."

People with the best intentions, but very little knowledge, then try to educate the outside world about Tibet. I am the first to encourage telling your friends, co-workers and other acquaintances about Tibet, but a few people want to go far beyond that seeking to widely publish themselves.

I remember one book by a well intentioned, but poorly informed westerner which showed a photograph of a group of Tibetans walking past a mani pile (a pile of stones with prayers carved on them) but the author had labeled it as "a group of Tibetans walking past what are likely the ruins of a monastery." Many publish photographs or books with incorrect captions which sensationalize the issue. The Tibetan issue is serious enough as is, hyperbole is completely unnecessary. Beyond being unnecessary, it is detrimental to the Tibetan cause. When we use hyperbole, the Chinese authorities can accurately claim that we are quoting false "facts" and it is simply propaganda. Are these mistaken, exagerated "facts" closer to the truth than Chinese propaganda? It depends on the statement, but usually yes. But the world will not care, and will just look at it as those Free Tibet Hippies spouting bullshit. See? The Chinese are right, and they can prove it!

Another particularly memorable error I found in one of the few available Tibetan "resources" stated that the reincarnation system was created after a Tibetan king decided to become a monk, thus celibate and ending the royal lineage. In fact the reincarnation system was founded by the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, a monk, roughly 900 years ago as a way to carry on his religious teachings after his death. The Tibetan royal lineage is still alive and the current king, a direct descendent of Songtsan Gampo, is a teenager living in India.

No one has publicly called out this author. To make matters worse, since these self declared experts usually write based on sympathy towards the Tibetan cause, it adds a patina of disreputableness to any publication that sympathises with Tibetan people.

A good number of people decide that, with their newly found, limited, and often incorrect knowledge of the Tibetan issue, gained from a few weeks or months in India and a few books, they will make a documentary, publish a book, write a news article, or do something similar. Some write about their own experiences, in which case it is usually an accurate representation of what they saw, and I cannot complain. However, many decide that they want to expose the world to the Tibet issue, despite their lack of an understanding of Tibet themselves. They are blind leading the blind.

Many of these people may have spent years in refugee settlements in places like Dharamsala, but spend all their time around westerners or frequenting internet cafes instead of actually interacting with local people. Very few are willing to actually get their hands dirty or exit their comfort zones.

Am I missing something? I want to be told, if I am. But I just can't imagine that people who've never been to Darfur or spent copious amounts of time in a refugee camp, or at least worked for years with refugees and done a lot of research would decide to make a movie about Darfur to wake up the world. Am I wrong? Am I just expecting too much? I don't know.

I keep feeling like it's just another version of people who want to be white saviours, heroes, but as usual don't want to make any real commitment.


  1. This begs the question: what can we do? How can we try to change the current atmosphere that leads to that select, established group of people, to say what they please and be seemingly immune from criticism?

    It is incredibly hard to call out people for their racism, etc., and even more so if they are known for doing good work within their respective fields. I've called out numerous authors and individuals, and have been told things like, I'm obviously a Chinese agent since I'm questioning them, or I'm the problem with the "movement" (as if there is a unified movement concerning Tibet! just look at what happened at this year's Kalachakra and the president of TYC if you think there's a unified movement for Tibet).

    I think it starts with each of us as individuals. We have to address our own issues, establish our own inner peace, before tackling the problems of the world. For me, this means speaking up when I read or hear something problematic--even if the speaker is someone known for their good work in their respective field. It also means unlearning a lot of my own stereotypes, and, specifically with regards to Tibet, learning to see how the West has always treated Tibet as "Shangri-la" and the place I fit into that, so that I can begin to dismantle it.

    At the end of the day, even if we are campaigning for a good and rightful cause, we are all human beings, far from perfect, and stuck in an unforgiving samsara. But this doesn't mean that we can't call out others and respond to criticisms of ourselves--sometimes, this is the only way we can learn.

    Great, thoughtful post.

  2. Wow. Thank you for making me think. And thank you for calling people out on this. If you are the Angie I think you are (Sarah?) then I'm very happy to hear you are calling people out because I know you have the open-mindedness and experience to be doing so. I also have been frequently accused of being a Chinese agent when I criticize anyone sympathetic to the Tibetan cause. Our (we, the authors) hope in creating this blog is to make a forum where we can call people out, in a firm and honest way. The stigma against calling people out allows for fallacies and inappropriate behavior to thrive. I know you aren't supposed to bite the hand that feeds, but if it's feeding poison, what then?

    And yes, I saw the whole thing about TYC at Kalachakra. You know as well as I do that there is no "united front", despite how hard people try to pretend there is one.

    I agree, we need to stop and look at ourselves. Be willing to criticize ourselves, which can be painful and embarrassing, and be willing to accept honest criticism and correction. Good intention does not excuse bad action or false statements.

    I hope that people will be willing to call others out, and make people accountable for their actions and statements, without detracting from other good work that they may be doing. I think this is just one of the many challenges Tibet Supporters need to take responsibility for.

    What can we do? I think, when it comes down to it, we need to demand honest scholarship, research and a willingness to accept correction when it comes to any publication or statement intended to educate others about Tibet. We must demand accuracy above intention. I think it's a long hard road, and will only increase the amount of hate mail I (and surely you) receive, but in the end it will be worth it.

  3. I agree with the sentiment I believe I hear you saying: even if something is said which lends support to a cause you align yourself, and the statement (paper, book, blog post, et. al.) has not been properly thought out or considered seriously, then the support is something which can potentially damage the credibility of your movement, and not only that, your expression of sympathy and solidarity with a cause.

    To say: "don't question what I am doing, I am trying to help you" is something, I feel, is supremely dangerous.

    This very topic is something which is something that, I feel, can be strongly identified with by Natives. I have dealt with this personally as a Native scholar, because: yes, I am trying to help my community's language revitalization, but at the same time, I am attempting to also create new, interesting linguistic work. Reaching the intersection between these two takes much longer to reach than simply pursuing a path of scholarly commentary takes much more effort. The question I feel you asking and answering here is: is it worth it?

    In essence, I would say, yes-- I agree with you, it takes more work to understand and create something truly meaningful for a cause you support-- but it is it really that much effort to create something which you can verify *won't be damaging*?

  4. "To say: 'don't question what I am doing, I am trying to help you' is something, I feel, is supremely dangerous."

    Dangerous and well-documented within imperialist history. It all relies on the ridiculous notion that the unknown, in this case the native/indigenous, is a collective that must be saved from itself, and thus, needs a white, "civilized" savior.

    "but it is it really that much effort to create something which you can verify *won't be damaging*?"

    In my experience, it is and it isn't. Sometimes we are just completely oblivious to the harm we're doing, and many of us stay oblivious. I've certainly written and done damaging things, and will probably continue to do so, but I strive to learn when I do it, and fix it. It can be really hard trying to rewire yourself but it's worth it. Some things are quite obvious, but racism, et. al. goes very deep and is often very subtle. As a white person, it can be hard to spot because of white privilege, etc.

    And Metak, I do think I am the person you're thinking of you. Who are you? I followed this site through a post on facebook--was that you?

  5. This post accurately describe the most damaging aspect of the phenomenon I called "White Experts". The non-Tibetan speaking "experts" exist because other white people rely on them to help them understand a non-white culture, even when there's plenty of English speaking local scholars available. It's just nice to see a white face explaining things to you. With credibility firmly established by skin color and facial feature, the low-bar knowledge described is really doing a great disservice to the cause of Tibetan freedom. Thus I don't think this issue lies purely with the problem of "low-bar experts", but with white, Western societies' innate racism as well. Frankly, I see no resolution with this and all Western efforts to "help with the cause" as futile. True solutions lies in the hand of the Tibetans and the Chinese people, and not with any foreigners.


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