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In the Frame

Years ago, someone suggested a clever linguistic trick.

At the time Nelly Mandelly was being locked away in apartheid South Africa, and Martin Luther King was getting assassinated for having a dream.  Skin colour, then as now, was a big thing in politics.

In the UK, Enoch Powell, who in an earlier incarnation as Health Minister had been aggressively recruiting nurses and hospital staff from the Caribbean, was warning of ‘rivers of blood’ in the UK if the immigration of blacks and browns was not controlled, curtailed or, even better, stopped.  The Tory Party unseated a Labour minister in Smethwick constituency on the slogan ‘If you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour’.

Meanwhile in Rhodesia (named after the white supremacist and racist whose statue has become an embarrassment for Oriel College, Oxford), Prime Minister Ian Smith was fighting a vicious bush war to keep Rhodesia independent, which for him meant governed by its white minority.

The linguistic trick involved the words generally used to describe blacks in the UK and whites in Rhodesia.  The former, many of whom were born in the UK and carried the same UK passport as I did, were classed willy-nilly as ‘immigrants’ whether they had actually immigrated or not.

Smith’s white supporters (and he was a very popular figure among whites throughout southern Africa) were called ‘settlers’, even those who had been not born in Africa, who owned vast swathes of it, and who proudly retained their UK passports.

The trick was to take news headlines and swap the words.

‘Conservatives oppose welfare for black settlers’ and ‘Majority rule rejected in vote by white immigrants’ were the disconcerting results.

This is a very superficial example of linguistic or cognitive framing, where the choice of language has some very disturbing consequences for the way people think, or even can think, about things.

We could do with some framing awareness in Thailand today.

Take the recent unscrupulous Bangkok Post headline ‘Unis told to stop students’ slurs’.

Now there’s a lot to unpack there.  First of all, there is an implied chain of command. 

Someone (the article reveals this to be ex-student activist and current anti-student activist Anek Laothamatas in his newly minted position as Minister for Higher Education, Science, Retaliation and Oppression) is presumed to have the authority to give orders to universities, state or private, autonomous or government-administered.  And these universities in turn are presumed to have the authority to give orders to students about what they can and cannot say. 

In 6 words, the Bangkok Pist, sorry Post, headline writer has ridden a coach and horses through any notions of academic freedom or the right to freedom of expression.  Not by arguing that there should be no such things, but by writing a headline that assumes without argument that such things simply do not exist.  At least, not when it comes to students waving 3 fingers about.

The Bangkok Post has created a frame which lulls, inveigles and seduces the inattentive reader into thinking about the issue in terms of hierarchies of power, which of course is exactly what the student protestors want to question.   

The next suspect is the word ‘slurs’, which sneaks into the headline a presumption of guilt (and in Thailand, because of Section 326 et seq. of the Criminal Code, criminality), in much the same way as the famous question ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’

Now what seems to have agitated the underpants of Minister Anek is the 10-point agenda for monarchy reform that has been put out by some of the protestors.  It must contain ‘slurs’, no?

If your news intake is limited to the mainstream Thai media, you have no way of knowing.  The mainstream media appear to have been ordered not to reveal what these 10 points are (Prachatai readers have no such unjustified restriction on their access to information).  

Those with an understanding and experience of human rights have looked at these points closely and say that none are in any way disrespectful. But go on, ignore the tinpot autocrats and judge for yourselves. 

What IS disrespectful is the speech by Army Chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong on 5 August where he told military cadets that pro-democracy protestors are ‘nation haters’.  Now as a government employee, such comments may be stepping over the line, but let’s not follow his own example by violating his right to freedom of expression.

Let us focus on the more disturbing frame in which he embeds ‘nation-hating’.  This is not an opinion that he attributes, in all likelihood falsely, to people who do not think like him or sport Kaiser Wilhelm helmets. 

It is a disease worse than Covid-19. 

And once we are in the ‘dissent-as-disease’ frame, it makes sense to talk about cures (there is none, he says – well, no, it’s not a disease so how could there be?) and prophylaxis (‘cultivating a patriotic mindset early on from childhood’ which others might call indoctrination and which the Thai education has for generations been pursuing relentlessly and clearly unsuccessfully).

So what can be done to first expose and then vaporize the multiple frames of the Bangkok Post?

Time for a linguistics trick a la settlers vs immigrants.

Maybe the Bangkok Post should consider the headline ‘Army told to stop generals’ slurs’.  I think we’d all like to read that article.