Published in The Bangkok Post

I’m an incredibly opinionated person. Whether politics, religion, psychology, education or virtually any other topic, you can be almost certain that I’ll have a view that I’m willing to defend. Debate and dialogue play a critical role in my personal and professional life, from my time as a debate coach to my interactions with friends and colleagues. Yet as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become much more aware that however much knowledge I may gain, I could always be wrong–as could we all. Watching the debate rage over the coup in my adopted home of Thailand, never have I been more reminded of our collective fallibility.

The well-known expatriate blogger Richard Barrow posted a Tweet in the fourth day after the military coup, asking “Why are so many expats political extremists on both sides of the spectrum? Can’t we just let the Thais sort out their own future?” The responses, ranging from glowing support to scathing sarcasm, ironically reflected the question itself: why do we adopt such extreme views?

As humans we naturally gravitate toward polarized positions, seeking affirmation of our own views through the rejection of others. But how is that in any way conducive to actually overcoming social and political issues? Few would argue that Thailand–and many more countries around the world–desperately need reform, changes that will benefit the majority rather than an elite few. But actually working together to bring about that transformation continually eludes us, leading to a cycle of finger-pointing.

Within the context of education, research indicates that learning is best accomplished through questioning, self-reflection and collaboration with others. A far cry from the static delivery of knowledge, passed from the authoritative teacher to students, learning demands fallibility. And just as our children learn most effectively when freed to explore and engage positively with their peers, we too as adults accomplish the most not by imposing our view upon others, but through working together with those of different background and opinions. As an administrator I had to learn firsthand that staff I supervised did not always need my direct guidance; they needed someone who would listen and question as they themselves worked out the best way to solve issues.

The cycle we have witnessed in Thailand shares little in common with modern education. It too often reflects the opposite, a battle of words and opinions in which no ground can be given and no compromise can be reached. Leaders refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of any other views and, in the process, implicitly lay claim to the absolute truth. Their example leads to polarization, frustration and anger. The reality is that both sides have done good, and both have faults. When neither can accept that, it should come as little surprise that the military finally chose to intervene.

As a foreigner in Thailand, I don’t believe I will accomplish anything by utterly condemning either political party or the actions of the Thai military. Doing so merely fuels the root of the conflict. This is the message I took from Richard Barrow’s words–a plea to end the cycle and let real healing begin.

Do I agree with the coup? No. But neither do I believe continuing to absolutely condemn any one group or individual–whether Prayuth, Thaksin, Suthep or anyone else–will initiate any positive change. There’s nothing wrong with having an opinion, but demonizing others for not sharing it accomplishes nothing. If we truly wish to convince others to consider our perspectives, and to learn from mistakes, we must lead by example, with humility and a simple willingness to listen. Thailand will overcome its problems, and we can best support it by engaging in humble dialogue with one another, ready to listen, empathize and accept. That is true leadership.

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