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Got Myself into Hot Water Again
Robbie Barnett

I got myself into hot water again the other day. We were at a meeting at Harvard - about 10 Tibetans, four Chinese scholars and a few of us pale skins, arranged by the redoubtable lawyer Lobsang Sangay and his colleague, the sociologist Hu Xiaojiang, who once spent a year doing research in Lhasa. As the sessions wore on and the interventions became more heated, my mouth switched to overdrive, and was soon attracting public offers of physical violence from distinguished speakers belonging to the exile community. This was something of an achievement, I guess, since Tibetan leaders rather pride themselves on their pacifism. Luckily for me, they were too polite to carry through on the offers, and my jaw is still intact. But it was pretty clear I had gone too far, and I had to back down rapidly.

It was all about two innocent-looking words, “we” and “Tibetans”. I am one of those who thinks it’s childish when a Chinese leader declares that “the Chinese people are all happy”. So how many Chinese has that leader met, I wonder, and how did he (it’s always a he) measure their happiness? Did he use a sliderule to calibrate their smiles? Has he set a number of minutes per month a person can cry before he or she counts as unhappy? And how did he know their happiness was a result of his policies? This would be like you assuming that, because I am English, I am gentlemanly and polite, which sadly I am not. It seems to me about as intellectually honest as the Indian journalist three months ago who wrote that Tibetans no longer respected the Dalai Lama; he hadn’t seen photographs of the Dalai Lama during a visit to Tibet, and chose to overlook the fact that the display of such photographs is banned.

One of the Tibetan speakers the day that I went into verbal warp mode had been using a similar manoeuvre. He hadn’t repeated that old favourite of the exiles the claim that all Tibetans were happy before the Chinese came. That one has rather gone out of fashion in the last few years; it couldn’t be measured, it could be easily disproved, and it shifted the debate from whether Tibetans should run their own lives to whether they should feel good. He had another idea - that Tibetans believe in universal enlightenment, and want to help all others achieve nirvana too. I certainly think the Dalai Lama believes in that, and carries it out as best one can, and I know some Tibetans who emulate that too. But it’s unlikely to be true of all of them. It would be like saying that all Tibetans are Buddhists, or all Tibetans are religious, or all Tibetans are nice, or smart, or beautiful. Well, a lot are all of those, as far as I can tell. But I haven’t met all of them, and nor has anyone else, let alone checked their commitment to universal enlightenment. So it’s pretty hard to substantiate. And because it is basically impossible, it makes the speakers sound stupid.

So my worry about this kind of talk isn’t about being picky about statistics, which really don’t matter all that much. It isn’t even because making blanket statements is the same as what academics call essentializing, which is what result in racism. My concern is strategic. It’s my guess that, if Tibetan leaders say such things, serious people in their audiences will laugh at them. These listeners might not do it openly, and they might not even be aware of it themselves. They will put their brains into sleep mode and think, how quaint, how exotic, how positively charming these people are. But, if these listeners have the power to influence real-world decisions, they would be unlikely, in my guess, to think “I must make sure that the political process of running Tibet is handed over to those people” because they won’t be inclined to think of them as serious, pragmatic types who are likely to be good at running countries. They’ll think of them, understandably, as dreamers. That’s a shame, because some Tibetan leaders are serious, pragmatic, super-smart types and likely to be better than most at running their own country. And my guess is that this may be a reason why Tibetans don’t always get support from hard-thinking, more influential people in other communities - China, to name but one. They tend instead to attract the type that I call softies, like me, who, frankly, don’t count for much. So I just think that blanket talk about “we Tibetans” is not a smart manoeuvre.

I take the same view of saying that Tibetans are non-violent. This is usually presented as if Tibetans have become religiously or constitutionally incapable of doing nasty things. But the reason non-violence is worth other politicians in the world taking note of is not its moral sententiousness, which politicians don’t give a damn for, but because it is an intelligent political choice something certain Tibetans have decided to do sometimes for coherent reasons, despite their option and wish to go out and beat up others, a point which was eloquently made at the meeting by Sonam Tenzin, the former archaeologist from Lhasa. Tibetans like him describing the exercise of an intelligent choice, because they can see it produces better results, sound and look intelligent; Tibetans being innately peaceful only look charming and politically irrelevant. Which is another reason why I think the Dalai Lama is so impressive for never saying that he rules out violence or is incapable of doing it? As he always says, he chooses not to use it in particular cases because he has considered the long-term consequences and rates it as ineffective. That’s a smart move when you are facing the world’s largest army, not a retreat into spiritual vacuity.

What really got me into trouble at the meeting, though, was my overcharged response o a more specific claim — that Tibetans had always supported the Dalai Lamas over the 400 years or so since they became the effective rulers of Tibet. Actually it’s probably true that there has been more support for him than most rulers of most countries, or at least that seems to be the case now. But it isn’t the case that there has been no opposition. We know this from the aggressive but legitimate activities of those westerners who followed Kelsang Gyatso in the campaign on the Shugden issue in the 1990s, from the murders in Dharamsala in 1997, from the anonymous “Mongoose Canine” circular in 1995, the occasional diatribes from Shamar Rinpoche in the Hindustan Times, the disputes with the 13 settlements in the 1960s, and so on. We can also deduce that there was opposition in earlier history because of the fact that several of the Dalai Lamas, about a third, never lived beyond their teens and are widely considered to have been murdered: most historians guess that the elite around the Regents at the time were not quite as non-violent as some of their successors aim to be. There were at least two attempts to kill the 13th, if I remember rightly. Lobsang Sangay has pointed out to me that some of these coups might have been stirred up by Ambans, but even so, it means that nasty business was prevalent around the Dalai Lamas. And that had to indicate opposition of some sort.

Now I happen to think that opposition is a healthy thing in a democratic society, and an inevitable thing in other types of society and that healthy political process is all about admitting difference and finding ways to include it. Denying its existence, even as a flourish of rhetoric, doesn’t seem smart to me because it makes the leaders who use such tropes look like they regard their Tibetan constituents as cuddly teddy bears who all think the same. And it makes those leaders look to outsiders as if they don’t have or wish to deal with serious issues or negotiate difficult compromises, neither of which is true. It also has distinct, presumably unintended, resonances with totalitarian rhetoric.

As it happens, I drastically overstated my case at the Harvard meeting and had to beat a full retreat with my tail between my legs. But still, I think the general point is worth airing: difference among peoples is better admitted because that suggest that ways exist for it to be discussed and to be included, and because dealing with difference looks to others like evidence of skilful political ability. So, while I am being simmered in hot water, I propose a toast to difference, variety and an end to blanket statements. Now, like all Englishmen, I am going home to keep quiet, drink tea, eat fish and chips, and be like the polite gentleman I really ought to be...