In a world where I experience seemingly infinite choices, I’ve been coming to terms with how choice is a privilege.
I’m so struck by this lately, having the chance to travel in Northern Thailand. And I think, it might be a way to explore privilege that should get more airtime.
I’ll jump right into some facts to illustrate:
Wild birds are caught in Thailand, put in cages, and kept in yards so people can hear them sing. These birds do not have a choice about whether they can live in the trees or in a cage.
The Mlabri, a hunter/gatherer tribe in Northern Thailand, were moved to reservations by the Thai government about ten years ago.
They can no longer roam in the forest because there aren’t forests left to roam in.
Deforestation was the result of growing feed corn for livestock, to satisfy humanity’s increasing meat consumption. Because so few forests and animals are left, it was decided people would no longer be allowed to live there.
The Mlabri were not given a choice about this. We have heard firsthand how some of them wish they could be in the forest again.
We Know What’s Best!
I am heartbroken by both these scenarios. In the world I envision, neither of these things would be happening- all animals would have options for their lives.
But, since this is reality, I’ve been exploring why there are a lack of options. I think there is a power dynamic at play.
Here’s what I’ve come up with:
I do not have to “tune-in” to the songbirds in cages to have the opinion that these wild birds would rather be free. I mean, it’s a bird, with wings. It wants to fly. Cages prevent flight.
But someone just as well educated as I, with white, American privilege, could argue that it’s a better life for the birds to be in cages.
“They get food and water delivered to them, and they don’t have to worry about neighborhood cats or other predators. It’s possible they could have longer life spans. Living longer is a measure of quality of life, so it’s better!
The birds may not choose this, if given the chance to leave the cage. But, we should choose it for them because we can see the big picture. And they cannot understand.”
I hear about the Mlabri tribe and I wonder- where would they rather be? Do they wish they had land- vast expanses of untouched forest to gather fruit and potatoes and hunt small prey? Do they prefer life as it was?
I like to think that they would rather have access to forest. It’s easy to romanticize.
On the other hand, there is the privilege of not having to wonder. There is the privilege of believing you know what’s best.
I imagine government decision-makers feeling that they can see the big picture, so they know what’s best for the Mlabri: education, healthcare, Buddhism, and speaking Thai.
I get the sense that development must occur by the Mlabri leaving most parts of their cultural heritage in the dust. I’m basing this on what I’ve learned about the situation so far. I believe cultural genocide isn’t being named, but in short, that’s what’s happening.
At the same time, I honor the difference of experiences between myself and those who have made decisions for the Mlabri.
They probably don’t have the privilege of the perspective I have, seeing firsthand the devastating effects of cultural genocide, Indigenous American reservations, and efforts to protect land for “uncontacted” tribes.
I guarantee they didn’t have a study abroad experience with the Mexico Solidarity Network, living with the Zapatistas and learning about indigenous social justice struggles for autonomy. (Yes, it was an awesome experience for which I am grateful!)
Here I come to the conundrum.
Given my experiences, do I know what’s best for the Mlabri? Because, I have access to a bigger picture? In other words, I have the privilege to access the bigger picture… so then do I know how to make better decisions?
Communication is Key
Do I know what’s best? It’s a difficult question to ask oneself. And, I would answer up front that no, I do not know. These are huge, dynamic, confusing issues- both the situations of the caged songbirds and the Mlabri reservations.
However, I believe more clarity can be gained through communication.
With my privilege comes the choice to communicate.
I could decide I know what’s best. Or, I could choose to ask a ton of questions, to listen, to respond with ideas that generate more questions, and on.
I could ask the caged birds things like, “Do you enjoy your life now better than before?” “Would you like to be back in the treetops?” “Or, do you feel connected to the humans here, are you teaching them lessons, is it important for you to stay?”
I could listen, trusting that each little songbird is having a unique experience. I can hear their voice, and be quiet for as long as they choose to share what they feel.
I could respond, after a long period of silence. I could respond, after absorbing what they shared, and letting it dispel my previous assumptions.
Then, I could trust, after experiencing communication with many birds, that there might be some overarching conclusions I could draw- such as my feelings in general about zoos.
What about the Mlabri?
I believe the same model applies, and it’s the best practice of conscious researchers and NGOs. Have conversations. Ask questions. Take many people’s opinions and draw the best conclusion you can, having full awareness of your privilege.
We are striving to practice this as we learn with the Mlabri, exploring ideas that might lead to something shifting in their quality of life. We track our previous assumptions and honor when they aren’t actually aligned with what folks tell us.
We aren’t perfect, but we are trying to honor our privilege in the situation.
Living with Privilege
It makes us both feel ill that we can leave the depressed-feeling Mlabri village and go back to the guesthouse, hot showers, and nourishing meals. We have the choice to jump on a plane back to the US any time.
Once home, I can choose to spend time with girlfriends discussing our womanly desires and life purposes. I can go for a long weekend at the beach and choose to sail or read a book in the sand.
I can take naps and not have to worry about whether we have enough food when I wake up. Or, I could choose to worry about not having enough food- what to make for dinner! I have the choice to buy organic leafy greens, or 38 different varieties of trail mix.
For goodness sakes. It’s enough to make us just want to stay with the Mlabri some days, limiting the options a bit.
Then reality sets in, and I know in my core that because of my privilege I can make more of an impact by continuing on this path- the path of connectivity, of sharing ideas, of intellectualizing about best practices.
So I write on this blog, knowing the right people will read it.
And I hope we can all listen a bit longer, and hold sacred silence a bit more.
I hope this for myself, that I can become an animal that other animals will trust to listen.