Despite the dominance of commerce in the modern world, human relationships based on money are regularly derided, often for very good reasons. They seem inauthentic and morally empty. But the judgement about whether or not a relationship is based on money is often a very difficult one, and those who condemn such relationships often rely on superficial judgements rather than detailed understanding.
Thailand provides a good illustration of these complexities, and the hazards of gross simplification.
Thailand has a large number of Western men who have taken up residence there. A good number of these men have entered into relationships with Thai women. One popular stereotype about these relationships is that they are based on money. The stereotype runs something like this: Western men who find themselves unloved and unattractive in their own countries find it much easier to secure a partner in Thailand because of their relative affluence. Rich man, poor girl: a done deal. In the world of farang-Thai romance, so the stereotype goes, money talks. And it talks loud enough to make up for deficiencies in looks, talent or personality.
Those who peddle this stereotype could present plenty of data to back up their claim – gifts, financial transfers, property bought for the in-laws and a sudden rise in the Thai partner’s standard of living. Hardliners would argue that such relationships based only on money should be vigorously discouraged – perhaps even the courts should be called upon to dissolve Thai-farang unions where money transfers can be demonstrated.
Of course, the stereotype –while perhaps containing a grain of truth, like most stereotypes–is misleading, demeaning and grossly simplifying. Relationships are complex and multifaceted and there is no good reason to focus on only one element (money) in the multiple exchanges that take place between Western men and their Thai partners. The stereotype ignores the diversity, subtlety and mystery of human motivations.
It is an ugly stereotype that should be condemned.
There is another similar stereotype that is much more dangerous for Thailand’s future. That is the stereotype that holds that relationships between politicians and voters are motivated solely by money. In broad outline the stereotype is very similar: politicians lack the policy and personal charm to attract votes within the electorate, so they rely on their relative affluence to buy them. Purveyors of this version of the stereotype flesh it out with lurid tales of voters being plied with money and alcohol so they will surrender their electoral virtue. We are told by commentators that impoverished and morally vulnerable voters focus on only one thing when they encounter politicians: money. Not policy, charisma or skill, just hard cold cash.
One again, the complexity of human relationships and motivations is ignored. The commentators’ unhealthy obsession with monetary exchange excludes any consideration of the extent to which such exchange is embedded in a more multi-facetted relationship and subject to various systems of moral evaluation.
We all know that this second stereotype has been an important component in the assault on the electoral process that has occurred in Thailand since 2006. When rural people vote, it is because they have been bought. When they protest, it is because they have been bought. It is unclear to me what form of political participation would meet with official approval.
The promoters of the vote-buying stereotype seem determined to drive people to even more radical political action.