Thinking about the indifference of the other ESL teachers to the institutionalized hitting of children in Thai schools, I realized something truly frightening…
These were the same people who when we first met, told me with great sadness about the abused elephants of Thailand. They talked about how the elephants would be separated from their parents and forced to be in cages, and how they were hit by their human controllers and controlled through fear. How they would be scared and frightened but would have to perform anyway or they would be punished.
They even told me about their moral stance in action: how they avoided subsidizing the practice by boycotting the abusers. They told me that if only more people took the same stance, the whole industry of elephant abuse would collapse without customers willing to fork over their money for elephants that are caged and hit.
Yet these same people were completely oblivious to the pain of children. Children in their very own classrooms.
Children who were likewise abandoned by their parents and forced to spend their days in classrooms no better than cages. Classrooms in which they were hit and screamed at if they didn’t “perform” well enough on their homework and on tests, or if they didn’t obey the orders of their over-bearing, control-freak teachers.
They had no more choice to be in those classrooms than the elephants had a choice to be in those cages or taking photos with tourists riding their backs. And the violence, hatred, and anger with which I saw some Thai teachers abuse their students was as ferocious as that with which I’ve seen anyone abuse an animal.
There is one way in which the abuse of children was different in the above analogy: while the parents of the elephants were usually killed before the elephants were taken away from them, in the case of Thai children, their parents abandoned them to these schools of their own will.
In other words, I was dealing with people who had more empathy for animals than for children of their own species.
These teachers not only did nothing about the abuse, they actively supported it by telling me that the violence was necessary in order to “control” the class (through fear). They certainly never considered leaving the schools as a way to stop subsidizing the bad behavior – nor did they talk about how if more teachers joined in and boycotted the system, the system would have to change.
The hypocrisy is mind-boggling, and the reason is clear to me.
Why did the ESL teachers lack empathy for children?
Having empathy for animals is much easier. It doesn’t require one to undergo any serious self-knowledge or psychological work.
Having empathy for children is much harder, as it means digging up all of your own childhood traumas – memories of being hit yourself. And of those teachers I spoke to about this, of course all of them were.
It means digging up those memories and processing the associated feelings. It means empathizing with your own childhood. Until someone can feel empathy for themselves as a child and get angry at their abusers (their parents and sometimes siblings), they can hardly condemn the abuse of other children.
In fact, that would be incredibly scary and cause much anxiety. To condemn the abuse of another child would be to condemn abuse in principle, and that would lead to the realization that their own parents, the very people who should have protected them, instead attacked them. That realization, that their parents hit them not because they were bad children who needed to be controlled, but because their parents were bad, is monstrously painful, and yet with time tremendously liberating.
So yes, from a purely logical perspective, the double standard makes no sense, but once you factor in childhood trauma and the blind spot of normalization abused children develop towards the abuse of other children, it makes perfect, and tragic, sense.