‘Violated Specialness’: Western Political Representations of Tibet
By: Robert Barnett
An interpretation and a guide to the article and the Tibetan Question
It is interesting how an individual, having experienced the falsity of the stereotypical view of a culture, often continues to act as if the stereotype itself is beyond reproach and it is their own personal experience which is an exception, rather than a proof against, the rule. After reading Robert Barnett’s article of the above name in which he analyzes the political views of Tibet held by many individuals who have never been to Tibet, I formulated a set of questions which I thought would be interesting to pose, should the reader feel the need to question his or her own views on the place, its people, and the perspective the reader currently holds on these subjects. Barnett is a shrewd interpreter of the skewed perspectives most of us as westerners tend to hold as part of our mystification of the Tibetan land and people, perspectives which are ingrained within our minds due to the misrepresentations and romanticizing of the people which is only partly based on fact and largely based on a number of political, social, and economic reasons, misrepresentations which come from sources as varied as movies – both new and old; books – from the first paper back to recent Chinese publications intent on proclaiming the righteousness of the ‘liberation’ of Tibetans from their culture; individuals – from the mouths of individuals of every possible background who have been to or are from Tibet and thus believe themselves resources on the subject; to the words of the Dalai Lama, the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, United States senators, and other celebrities who we believe, due to their fame and cultural background, are either credible or culpable concerning the issue of Tibet. After commenting on the quality of Barnett’s article and taking note of the questions it lead me to pose to myself, I must also mention the fact that despite the sincerity with which Barnett claims that there is nothing special about the Tibetan people and their land, that by calling them special we take away their right to prove this of themselves and thus objectify them, I would argue against this generalization, while taking the opportunity of making one of my own: the Tibetan people I encountered while living in the village of Wutun, in Tongren county, Qinghai province, were the most generous, compassionate, devoted, and generally happy people I have ever met – with the possible exception of Moroccan youth – in all my travels across much of the breadth of the world. I never wanted for anything, I was asked into the homes of the people I met, offered everything they had, asked to exchange songs and dance their way then mine and told about the stories and histories of the individuals and the community which I was in, all without any kind of expectation on their part for something from me in return. No other place I have been in or people I have met will invite complete strangers to spend the night at their homes. As an American with an isolationist, xenophobic, puritanical background ingrained deep within some part of my persona’s foundation, these things made me truly rejoice in the knowledge that, somewhere in this world, at least, there are people who still know how to welcome life with open arms, even in the face of absolute deprivation. Are the Tibetans special? I hope my opinion is clear enough on that.
That being said, Barnett’s article does much to alleviate the sorely lacking realm of realistic thought about Tibet as more than either an intangible Shangri-la full of enlightened spirituality, or a backwards frontier in desperate need of no-holds-barred modernization – the two dominate views of the land currently holding sway over the world’s interpretation of the place. This leads me to the questions I was led to ask concerning the Barnett’s article.
1) By encouraging the mystical views the west holds of Tibet, Do Tibetans perpetuate their roles as trapped within the confines of these constructed figments of our imagination and thus limit our understanding and thus the survival of their culture?
2) What are the functions and effects of such misrepresentations and how much do they have to do with the economic, cultural, and political missions the exiled theocracy hold as their most important goals?
3) If the reader has ever been to Tibet, how skewed has your view proven to be? If very different, what aspects of your experience there changed your mind?
4) What are the social, economic, and political repercussions of such views? Do you believe these views were fostered with these intended repercussions in mind?
5) As collective imaginings which are culture-specific, is it possible to believe in the triumph of one view of the Tibet question over the other – since the Chinese perspective leads to the virtual extinction of the Tibetan way of life and the Western view can never be the way life will be in the future, being a representation of a romanticized past? How could one entire culture be convinced to drop their view of the issue and accept the other invented perspective?
6) What affect will the passage of time have on the different segments of the Tibetan population, including those in India, and their own collective representations of what occurred in the past?
7) Has the practically non-violent approach of the Tibetans towards the invasion of their land and the slow disintegration of their culture led to the propagation of their role as supporting actors in their own story? Have the Tibetans become objectified because the stories written of them base the main role on the aggressive and the defensive, i.e. where the action is, rather than what the Tibetans base their own stories on, i.e. spiritual rather than temporal power?
8) Is the sense of helplessness fostered in the west concerning the Tibetan people in the face of an aggressor analogous to the rape of women – calling them a helpless victim and thus disempowering and perpetuating the process?
9) When calling the Tibetans special, do we begin to see them as an endangered species in a threatened habitat, something that needs protection and thus something which cannot protect itself?
10) Why is the specialness associated with Tibetans always seen within the framework of helplessness? Why does it take violence to prove a people’s strength, when it is far more difficult, takes far more courage, to react against violence with non-violence? Did Gandhi’s lesson penetrate so shallowly?
11) Since it is the people of the West who are responding to the Tibetan movement, rather than the politicians of the West, is their any credibility to the claims that the movement is part of a neo-imperialist plot of the West to seize or control political power in the region?
12) In what ways did the economic revolution of China in the past few decades affect the Western government’s official proclamations on the Tibetan issue? In what way is loss of trade a greater threat than a nuclear bomb?
13) Robert Thurman described Tibetans as ‘The baby seals of the human rights movement.’ Do you believe there is a reason why societies have responded to the Tibetan issue more than to the numerous other human rights issues all over the world? Why is it that the people have responded, yet the governments have remained inactive? Is this an implication, in some sense, of the specialness Barnett denies the existence of?
14) Is there a point when representations have to be judged not by their ethical implications, but rather by the realistic benefits they bring to their constituents?
15) The Tibetan issue can be seen as either a political debate, or a social debate carrying inherent within it the hope of political change; which is it?
16) The Marxist doctrines which inspired the forced liberation of the Tibetans also carried with them the facets of Communism that would, by their very nature, destroy the religious state within which the Tibetans lived; was it, then, an liberation from something tangible in exchange for an imprisonment from something spiritual? Which is more important to Tibetans?
17) How does the definition of ‘progress’ differ between Tibetans and Chinese? Is one spiritual and one material? Can Buddhism be combined with a hatred of religion forcefully and be called good intention?
18) In the early nineties, the ‘misrepresentation representation’ became the popular perspective offered up by journalists writing about Tibet, claiming that there was nothing, in fact, special about Tibet; forty years after the invasion, can this be seen with any kind of credibility?
19) How does capitalism displace, encourage, superficialize religion in regard to Tibet?
20) The differences in literary and political perspectives regarding Tibet share a common aspect in that they are all facets of a collective misrepresentation of the culture based on a variety of misunderstandings that have stemmed from and been perpetuated by outside socio-political forces and which must be at least partially discarded if the true story is to be understood; is this a possibility for anyone, Tibetans included?
The Barnett article led me to ask myself a number of important questions concerning the way I myself, with my cultural frame of reference as a foundation and my set of sub-cultural specifics as a limiting window, viewed the situation in Tibet as it began up to how it exists today. The above questions are valuable tools for anyone wishing to understand the necessarily ingrained limitations in understanding the Tibetan reality and perhaps, with enough research and experience, helpful tools in finding some personal understanding of the issue which is beyond viable contradiction.