By the Editorial Board of The Tibetan Political Review
Carl von Clausewitz, the great Prussian military theorist, once described war as the continuation of politics by other means. If the Tibetan experiment with democracy is to succeed, this maxim must be disavowed.
In this regard, the editors of The Tibetan Political Review (TPR) are troubled by the personal attacks emerging in the 2011 Tibetan election. By personal attacks, we mean unfounded criticism of a person rather than debate of their ideas. While passion is important, it should be tempered by the recognition that all Tibetans are members of the same polity, the same community. Unfortunately, emotions have a way of running away unless they are consciously reined in.
Demagogues and “Elitist Relics”
Personal attacks may be inevitable with free speech. However, we believe they are damaging to our evolving Tibetan democracy. We also believe that candidates have a special duty to disavow such negativity. This is because, with His Holiness as the head of state, anyone seeking to lead the Tibetan government should do so ethically. Unfortunately, this has not always happened.
Perhaps the personal attack most damaging to democracy has been made by the manager of the unofficial Lobsang Sangay campaign website. (We are unable to determine whether or not this site operates under Sangay’s direction.) This individual recently published an article attacking unnamed “elitist relics” whose “inheritance” gave them education and privileged positions that they allegedly want to protect from “common Tibetans."
The web manager does not attempt to refute -- or even describe -- the arguments he believes these “elitists” make about his candidate, although he claims they are “off the radar of actual facts.” Rather, he insinuates that these unnamed "elitist relics" simply cannot stand “common Tibetans” gaining power. We hope he is not serious.
This is the path of the demagogue, not the democrat. The demagogue seeks to manipulate popular emotions; seeks to delegitimize an entire group of people, to deny the validity of their beliefs, and to demonize them as lacking intellectual and moral standing. The demagogue thus tries to paint opponents as not just wrong but as a minority deserving of attack. Joseph Stalin attacked his “enemies of the revolution,” and today the Chinese government labels Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo as “extreme and arrogant."
This is far easier than defending an actual policy platform, and generates a sense of “us versus them” that probably taps into a subconscious human fear going back tens of thousands of years. This may win an election in the short term, but at far too high a price. The price, of course, is that after an election victory gained through emotional manipulation, the society is left split and embittered.
We commend Sangay for issuing a statement on the unofficial Sangay campaign website requesting his supporters to “set a high standard by running a positive… campaign.” He should go one step further and publicly disavow himself from the website manager’s statements. Unless Sangay publicly censures the web manager, the inference will be that he tacitly endorses demagoguery carried out for his benefit. To be clear, we do not believe this to be true.
Sangay should also publicly confirm whether the unofficial Sangay campaign website is indeed independent of his campaign. If the website is not independent, then Sangay still must have been unaware of what his web manager was about to publish (which would not commend the Sangay campaign’s leadership, organization, and discipline, but at least leaves Sangay blameless for this demagoguery).
For the sake of civility and the overall interest of Tibetan democracy, all candidates should forcefully disavow demagoguery. The candidates should certainly debate the issues vigorously, but it should be possible to do so without sullying Tibetan democracy through unfounded personal attacks. Indeed, it insults the voters for a candidate’s campaign to imply that they think voters will be swayed by negative tactics.
Balancing Free Speech with Civility
The manager of the unofficial Sangay website is not the only individual to make personal attacks; others who appear to be unaffiliated with a candidate’s campaign have also done so. Indeed, Sangay himself has been the target of such attacks. For example, there have been baseless charges that Sangay lied about traveling on his IC or paying his Green Book, that he confessed to wanting a Nobel Peace Prize, that he exaggerated his position at Harvard, that he obtained his Fulbright through favoritism, and that he is disliked by many Tibetans in his hometowns of Boston and Kalimpong. These charges are ridiculous, and those who repeat them without offering a shred of evidence should remember that spreading rumors is dikpa (bad karmic conduct).
Other personal attacks have repeated the “elitism” charge of the web manager we spoke of earlier. For example, a writer in a prominent Tibetan-language newspaper demanded a “change” while attacking others for being elitist or being from a particular family background. Ironically, President Obama is attacked by many Republicans for being “elitist,” although he grew up in a poor, single-parent household and overcame tremendous adversity to graduate from Columbia and Harvard. By that logic, Sangay is an elitist because he graduated from Harvard and leads a privileged life as a Harvard research fellow. (By pointing this out, we do not seek to single out Sangay, but rather seek to show how silly this entire “elitism” argument is.)
Also, our recent editorial, "Investigating Lobsang Sangay’s 'Obama of China' Statement," received several inflammatory comments. One Phayul comment entitled “WAR” -- which might have amused Clausewitz -- claimed that TPR is “just a tool for the privileged ones” and that “you people sold our country.” Of course, the TPR editors had yet to be born at the invasion of Tibet. If the reference is to the editors’ parents or grandparents, then this not only supports Mao’s belief that children should pay for the “sins” of the parents, but also shows a shaky grasp of Tibetan history and the many factors that led to the fall of our country.
These accusations do not bother the TPR editors personally, but we are concerned, again, that they harm Tibetan democracy. In a democracy, it should be possible to reasonably discuss the issues, and to disagree without being disagreeable. Our editorial simply reported on what Sangay said, drew some logical inferences, and posed some important questions to the candidate. We also formally invited Sangay to respond. It is hard to see what is objectionable, unless those commentators would prefer that their favored candidate not be critically examined at all.
For those commentators unaffiliated with a campaign, the value of free speech means that they perhaps do not have any particular obligation to maintain civility. On the other hand, they should be urged to do so for the sake of our evolving democratic system. They should remember that whoever wins the Kalon Tripa election, the whole Tibetan nation will lose if the election leaves our society split and embittered. We should all remember that what unites us is far greater than what separates us; on March 21, 2011, the day after Election Day, Tibetans will remain one nation.