Freedom of Expression: A Stepping Stone into Larger Cultural Lessons
by Amanda Sturgill
When I was fortunate enough to be an exchange professor in Thailand, I had to learn about some customs, traditions and laws that were new to me. Things like not showing the bottom of your feet to people were practices to be mindful of in order to not be rude. Other things like Lèse Majesté were things to keep in mind in order to not break the law and possibly go to jail. Lèse Majesté basically is a law that makes it a crime to insult the monarchy. So as I removed a copy of the Anna and King DVD from my packing list (I brought several films and magazines as touchpoints for discussing our different cultures with the Thai students), I was glad to have known about this in advance.These kinds of differences affect students learning globally in two ways.
The first, practical way is that cultural dos and don’ts are useful for students to learn so that they don’t make gaffes or even end up in prison. When I attended the Forum on Education Abroad this year, one of the main speakers was from the Scholars at Risk Network, which advocates for scholars who are in peril or jail because of their work. The peril is real. One case I found particularly interesting was the jailing of student protesters in Thailand who participated in non-violent, pro-democracy protests. The students were charged with sedition for doing something that students from other countries might find a normal way of doing things.
The second way these differences affect students learning globally is by enabling students to reflect on how different cultures define freedom of expression. This analysis can be a great lesson to take from a global learning experience. While I would not show Anna and the King in Thailand, it could be a great preparatory activity if I were taking students there. We could then read the comments on this BBC story about the ban, which express a variety of different opinions from commenters from different nations and cultures. Items for consideration could include whether free expression is a universal good, or is culturally and/or situationally determined. Students could discuss why different groups might have different views on the appropriateness of free expression, and what those views could tell you about the people that hold them, using a perspective-taking approach. Finally, this specific example of a cross-cultural difference could be used to consider how students might handle, are handling, or did handle encountering that difference directly. How then, might this affect the student’s actions and attitudes when back on campus, or as an alumnus/a?
In this way, the larger lessons in global learning can be addressed on campus, integrating the global learning more with the entire college experience. This kind of integration is what participants in the Center for Engaged Learning’s seminar on Higher-Impact Study Abroad and Off-Campus Domestic Study are addressing with their research projects.
Amanda Sturgill (@) is Associate Professor of Communications at Elon University. She has professional experience in newspaper journalism and marketing communications, and her research focuses on the intersection of education and community-based work, the relationship of region and media, and on new technologies and the news. Amanda routinely teaches study abroad courses and has published on methods of reflection in service-learning abroad.