Let’s start with a personal confession:
Last year I decided to move to Koh Phangan, Thailand. I could have decided to live almost anywhere in the world, and I chose Koh Phangan.
The island has, in recent years, become synonymous with the monthly Full Moon Party held in Haad Rin.
The press reporting of this event is increasing, and is increasingly negative, especially following the tragic shooting of Stephen Ashton in the early hours of 1st Jan 2013.
A sample of ‘Phangan in the news’ press reports:
The media version of Koh Phangan seems to be characterised by certain commonalities:
1. Koh Phangan & The Full Moon Party are one, and the same, thing.
2. The Full Moon Party is no longer the happy, hippy idyll of the past
3. The current generation of partiers (Gen Y) are more degenerate than previous generations
4. The parties are a huge safety hazard, which are not regulated due to a pursuit of profit / exploitation of people.
What I write here is not to dismiss the tragedy that befell Mr Ashton, or others at the FMP. I am in no way minimising the problems, and difficulties, that people have faced at the party. However, I do hope to bring some proportion to the view of the party, and maybe dig a little deeper into the reports above, and many other reports like them. We may not like the images of lots of people getting drunk, but the ways in which we respond to the images (or to the party, and it’s associated problems) tells us a lot about social-psychology.
I am 42 years old, I first went to the FMP 12 years ago, and have attended maybe 8 times over the last 12 years. I have enjoyed some good parties, and have also been bored with the domination of psy/trance at other parties. Generally, I live by the notion that “most people find what they bring” in terms of their enjoyment at The Full Moon Party. Whilst undoubtedly there are problems at every FMP I am amazed that there are so few problems. When we consider what the FMP actually is in terms of risk behaviours, the actual problems in comparison to the potential problems are minimal. You may wish to consider the problems arising from people partying in a provincial town / city in the UK every Friday or Saturday night as a point of comparison – the potential risks are far higher at the FMP.
Folk Devils / Moral Scare
When I read the newspaper reports of Koh Phangan, and more specifically the FMP, I believe that journalists are appealing to people’s unconscious fear of a lack of control, and fear of a lack of imposition of authority. I think that many people need a fear of an unknown other, it gives them a sense of security in their own world. It’s the socio-psychological equivalent of feeling snug and warm when we’re tucked up safely in bed when there is a winter storm raging outside. Further, many people feel secure when they are directed as to the right course of action by someone in authority (yes, people often quite like being told what to do). We often hear people refer to a reified “They” ? (e.g. “why don’t they do something about it” or “they just don’t care about us”). Psychologists identify this as a type of conformity, and they call it Informational Social Influence – following a course of action because we are unsure as to the right course of action. A lack of knowledge as to the correct way to act causes cognitive dissonance, a unpleasant, unsettled feeling of imbalance.
The unconscious fear of a lack of control is a very strong psychological motivator, we see it in many areas of social life and behaviour. Most relevant to The Full Moon Party is Stanley Cohen’s classic 1972 work on Folk Devils and Moral Panic. The Folk Devils (those perceived to pose a threat to social order) are the people who enjoy dancing on a beach in luminous body paint, and the moral panic that we have created is that FMP’ers “don’t know what’s good for them“. Either, we are too young, or too stupid, to fully understand the risks that we face, which are posed by a set of unknown threats. Underlying such a socio-psychological process of exogenous definition are the assumptions that moral authority rests with the definer (who may have never even been to a FMP, and may not enjoying dancing to music), and that external authority is an inherent good (people should be told what to do, it is inherently good to be told what to do).
We see Moral Panics and Folk Devils throughout history and across cultures. E.G:
- Witch Hunts in medieval Europe and 17th Century America.
- Mods & Rockers in 1960’s UK.
- Violent Media and Computer Games in late 20th Century N.America / Europe.
- Political dissidents in many societies around the world.
the list is endless…,
The next thing that I see in the reports of the FMP is typical, and orthodox, generational jealousy and pontification. Every generation describes the following generation as less cultured and developed than they were at the same age. Older people often look down on younger people and decry the lack of values, lack of awareness, concern for others etc. In such dismissals there is often a focus on the licentious and sexualised behaviours of the following generation. I think that such criticism comes from a jealousy of the hedonistic joys of youth, and a fear of those who criticise that they will never experience the emotional and sexual excitement of late teenage / young adult years. How exciting do slippers & ovaltine look in comparison to late night beach parties under tropical stars ? Your Mileage May Vary, but you get my drift.
There is something essentially psychoanalytic in such generational criticisms. The development of the libido in the young, the regret of the passing of discovery in the old, the resort to thanatos as a defence mechanism of the old…, remember I write this as a relatively old 42 yr old !
Development / Progress
Then I read that the FMP is “not what it used to be“. Apparently, it used to be a gentle, gathering of hippies on a beach, strumming their guitars and living a utopian ideal of harmony. And, maybe it was exactly that, however maybe it’s still that for many FMP’ers who attend (remember – “you find what you bring“). However, were the moral authority really in favour of the hippy ideal FMP when it happened (back in the late 1980’s) ? Were they all in favour of the use of marijuana (and other drugs) ? were they saying “wow, I’m glad that those hippies on that beach are using Psilocybin rather than drinking alcohol out of buckets” ?
I think not.
I suspect that the “it’s not what it used to be” criticism comes from a mixture of moral panic, generational jealousy and developed world poverty tourism. I have already explained the first two of these, so let me focus on developed world poverty tourism.
The cry that “Thailand has been destroyed” is often heard in these parts, further – we often hear how apparently formerly unspoilt parts of the world have been spoilt by mass tourism / MacDonalds / Buckets on the Beach / Cheap Airfares etc. There are several worrying assumptions, and failed analyses here:
1. Treating the developing world as a poverty theme park for the satisfaction of the rich visitor. Of course back in W.Europe / N.America most people enjoy the comforts of infrastructure, but when visiting the developing world they delight (for a short period of time) in the lack of infrastructure. However, the people that live there would probably much benefit from the jobs and services brought about by infrastructure. Their ‘unspoilt’ world, is also often an economically disadvantaged world.
2. Do people really want to stay in a place without any infrastructure ? Some probably would enjoy living without electricity or running water, however most people would find it hard. People, in the developing world, who do live without running water, or electricity, would probably prefer to have these services. Most people from the developing world have a far higher ‘comfort point’ than they’d like to believe – if this were not the case then the travel & hotel industry would look very different.
3. Do not make the mistake of generalising the worst excesses of tourist overdevelopment to the whole country. Haad Rin Nok, Chaweng Beach, Pattaya and Patong are in no way typical of Thailand. The Vegas strip is not typical of the US, nor Blackpool seafront typical of UK…,
Koh Phangan still has many many undeveloped, natural areas. It has many deserted beaches, uncut forests, mountain trails and quiet spaces – you just have to leave Haad Rin Nok to find them. In fact the very reason that I chose to move to KPG is that the island is quiet, undisturbed and has very beautiful landscapes. Koh Phangan is far, far, more than the FMP and Haad Rin.
Personal Freedom / Liberty
My final concern about the news reports of the FMP is one of personal freedom, and liberty. I’m not sure what social development looks like, but I imagine that it’s some sort of a state in which people enjoy greater and greater personal freedoms with minimal infringement upon the freedoms of others. Is it possible for the Moral Authorities to argue for liberal pluralism in the Middle East, but then not celebrate the same freedoms on a beach in the Far East ?
Alexis de Tocqueville argued that the highest form of social development was one in which freedom and equality become integrated and mutually inclusive. He also thought that hindered, or distorted, social development would lead to suspicion of the new and intolerance of the different.
“I cannot help fearing that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as a first step toward revolution, and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all.”
Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville, Book Three, Chapter XXI
If you’re going to the next FMP enjoy yourself, and if you don’t want to go – enjoy your freedom to choose !