by Tom HastingsFebruary 13, 2023
U.S. correspondents in Vietnam were told a day ahead of time where to be to witness "something important."
Then, on June 11, 1963, Thích Quảng Đức, a Vietnamese 65-year-old Buddhist Mahayana monk, arrived in a car along with two other monks at the intersection of Phan Đình Phùng Boulevard and Lê Văn Duyệt Street a few blocks southwest of the Presidential Palace in Saigon. One monk carried a cushion into the intersection and placed it on the pavement. While Thích Quảng Đức proceeded to walk to the cushion and sit down in a lotus position, another monk carried over a five-gallon can of gasoline and poured it on Thích Quảng Đức, who calmly lit himself on fire.
Journalists Malcolm Browne and David Halberstam were among reporters at the scene, and Browne's photo of the self-immolation went viral, around the world—an all-the-more impressive feat considering this was decades before Internet and social media were invented.
The U.S. government was effectively the patron of the government of South Vietnam and had been trying to justify its presence there. When this self-sacrifice was recorded and began generating reaction everywhere, a more generalized call for regime change arose. Ngô Đình Diệm was the Catholic leader of South Vietnam—where the Buddhist minority was subject to religious oppression—and it didn't take the John Kennedy administration long to back a coup overthrowing Diệm. Kennedy had said of the Malcolm Browne image, "No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one."
While self-immolation is not universally regarded as either nonviolent or violent, it was enormously effective at revealing to the entire world the South Vietnamese government’s repression of religious minorities. Because Thích Quảng Đức's final words were calm and were a respectful and dignified request—contrasted immediately with his fiery death—his action was received by world citizenry with great empathy, regardless of observers’ cultural differences.
Later, Thich Nhat Hanh would tell westerners that, while they perceived Thích Quảng Đức's act as his end, Buddhists saw it as a transition.
When, two years later, three Americans, in separate actions, did the same thing in protest of the U.S. war in Vietnam, they were generally regarded as mentally ill by the U.S. public and their actions arguably had little impact on other Americans, even including those in the anti-war or peace movement. Why?
Context and cultural competence are crucial factors in how we decide to design our civil resistance actions and are nearly dispositive elements in the struggle for relevance and sympathy. An action done in one country at one time will strike the public in its unique way and, at times, as with the self-immolations in the 1960s in Vietnam and then the United States, an identical action will have very different impacts on the public and therefore on recruitment into the movement.
Some would call this a cynical outlook meant to encourage civil resistance campaigns to engage in showboat attempts to manipulate the media and thus average folks. This happens, of course, and a campaign should guard against it or be subject to valid critique.
However, it is also true that most campaigns are engaged in a fight to frame social or political issues—to alter the prism through which the public views such issues, the defenders of the status quo, and the campaign's call for change. Ethical and culturally competent actions that are done authentically—without any appearance of "camera-hogging" by individuals seemingly hungry for personal notoriety—can generate a great deal of sympathy, especially when sequenced with other actions that spotlight different movement members doing different but equally engaging and sympathetic acts.
Civil resistance scholar Hardy Merriman reminds campaigners to be culturally relevant and "harness the national narrative." Reframing civil resistance as bolstering the best in what citizens in any nation are told their nation embodies tends to reduce accusations of unpatriotic beliefs. It also helps draw in those on the spectrum of allies who might now have a higher degree of comfort—or at least relative safety—in promoting the campaign. Lastly, this can help reduce and even potentially transform toxic nationalism practiced by autocrats into a more genuine, more uplifting set of values and aspirations.
This is what we saw women do in Liberia, what women did in Chile dancing alone to the national song, what the Danes did singing national songs in parks on Sundays while under Nazi occupation, what the Estonians did with their national songs so powerful and so positive that their regime change became known as the Singing Revolution, and clearly what the Filipina/os did in 1986 by interposing between factions of the army that were about to launch a civil war. Crafting the actions and messages to be so culturally sensitive that most would find it hard to disagree is key.
In the realm of marketing, some aim increasingly at niches, shaping their rhetoric to resonate with one slice of the population and adjusting their message for other audiences. This may have been somewhat easier when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would deliver a sermon in a church in the Mississippi delta on a Sunday morning and a scholarly disquisition to a northern university board of trustees Monday evening. We are in a new era of both viral mistakes and hot microphones, but also siloed messaging to increasingly radicalized true believers.
It was a fallacy that a handful of American activists fell for, that the immolations by Buddhist religious figures in Vietnam could be emulated with positive effect by sincere Americans in the United States. When Roger LaPorte, Alice Herz, and a handful of others self-immolated, the vast majority of Americans looked away in horror at what they regarded as pure insanity. As valiant as the U.S. activists may have been, all they did was brand themselves and even the anti-war movement as disturbed, irrational. It is tragic, but what they did was sadly culturally incompetent.
In today’s world cultures, campaigns are perhaps more than ever tied to their messaging, but let us never forget that actions will always speak louder than words. Make the words resonate with your fellow citizens and make them solidly authentic by your consistent actions.