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Protesters at the Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar, September 24, 2007.
Photo: Robert Coles. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Though my cover article on Myanmar in the January Travel & Leisure does not aspire to represent all the subtle politics of that land’s uneasy transition, it points toward the country’s partisan complexities. The Burmese writer and activist Dr. Ma Thida visited New York two weeks ago and I had the honor of interviewing her onstage. She said, “I always thought the problem was our government. But as we win new liberties, I see that decades of oppression have changed people’s minds and hearts. They don’t know how to live in a democratic society. We can elect a new government in a day, but it will take a generation to alter the population.”
Her evident frustration rang very true to many topics I study. Reforming attitudes toward disability, mental illness, gayness, and other stigmatized characteristics is also a generations-long process, though sometimes attention to such shifts seems to coalesce around an opportune instant. I thought of that as I joined IQ2 in November to debate the issue of physician aid in dying, inspired in part by Brittany Maynard’s courageous determination to fight for something in which she believed passionately. I hadn’t addressed the issue except in passing for some twenty years, and I was struck by how fresh and raw the emotions remain. The laws have begun to change, but prejudice is never diminished by anything quicker than erosion.
Sometimes my point of view is activist, but as a Professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia, I am drawn to elusive questions of bioethics, most recently in an essay about LGBTQ self-definition for the Hastings Center. The expedient arguments about our identities are quick and definitive, but here, as in Myanmar, they are not always the most true. Committing both to effecting social change and to being fully honest entails entering a state of permanent internal conflict.
Thank you for continuing to read what I write.