The political psychology of self-immolation

A simple act of protest that can take on mythical proportions.

Here he is. Matches in one hand, petrol bottle in the other. He removes the bottle cap, drops it to the ground and douses himself in liquid. He does everything slowly, methodically, as if it were part of a routine he has practiced for years. Then he stops, looks around, and strikes a match.

At this moment nothing in the world can bridge the gap that separates the self-immolator from the others. His total defiance of the survival and self-preservation instincts, his determination to trample on what everybody else finds precious, the ease with which he seems to dispose of his own life, all these place him not only beyond our capacity of understanding, but also outside of human society. He now inhabits a place that most of us find inhabitable. Yet, from there he does not cease to dominate us.

“As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.”

Journalist David Halberstam describes the death of Thích Quàng Đúc, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who set himself on fire in Saigon in 1963. The quieter the self-immolator the more agitated those around him. The former may slip into nothingness, but his performance changes the latter’s lives forever. They experience repulsion and attraction, terror and boundless reverence, awe and fear, all at once. Over them he now has the uncanniest form of power.

The experience is so powerful because it is so deeply seated in the human psyche. In front of self-immolation, even the most secularized of us have a glimpse into a primordial experience of the sacred. Originally, the sacred is defined as something set apart, cut off from the rest, which remains profane; what we feel towards such a radically different other is precisely a mix of terror and fascination. Self-immolation is a unique event precisely because it awakens deep layers of our ultimate make-up. In a striking, if disguised fashion, self-immolation occasions the experience of the sacred even in a God-forsaken world like ours.

Self-immolation has little to do with suicide. “Suicidal tendencies almost never lead to self-immolation,” says Michael Biggs, one of the few sociologists who have studied the phenomenon systematically. Self-immolation is a deliberate, determined and painfully expressive form of individual protest. Under certain circumstances, the gesture of an individual self-immolator is enough to ignite large-scale social movements. Thích Quàng Đúc’s self-immolation triggered a massive response, which resulted in the toppling of the Ngô Đình Diem regime in South Vietnam. Only six years later, Jan Palach, a Czech philosophy student, set himself ablaze in protest to the Soviet Union’s crush of the Prague Spring. His death did not cause a regime change right away, but it shaped in a distinct manner the anti-communist dissidence in Czechoslovakia. Twenty years later, in 1989, it was a “Palach week” of street protests and demonstrations that set in motion the Velvet Revolution. More recently, in December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian street vendor, stroke a match that not only burned him to death, but set the entire Arab world on fire; we are still witnessing the aftermath of his gesture.

Self-immolation is a fearsome, compelling act, but it would be wrong to infer that whenever it occurs it has significant political consequences. Michael Biggs estimates that between 800 and 3,000 self-immolations may have taken place over the four decades after 1963. Yet, only a handful of them had any political impact. What makes a death by self-immolation politically consequential is its capacity to become the focus of a community’s social life. Self-immolation is “successful” in this sense when it is not anymore about the one who performs it, but about the community in the midst of which it occurs and which suddenly recognizes itself in the predicament of the self-immolator, it feels “shamed” by his gesture and compelled to act. Thus, that individual death is re-signified, and turned from a biological occurrence in the history of someone’s body into a “founding” event of mythical proportions, something that renews the community’s political life.

Politically “successful” self-immolations are extraordinary events. There are no “recipes for success” here; no science can satisfactorily explain when they should occur or why they shouldn’t. To use some kind of analogy, they are not unlike artistic masterpieces; you can recognize one when you see it, but they cannot be produced “on demand”. As such, they are inimitable and unrepeatable. Bouazizi, Đúc and Palach had many imitators, but they never managed to get out of their masters’ shadows; the more they were the less their gestures meant.

This brings home the point that a politically consequential self-immolation is usually the first one in a series. Since February 2009 no less than fifty-one Tibetans, mostly Buddhist monks and nuns, have self-immolated in Tibetan parts of China, yet they have not caused any significant political changes so far. Why? Because fifty-one self-immolations may be fifty too many; the more Tibetans self-immolate the clearer it becomes that there are no Quàng Đúc, Jan Palach or Mohamed Bouazizi among them.

The fact that self-immolation as a form of political protest could even appear in Tibetan monastic circles may seem puzzling. Buddhism notoriously rejects violence; moreover, Tibetan Buddhism is eminently based on compassion towards all sentient beings. One of the four vows that any Tibetan monk has to take when joining a monastery is “never to take a life”. The Dalai Lama’s total embrace of Gandhi’s satyagraha is only the logical corollary of such a religious mind-set.

Yet, the explanation has to do more with political, rather than theological, factors. The Chinese occupation of Tibet has been unusually oppressive and much of the violent repression has been directed against Buddhist monasteries, seen as the symbol of a “backward,” “feudal” Tibet. Violence only breeds violence. For all its anti-violent stance, when its very existence comes under threat, Buddhism could sometimes find the resources, and even the theoretical justification, for violent resistance; the PLA experienced this first-hand in the Tibet of the 1950s, when monasteries would often fight back. Moreover, most of the recent self-immolations have taken place in what used to be, before the communist take-over, Amdo and Kham, regions populated by fiercely independent people, combination of warriors and monks, that almost no central authority could subdue in the past. The Kampas could be as brutal as the PLA soldiers.

That self-immolation, by all means an extreme and extraordinary act, tends now to become a routine form of political action is a very dangerous development. And, yet, just as the Chinese authorities do not signal that they want to make concessions, the Tibetans find it inconceivable to give up. The fact that all those who set themselves ablaze are young (some are teens) is telling. These are people who don’t have the memory of a pre-communist Tibet; all they could possibly have is the hope of a post-Chinese one. But, then again, with Tibet’s new demographic structure and China’s super-power status, even such a hope is unsustainable. So all they are left with is despair.

In the long-run Tibetans’ despair may be China’s worst nightmare. What a routinisation of self-immolation as political protest can lead to the Chinese authorities may not be even able to comprehend. And, yet, they should not be surprised; maybe it is time they start re-reading the little red book: “Where there is oppression, there is resistance.” In his grave, Mao Zedong is dreaming in Tibetan.

Costica Bradatan is Fellow at Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study in the US. He is the author or editor of several books, most recently "Philosophy, Society and the Cunning of History in Eastern Europe" (Routledge 2012). Currently, he is writing a book on “dying for an idea”.

The mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, who self-immolated in 2010, holds up his picture. Photograph: Getty Images

Costica Bradatan is Fellow at Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study in the US. He is the author or editor of several books, most recently "Philosophy, Society and the Cunning of History in Eastern Europe" (Routledge 2012). Currently, he is writing a book on “dying for an idea”.

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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.