Mind your language – Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness

You are what you speak.

We have come to understand in our postmodern age very well that words can betray your ideology. For example, Hegelian view on history on as a series of thesis, antithesis and synthesis reveals a preference to the idea of progress as something unidirectional and upward, when it is that goes both ways and possibly more. The very word ‘progress’ shows this. Or the Structuralists’s liking for concrete descriptions and fixity. Roland Barthes try as he may to go beyond the the restrictions of talking about things in terms of codes only gets stuck in the terminology which lack freedom.

This understanding is nothing new, of course. We have stuggled with this problem, seen through it, and returned to blindness by forgetfulness by being swept up in the heat of the moment. Our attention had been distracted for one moment and we have lost sight of the task at hand.

The rigor with which Derrida took to task was a guiding example of how language refuses to stop to deceive us. And his passing is also an example how we revert back to the norm all because of the nature of language – that things do not last forever. It hides its very nature like an entity which cannot perceive itself from where it stands. We must simply speak outside of language.

And in the same way the Buddha showed us that we must be mindful of what we do and what we say at all times simply because we are prone to inattentativeness.

So why am I not happy about Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk’s philosophy of Gross National Happiness? If language was a guide to our internal beliefs then this term says a lot about where its ideas come from. Having studied in Oxford the King has an “understanding” of the Western culture and ideas. But the choice of the term necessarily betrays that he may not understand the power of language.

Right speech is one of the basic beliefs of the Buddha and Buddhism. And in choosing to continue to use the psuedo-economic terms, to dress it in the langauge of money, is to fall into the linguistic trap. The idea has the potential to become a wolf in sleep’s clothing.

And this months signing of a new and “updated” treaty between India and Bhutan has, in my opinion, taken the country “three steps back”. In it Bhutan now has more freedom to control its own foreign policies and, in particular, the freedom to purchase non-lethal military arms means the country is ever moving closer to the Western ideals of nationhood, and moving away from the Buddhist ideals of self-control and vigilance. That the Pandora’s box had been open by the introduction of television and the internet in the last decade has caused unprecedented changes within the nation, its people and its thinking.

Some have called this a bold experiment but really I think this is just the beginning of a mistake. When people start to talk differently, talk like they are businessmen, then you know there is a problem. Again, it is not easy to see where careless wording can lead. Democracy is not about freedom of choice, it is really about the ability to sell you something you do not need. Democracy has been tied to capitalism more than liberalism. Freedom is only an excuse for opening up potential markets. And if the King cannot see this how can the nation.

Perhaps some have seen this and are hoping to profit. But that is only because they – the West – are “poorer spiritually” or “morally bankrupt” to use economic metaphors. It should be clear by now that finance, money and economics dominates our (Western) culture and it is “on the march” (military metaphor) globally.

Enough said. I think I’ll end all this metaphoric mumbo jumbo here.

11 thoughts on “Mind your language – Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness”

  1. PS. To say that we are taking three steps back when we want to make our own decisions on what we want to do is so ridiculous. When it comes to Bhutan, everyone thinks that they are experts and suggest what we should and shouldn’t do.

    Leave it to our leaders to decide what they should do for the country and not some language expert who happened to read Derrida


  2. I didnt need to mention it for i am not interested in reading Derrida and deconstruction. The problem, if you don’t understand, is that Gross National Happiness is a concept that was coined by a Bhutanese and has everything to do with Bhutan. If you had chosen another word to deconstruct maybe we wouldn’t be involved in this discussion.

    There is a possibility of seeing EVERYTHING in different ways – not only this.

    There is no point in going onto Derrida and embarking on challenging the other complexities of the English language if one is not able to get through in simple and concise terms to an ordinary reader.

    Good luck


  3. I really do not understand what the problem is.

    This is a blog which *specifically* talks about sustainability and language (the *theory* bit in the title). So I do not understand why I am being told that looking at language is wrong.

    There is a possibility that there are different ways of seeing the same thing. On top of that, if you do not understand Derrida (which you have refused to even acknowledge in your comment) then, of course, you will not understand what I am talking about.

    May I advise that you do the same and do some reading on Derrida and Deconstruction first?


  4. I think I have to bow out of this discussion. Your choice of words is very abstract and I can see why you have such difficulty understanding or accepting why “Gross” is being used.

    You do seem to have an interest in the use of language and so I would advise that you do some more studying of it so that you can simplify your statements.

    Ciao and good luck


  5. Thank you for your comment Sonam Ongmo.

    But please remember that this post is about Gross National Happiness as a term and not about Bhutan and its desire to be happy as such.

    I am talking about ideals and shortsightedness in its use of words. Why not leave out the word “Gross” and just settle for “National Happiness”? Any term could have been chosen but the term Gross National Happiness was settled for.

    If “gross” is the term you start with then that is what you end up with. A measurement of happiness which cannot be measured but approximated.

    It is well documented that the language of business by English speakers uses this kind of subliminal rendering of meaning. ‘The competition is “fierce”‘ or ‘We must defend our market’. The use of war-like description in language is but one of the way to show our feelings towards something, even though it is not a war.

    As I have talked about elsewhere language is more slippery than one might think. If we start using economic terms to describe something not economic it could (but not will) slowly take on that secondary set of terminology.


  6. I think Singye did not misinterpret Signatures’s intent. Either Signature should learn to write more clearly or refrain from denying what he meant.

    Like Singye I understood him to say what he was saying and Singye had no need to rephrase his Q by saying” Are you aware…”

    People have no time these days. We just get straight to the point. There are so many people who, because of their slight knowledge of Bhutan, feel they are experts to comment on everything.

    Like Singye said if only people would research their facts before putting it out for all to see it would be better



  7. singye,

    I think you’d be more effective here if you’d approach this first by asking questions and assuming good intentions before making comments about uneducated or naive opinions or ignorance, etc. For instance, you might have asked, “Are you aware that the father of King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk was the originator of the the GNH idea?”

    That point, by the way, seems minor with regard to what signature103 is saying. His argument would be essentially the same either way — that the king might do well to consider seriously the power of language in his continuing to use the term, “Gross National Happiness,” as it is clearly a variation on the typical terms of Western capitalism.

    More generally, I think you may be misinterpreting signature103’s intent. As I read it, he’s cautioning that Bhutan (or any country, really) might want to be careful about embracing certain Western capitalist ways. Those ways, while providing some material wealth for some time, are currently the chief cause of our heading toward global ecological collapse. And, as you know, they do not always correlate with well being. We need a rethinking of the capitalist economic model to avert this crisis.

    I think signature103 sees GNH (save for its name) as a very *positive* development in this direction! He has held it out here and elsewhere as a model from which the US and other conventionally capitalist countries could learn. He’s really quite an *advocate* of the steps taken in Bhutan. But that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t voice certain criticisms as well. I suspect he’s much more on your side than you may think. :)


  8. Thank you for your reply.

    While I knew this fact – that it was his father, the King Jigme Singye Wangchuk that coined the term – I still chose to focus on the present. It was a shortcut on my part, only because I am focusing on the term, and not its origin. Also a time contraint does not allow me to give full time to a blog which is only of secondary importance compared to family, studies and work. If you expect top quality, error-free writing then please pay me.

    But returning to Bhutan, again, I only wish for the happiness and contentment of your people, and of all people. That I think it is a mistake (that it is opening the door to something possibly worse) is my concern. It may; It may not. Time will be the judge. But from history the signs lean in favour of worse rather than better.

    On the fact that it is the will of the Bhutanese people, just because people make the choice does not necessaily mean it is correct. We make choices every moment in our lives. Mistakes abound. All of history is an example. There is no point in arguing since, again, only time will be the judge. I hope you are right, but the odds are against you. I wish you the best.


  9. I am in no way attempting to attack you or misrepresent what you said, only to correct the the factual error in your blog (as I already stated in my previous comment) – GNH was conceived by the 4th king of Bhutan and therefore you cannot say “the choice of the term necessarily betrays that he (King Khesar -the 5th King) may not understand the power of language”, as that is clearly a sign of your ignorance or a lie (I do not believe that you are lying). You are indeed entitled to your opinion, however not to your own facts.
    Secondly regarding your comment on the revised friendship treaty signed between Bhutan and India “in my opinion, taken the country “three steps back”……means the country is ever moving closer to the Western ideals of nationhood, and moving away from the Buddhist ideals of self-control and vigilance”. I only wanted to point out that this move has been desired by the Bhutanese people for a long time and therefore whether it is “step as being towards the western ideal of nationhood” (as you claim) or not is not relevant at least to me….only that it is indeed a step towards the Bhutanese ideal of nationhood (to use your term). I do not and would not claim to speak authoritatively on the Buddhist ideal of nation-hood. I also do not see how clearing all ambiguity in Bhutan’s sovereignty and membership of the comity of nations is a move away “from the Buddhist ideals of self-control and vigilance”. I would think that “self-control and vigilance” by a country may be difficult if it is encumbered by treaties or accords that (may) restrict it from acting in such a manner.
    Finally I do not wish to debate with you on ‘Derrida and postmodern theory’, however I will offer you unsolicited advice…you should be clear about the validity of your facts before writing them for all to see.


  10. Thank you for your comment.

    I am in no way attacking Bhutan and its system. As a matter of fact I think there is much to be respected by its Buddhist ideals. I will say though as a Buddhist I fear for the future of Bhutan and other non-western cultures which are being subsumed by the Cultural Imperialism of the West simply because they are sold a picture of something that seems better for now.

    If you feel that it is better for Bhutan then fine. But please let me have my own opinion, and let me voice it anyway I want. If you want to attack me then also please do your homework on Derrida and postmodern theory. If you only pick one aspect (my unhappiness about the terminology) of my argument and not the other (that one must be careful what one says, Buddhist-wise, or theory-wise) then you are only misrepresenting what I said.


  11. FYI…the concept of GNH was thought up by his father King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the previous king, in the early 1970s. So I guess you’ll have to do some research before you start analyzing King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk’s perspectives and whether he has grasped the power of language. You seem to be quite happy to share your uneducated and naive opinions publicly for the whole world to see your ignorance. For instance you write “In it Bhutan now has more freedom to control its own foreign policies and, in particular, the freedom to purchase non-lethal military arms”. Firstly the treaty was updated to to reflect the ground realities…Bhutan has been in-control of its own foreign policy for some time now. And secondly this is a step in the direction that the people of Bhutan have long sought. How can you say that clearing any ambiguity in the sovereignty of our country (Bhutan) is a western ideal. I would have preferred it you had stopped your “metaphoric mumbo jumbo” way earlier.


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