Op/Ed

The “good life” of inaction in Seoul: Who is “we”?

Photo by B.S. Wise/flikr. CC2.0
Layne Hartsell
Written by Layne Hartsell

At this moment, there is a de facto ban on the Pride Parade in Seoul as oppression grows; a situation well articulated in an article by Nick Neon related to recent hate crimes. Namdaemun, a famous shopping district in Seoul, is where the planned event was to occur.

Nick’s blog claims that he is an “award winning film + music video director” currently making a film called Ultra Bleu. He says that he was raised in New York City by a Korean mother and Scottish/Spanish father.

On June 2nd, 2015, just last week, Nick posted a disturbing account of an experience on the Seoul Metro, and in the current context of the cultural-morality conflict in Seoul related to the Pride Festival.

His experience is an important journalistic, personal account to pay attention to, since he uses the ongoing social uproar to point to the essence of the matter – that of justice and universal rights. And then, whether “we” are serious about them.

His is a perceptive observation, and I would only add to Nick’s prose – who and where are the “we”? Nick writes:

“But I will not put up with a man telling me to go back to my f___ing country because I am gay. And I will not put up with being physically harmed for any F___ING REASON. Would he call my mother a disgusting traitor for fully supporting her gay son. Would he call her dirty for marrying outside of Korea and for having a child with an American man? A gay child at that? I question how many others I encounter on my daily commute feel the same. Maybe most don’t have any opinion on the topic. And yet this is almost worst in that it suggests that I just don’t exist.”

In an earlier assertion in the essay, Nick points out that these hate crimes are not isolated cases. Indeed not, they are systemic.

For example, in 2012 a major broadcasting company MBC ran a racist video (300 seconds) on national TV on relationships between Korean women and foreign men. A female professor, who is Korean, and on the science faculty at a major women’s university in Seoul, and also the director of a women’s human rights center said to me “MBC is only one case.”

Undoubtedly it was only one case and one which Julius Streicher would have approved.

In fall of 2014, during the Ebola “crisis” Africans were banned from a university and a restaurant, immediately, while reports later, showed more incidents.

Parenthetically, Africa has 54 countries and perhaps 25% of the world’s population. Genderism, racism, classism, nationalism are all rooted in the exclusion of people from basic humanity, many times turning them into unpeople, as Nick points this out when he says, “[this experience]…suggests that I just don’t exist.”

Think of what it would be like to ban people from the US, Europe, China, and India all at once? All of those would fit into Africa with room to spare.

Nick’s experience of outright physical aggression, and finally, indeed worse, the systemic relegation to nonexistence is a toxic mix for those who experience it.

The last part of his comment is directed at those who sit by and ignore the issues while offering platitudes that South Korea is getting better, and even is Sparkling; all “generous” offerings coming from the privileged who benefit themselves from an unjust, globalized system. Foreigners also have their say on the “good life” in South Korea, and here the concept means expats and not migrant workers.

One of the more “tranquil” dismissives is, “South Korea has its ups and downs, but it’s good for me.” The level of ambient depravity is apparent, but all fine since “we” choose not to look.

This “good” life is in the context of a business run society, which had some political democracy at one point, but by now is likely a technocratic authoritarianism along with the re-emergence of traditional, Confucian totalitarian commitments.

The “miracle” development is based in part on the destruction of Southeast Asia in the 1950’s-1970’s. People actually lived in Southeast Asia at the time, though 3.7 million of them were eliminated, with 10’s of millions of casualties and refugees. These figures are certainly conservative, as Vietnam is on now just recovering, decades later. Then, within South Korea was the “rural sacrifice” to drive people from the land into factories.

A few years ago, a farmer burned down Namdaemun Gate, one of the major tourist attractions and symbols of Seoul.

Currently, the suicide rates are the highest in the world, and for women the rates are 3-4 times higher than other countries.

In Seoul, the leading cause of death is suicide. Then, there are the migrant workers whose experience is modern slavery and something equivalent are the rural marriages.

Apparently, we are to believe that all of this is part of the ups and downs; I would question such vacuous statements.

If we ask a migrant worker, or those not referred to as expats, about the miracle on the Han, while getting limbs chopped off in industry or lungs burned in chemical plants, due to lack of effective regulations or simple human care – they will give a far different view.

These are not problems unknown to “we” as there is a widely known concept for such socio-economic brutalities as the 3D’s: dirty, dangerous, demeaning work.

In 2014, the Wall Street Journal ran an article on the slogan to “Imagine Your Korea.” It’s a good idea, however, imagination may be all that is permitted for many.

Each time “we” enrich ourselves from the use of an electronic gadget, a car, indulge in some particular food, or fly off for a splendid holiday, we are relishing in broken dreams, tears, physical beatings, rape, murders; not of ourselves of course, but of others who inhabit the underlying structure for those experiences. Life is indeed good for the “we”.

8340932628_e2d6340c66The delusion coaxes many, but I would argue that there is a moral imperative to look fully at any egregious violations, particularly the one at hand in Seoul this week, which has been rapidly escalating. Some of the activists are asking where are the professors? With privilege comes responsibility, and there is plenty of complicity, or even apologetics (if they are professors) by any rational assessment.

Students should be aware of who is standing in front of them in their classrooms, and then question this morality embodied before them.

The “good life” that is enjoyed ends up being a gross mixture of quasi-hedonism and rampant abuse of materialism, due to the throw away society, all built on gross suffering and the destruction of ecosystems.

Concepts such as Grandeur and Vera Cruz (Holy Cross) come to mind; the names of cars which can be had for a price with their externalities already imposed on someone else. At the same time, many who participate in events are not necessarily interested in human rights, but in the particular popular buzztopic of the day, and if sex is involved, then the more tantalizing the event. Once the circus is over, there ends the human rights display, except for the banal everyday displays of those with plenty of rights and the bureaucratization of humanity.

Nick Neon’s story is all the more telling for the real desires of humanity, the true desire for justice, where he pleads, “We often say that this is an isolated incident. That the man was insane and that it’s not how everyone else thinks.

“But I question if there is ANY thinking happening on the topic of equal human rights in Korea at the moment besides those who are directly impacted by the lack of said rights.” Once again, he is correct. The Human Rights Council resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity A/HRC/RES/27/32 is a part of a larger doctrine, which is universal, and by now codified into law.

For general society it is not that the insane indulge themselves in these social issues, they are not so cunning, but that there is a permissive culture of exclusion, with its own internal logic, and in which perfectly “decent” people engage fully and consciously; many times by not saying anything. From the outside, and from a perspective of universal rights it indeed looks pathological.

Do “we” head for an all night shopping excursion in Namdaemun; or do we seek out the actual facts of the matter and find them appalling to our humanity? The privileged will provide their flippant response, “at least this is not (x) bad country.”

The inanity should be apparent, since this attitude only invites a competition headed for the very bottom of outrage. There is plenty of ability intellectually, but no intention for a real assessment of the facts, which a brief reading of history should leave no doubts on this kind of complicity.

As for the current struggle in Seoul, regrettably the ghost of Matthew Shepard haunts as we watch this situation intensify to the point of hatred moving from unsavoury thoughts into action, and where the stakes of loss are becoming palpable as police are actively enabling theocratic groups to disrupt the legitimate aspirations of people to human rights.

Further, and equally serious, are the attitudes of many living the “good life” of inaction in Seoul, where currently, much of the protection for the current activists comes not from the “we” but from a coronavirus (MERS), perhaps a couple hundred nanometers in size. Somewhat comical but disturbingly sad.

About the author

Layne Hartsell

Layne Hartsell

Layne Hartsell, USA (雷恩∙哈特塞尔 - 마이클 레인 핫셀), is a fellow at the P2P Foundation and the New Club of Paris in convergence studies, and is a visiting scholar at the Center for Ethics in Science and Technology at Chulalongkorn University. He is also a project scientist at Sensorica Biomedical, co-founder of the ScandinAsia Research Group, and is an advisor to the Sweden-based Living Bridges Planet. His work is in the access to technologies from a framework of global justice and societal innovation, the development of open hardware sensors, and advocacy for open reasoning in the P2P knowledge commons. He is the co-author of the widely regarded essay “Peer to Peer Science: The Century-long Challenge to Respond to Fukushima."

  • TheDickinDixie

    The sad fact is is that LGBT community are a very easy target for Korean churches (not all of course, but the ones where the pastors tend to drive luxury cars, have multiple properties, etc).

    They provide an incredibly convenient distraction for socially conservative congregations who otherwise might ask very uncomfortable questions of church leaders, such as questions about embezzlement, fraud, sexual abuse, tax evasion and a whole host of other church-related crimes.

    Interesting article, and some excellent points are made.

    I do think, that perhaps you could explore the Korean angle more too.

    Koreans, especially the non-privileged majority, are as much victims of the system as anyone else.

    Of particular note is the contuining creation of a property bubble which will entrap the working and lower middle classes into a lifetime of exorbitant rents and create a domestic, urban untermenschen of people whose only hope is the lotto, be it the housing association lotto or the state variety.

  • M. Layne Hartsell

    Yes, indeed – All good additions to address the complexity of the situation.

  • M. Layne Hartsell
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