What It Means To Be Weak


None gave them liberty, and yet they lived.

Korea is obsessed with development. It attaches the term “development” to almost all of its official endeavors. Corrupt political systems are not unfair, they are undeveloped. Gender equality is desirable mostly in the context that it represents the development of Korean society. Social equality is not so wonderful on its own, but as a sign of Korea’s developing into a developed nation – that’s another matter.

I recently came across Wireless Peninsula, a group run by Fulbright Scholars in Korea. As you would expect, they have some interesting takes on Korean culture. One of their recent articles discussed the Korean development fixation.

The author, Chelsea Carlson, wonders why, when Korean scholars are investigating questions of equality and fairness, they do so in the context of Korea’s national development. She concludes that the Korean intelligentsia would be better off looking at Korea’s social policy through the lens of Korean people rather than Korean development and that it would be wiser to set internal goals instead of simply emulating the US or other Western countries.

I’m not going to dispute these conclusions for the very simple reason I think they’re mostly good points. However, I do think that Ms. Carlson and, indeed most educated Westerners, likely does not have the experiences to understand the genesis of Korea’s obsession with development.

I think it comes from the fact that, within living memory, South Korea was one of the world’s weakest nations. On an abstract level, I’m certain Ms. Carlson understands what this means. However, in a deeper sense, I’m not sure she understands what the dehumanization that comes with weakness feels like, what it tastes like, how it itches at night and changes the ways we see the world.*

I’ve often wondered why, as a species, we’ve gotten so good at dehumanization. Don’t worry, I’m not about to launch into some condemnation of heartless villains, but we are awfully damn efficient when we want to turn another group of people into the enemy. At first, I thought this was an evolutionary leftover from some pre-social stage in our history. I mean, does the species really gain anything when dehumanizers rampage around destroying everyone, including themselves?

But then I thought about how I use dehumanization, how I see other people using dehumanization and I came to a different conclusion – it’s a way to prioritize our self-preservation over empathy for others. On a group vs. group level, our ancestors clearly would not be able to survive if, when their own food ran out, they had not been able to dehumanize the next tribe over, taken their food and caused them to starve. This is fairly obvious. What I don’t think is so obvious is the advantages of dehumanization for a person or society that dehumanizes itself.

A full human being is entitled to all the things Ms. Carlson mentions, fair treatment, equality, rights and respect. These things are wonderful, they are central to our development and advancement as a species. Rights and freedoms and fairness and the rest of these gifts powerful people give to themselves are indeed a necessary lubricant in the post-industrial machine, but they are not natural and they are not inevitable.

A full human being, accustomed as he is to luxury and power, requires these rights and freedoms and, when deprived, struggles to live on. Give me liberty or give me death, Patrick Henry once said.  He was lucky his society was strong enough to give him the former rather than surrender his life to the latter.

Contrast Patrick Henry with the person who does not see him or herself as fully human. Deprived of liberty by, just for example, the arch-conservative late Joseon Dynasty, the dehumanized person can persist without freedom. Deprived of fairness by, just as a random example, the intensely racist Imperial Japanese, the dehumanized person can recognize the fact he or she is not entitled to fairness and go on living. Robbed of rights by, to pick something random, the  string of military dictators stretching from Lee Seung-man to Park Jung-hee, the dehumanized person can survive by accepting the truth that rights, while desirable, are anything but natural. That’s a hundred years of recent Korean history that Patrick Henry wouldn’t have survived.

What then lies at the root of full humanity with its rights and fairnesses and equalities? I would submit that the answer is nothing more romantic that blunt, naked power. A public weakened cannot hold off the tyrant. A population snarled in ignorance cannot resist the demagogue. A people undeveloped can hardly counter the invader. The man or woman dehumanized cannot help but feel this weakness and to hunger for power in a way unseemly to those simply born to full, unchallenged humanity. Such a person, someone who really knows what it’s like to be less than human, might feel it prudent to nurture the power and development preceding full humanity before they harvest the fruits.

So while I agree that Korea has reached a position of strength, and while I accept that Koreans can and should begin harvesting the fruits of their development, I can hardly condemn them for putting the development first and the luxuries second.


If you enjoyed this article, please consider buying the author’s novel.


For customers living in East Asia.





*I could, of course, be completely wrong about her experiences. Ms. Carlson and I have never met face to face.


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