The danger of power

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The danger of power

To be somebody. It’s a phrase that gets bandied about in many contexts, from “I want to be somebody” to he or she is “really somebody.” I’ve never truly understood the attraction of being a so-called somebody. I was always attracted more to the idea of invisibility, to the corners of classrooms and to restaurants where it is so dark you cannot be looked at by others.

I am not alone in preferring the shadows to the limelight.

Around a month ago, I gave a talk titled “The Writing Life, The Dreaming Life” to Yonsei University students at the Yonsei International Campus in Songdo. The students, who were mainly freshman, were certain that to “become somebody” had positive connotations, and they were desperate to achieve this.

When I asked them what it meant to be a somebody, many answers were volunteered, but they were mainly variations on this response: It means that you are worth listening to.

Most of these intelligent, earnest students in the lecture hall wanted to be a somebody, and why wouldn’t they, if being a somebody was the only way they felt they would have a voice?

I went on to introduce them to the poem “I’m Nobody. Who are you?” by the 19th-century writer Emily Dickinson. The poem goes on to state “how dreary” and “how public” it is to be somebody, like “a frog” who sings all day long to an admiring bog. The poem, like so much of Dickinson’s work, feels relevant and utterly contemporary in its mockery of those so in love with their own voices, so secure in their power, that they dominate and talk rather than listen.

As Dickinson showed us so well, power can change the person who exerts it. Note the word exert. The dangers are all around us. Your boss at work. Politicians. Cultural figures. Teachers. A family’s main breadwinner. An older person to a younger person. Journalists. Nations.

As late as the 1980s, Edward Said’s text “Culture and Imperialism” was revolutionary for seeing how the dynamics of global power were shaped by perceptions written into and disseminated through literature. He noted that there is a prevailing “Western consensus that has come to regard the Third World as an atrocious nuisance, a culturally and politically inferior place.” Over hundreds of years, such perceptions gave these Western powers the implicit permission to ignore the needs of other nations and peoples and redraw the global map, silencing the desires of millions of people.

The personal is the political. How different is the way that nations attempt to silence other nations from the silencing that happens between employer and employee, between parents and children?

The American novelist Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature talk reads more like a moral parable than a traditional speech. In it, an old blind woman reputed to be clairvoyant is approached by a group of young people with a bird in their hands. They ask her if she can tell whether the bird is alive or dead. When she finally answers over their continued laughter, she says, “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.” Morrison goes on to elaborate that the bird’s fate, whether it is allowed to live or die, is ultimately the responsibility of those who are holding it.

The parade of power is exposed for what it is in this story, and the central concern becomes not the show of power itself but the responsibility that power brings with it.

But power also suggests influence. You have the opportunity to change something for the better, or for the worse. The problem is, do you know what is the better decision, and who is it better for?

A foreign correspondent for a national magazine stationed in China once told me, “I’m sure I’ll win a Pulitzer someday.” This was a journalist writing clearly not in the interest of truth but in the truth of gaining an award.

Recently I perused a book of photojournalism on North Korean refugees that depicted a small group of them half-naked and crossing the river from their country to the Chinese border. Their faces were clearly visible, as were their private parts. This, as well as other photos, struck me as an enormous violation of privacy as well as betrayal. To take someone’s image is literally to take them and shape their lives into a self-serving narrative, with, in this case, a potentially high price.

One of the greatest situations of power and one with the greatest potential for abuse, is when someone has the ability to save another’s life. I’ll never forget hearing Peter Jung, the head of the nonprofit organization Justice for North Korea, tell a group of Christian pastors and activists, “Food and safety first, religion later.”

Instead of holding onto refugees in safe houses under precarious circumstances in China, groups such as Justice for North Korea and Citizen’s Alliance (NKHR) advocate the unconditional safety and rights of the refugees above other vested interests. This, to me, seems the most humane and sensible act, aligned best with what Jesus Christ, Buddha and other religious leaders advocated.

But before many on the field consider what the refugees might need and want first, they profess to act for the glory of God, which may actually be the glory of themselves.

Like Toni Morrison’s bird resting on a palm, power is a fragile creature. “Power corrupts” is a common adage, and its examples are prevalent, from the many widespread abuses that led to the Sewol ferry tragedy to the suicides and acts of patricide partially caused by relentless parental pressure in South Korea.

But those with power, and some who have fallen in love with power, must not forget the words that South Korea’s own Monk Beopjeong best imparted:

“What determines my values as human is not how high social status or prestige I enjoy or how wealthy I am, but how much I am in rapport with my own soul.” - “The Delight of Living Alone”

“Even if you did a fresh job, don’t stick to that. Let it go just like a breeze brushes a branch of a tree.” - “A Precious Encounter.”

*The author, a Korean-American writer whose novel “Drifting House” won the Story Prize Spotlight award in 2012, teaches creative writing at Underwood International College at Yonsei University.

by Krys Lee
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