***note: the following is a rant and smacks of the smug self-importance proffered by armchair activists that usually makes me want to vomit. it seems i have already undercut everything written below. perhaps its my way of coping with sorrow and rage.
The Sinking of the Sewol Ferry and Reflections on Political Responsibility
On April 16, 2014, a ferry traveling from Incheon, South Korea en route to Jeju Island sank off the peninsula’s southwestern coast. 304 people drowned – most of them children. To what extent can we say that the sinking of the Sewol Ferry results from structural issues and cannot be identified with specifically localizable events? In other words, to what extent is leveling blame on specific individuals justified?
Last week, I wrote a poem (albeit, not a very good one) in order to help me reflect upon and express my anger and frustration about the situation. I begin the poem with line, “This is not a ‘national tragedy’,” and repeat this line four times throughout the poem. The idea of ‘national tragedy’ (and its aesthetic reification in the image of the yellow ribbon) depoliticizes the nature of this event by erasing individual actors and structures of injustice and generalizes ‘tragedy’ in ways that flatten degrees of traumatic intensities. Although I refrain from explicit denunciations, the voice in the poem seeks to obstruct the processes by which this event has been narrated as a ‘national tragedy’ by attaching blame to specific people, organizations and systemic processes. According to Iris Young in Responsibility for Justice (2011), this type of thinking – the type of blame seeking given voice in my poem - is not only contradictory but also misguided. It is contradictory because it creates a false dichotomy between structural processes and individual agency (where in reality both operate simultaneously) and it is misguided because seeking to designate blame cannot lead to more justice in the future.
For Young, designating an individual as guilty and assigning blame is not only “backward looking” – i.e., blame does nothing to actualize a more just society in the future – these actions also incorrectly narrow the scope of onus onto a few discreet individuals. This narrowed locus thereby impedes others from understanding their relation to harm and subsequently absolves them from the task of eliminating said harm and work for healing and justice. Young contrasts blaming the guilty (what she calls a ‘liability model of responsibility’) with her concept of the ‘social connection model of responsibility’. This model encourages solidarity by committing everyone to understand her/his relationship to everyone else — historically and geographically. I agree that developing a greater relational understanding holds powerful potential for building a more just society by encouraging empathy and forward-looking action. But I disagree that blame and guilt have no role to play in efforts to actualize social justice.
In her forward to Young’s book, Martha Nussbaum suggests that guilt and blame can provide pathways to justice. Like Young, Nussbaum differentiates between blame that is “narrowly targeted” (xxiv) and blame that is generalizable. Accepting blame and confronting guilt is not only a necessary part of reckoning with the past but also an imperative to understand the degrees of intensity – i.e. the particular ways in which individuals are positioned in structural processes. For example, all people are implicated in institutionalized racism but to deny that white people have a different relationship to mechanisms of privilege than people of color is not only dishonest but this misrecognition inevitably reproduces structures of inequality. Degrees of intensity matter because they index and indicate particularities that must be confronted and dealt with in localizable ways – both individually and collectively within a community. Structural transformation must involve individual loci of praxis. Moreover, they must also involve ways of holding not just ourselves, but also others accountable. Deemphasizing or removing accountability depoliticizes the pathways through which injustice is reproduced. In terms of the sinking of the Sewol ferry, who is responsible for what? And what it is to be done?
The sinking of Sewol ferry and its aftermath results from cumulative impacts. On the one hand, I can point to specific individuals and organizations (comprised of individuals) that are directly guilty of causing the death of 304 people. Policy makers that passed legislation easing shipping safety standards for the benefit of economic efficiency, business owners and managers that went beyond these relaxed standards by gutting safety preparations and directed the overloading of cargo on the ferry to maximize profit, a captain and crew that made selfish decisions, a government bureaucracy that bungled rescue efforts, journalists that failed to provide fact-checked stories in favor of sensationalist reporting, news media managers complicit in minimizing critique of the government’s response to the sinking, a president that refuses responsibility and appears more concerned with the economy than with justice – these are but a handful of individuals and organizations that have contributed directly and less directly to 304 deaths. On the other hand, these actors are positioned in a system – i.e., neoliberal capitalism - that not only exerts powerful influence on their worldviews and actions but also circumscribes individual agency.
On May 2, 2014, the Hankyoreh summarized an article by the Korean-German philosopher, Han Byung-chul, entitled “The Ship is Us”. According to Han, no individual actor or single cause can be blamed for the Sewol sinking. Rather, the structural pressures exerted by neoliberalism have wrought a “survival society” in which self-interest trumps “community consciousness.” I agree with Han on many points. Neoliberal restructuring such as labor flexibilization contributed a great deal to the ineptitude of the crew and captain. Singling out the crew as the sole persons responsible for the sinking by charging them with murder comprises an attempt by government officials to absolve themselves of their role in this disaster – chief among them, President Park Geun-hye. However, I am not satisfied with the conclusion that “this tragedy is a metaphor for modern society.”
Iris Young asks us to distribute the responsibility for justice among all members of our society. I agree with her. Yes, this is an example of structural violence. But degrees of intensity matter. To deny blame in this matter not only depoliticizes the nature of this tragedy but also obstructs the possibilities for structural transformation. This tragedy is as much personal as it is collective. We all bear responsibilities for the myriad ways we collude with structural forms of oppression and we must hold ourselves and others accountable. And part of this accountability entails direct – and perhaps shocking - challenges to bastions of power their material/ embodied, localized forms.
A reported 30,000 protestors gathered in Cheongye River Plaza on May 17, 2014, and held a candle light vigil. This is a common form of protest and political spectacle in South Korea. I am in full support of these actions. It is certainly a powerful form of visualizing common sentiment and providing a medium for communal catharsis. But in a way, that is the problem. Once protest is marked by a recognizable pattern its potential for radical change becomes circumscribed, not only by the repressive apparatuses of the state that have learned how to contain these demonstrations, but also by the limits of the imagination as to what is possible. Perhaps this is too cynical – especially coming for a person that was not in attendance. I do not want to deny that these types of protests re-circuit urban master plans and produce political space. However, these spaces - in South Korea at least - are always already foreclosed temporally and geographically by the contractual terms of the registration form submitted by demonstration organizers. This will always facilitate the arrest of citizens, instead of the other way around. Protest forms marked by recurring patterns (especially patterns that align with the purview of the state) stay within the realm of the thinkable (what Bourdieu calls doxa). How can we sustain and harness this killing rage and push beyond – beyond the thinkable, beyond yellow ribbons?
Perhaps it is tragically ironic that the name “Sewol” (세월; 世越) translates as “Beyond the World”. Hopefully, we can move beyond our current world to one that is more just. But to do this demands both collective and personal accountability enacted in ways that may push us beyond what we can currently imagine. And personally speaking, this requires that I “Get off the internet!” and “Meet you in the street!”