Looking At, Along and Within: Lessons in Activism from the Korean Countryside
There is a distinct aspect of mindlessness that takes over the long bike trail from Seoul to Busan. As hours stack upon hours of cycling, you grow used to the steady hum of your rubber tires’ tireless advance; you begin to focus on the rhythmic patterns of breathing and the metronomic beat of your own heart; you begin to fall at peace with the gliding current of the warm summer wind. Your mind, mixed amongst all this steady sensorium, is tempted to drift and waft away into a state of altered consciousness: all that you process is that which lies before you: the next maneuver to be made, bridge to be crossed, mountain to be ascended.
It is especially because of this phenomenon of physical movement which suspends the psychological that rest stops become profound. Upon stopping to re-hydrate, re-carbohydrate, and re-apply sunscreen, you find that the mind begins to re-flect. I would like to focus on a short moment in which I met eyes with an occupant of a small, country-side town: a moment that decidedly jarred me out of my own conscience and has prompted me to write this reflection entirely.
A young lady, no older than I, red broom in hand, swept the stone floor in front of a small path-side restaurant. The restaurant, markedly a pre-2000s aesthetic, sold one dish, a stew that the city was famous for. The type of stew that city-folk open restaurants in Seoul toting the same flavor that these country-side families have hidden in recipes filially passed down. The dust flew side-to-side. I thought to myself that this young lady must be a part of the family business. I wondered if she had yet the chance to attend university; if she had yet seen the overwhelming city-lights of Seoul or Busan; if she yet listened to BTS like so many city-folk.
And yet, at the same moment, I thought of what she might think looking at me. Had this young man ever woken up in the dark of the morning to prepare ingredients for the first customers of the day? Had this young man ever walked through the streets of this quiet town at night, basking in the symphony of crickets and the long-grass swaying in the evening breeze? Had this young man ever worried himself over droughts and fits of bad weather, knowing well what the consequences on the year’s crops would be?
Lessons from Lewis and Literature
Fundamentally, my short moment of thought reflected a famous binary proposed by C.S. Lewis in his Meditation in a Toolshed. In Meditation, Lewis notes a beam of light shining through a hole in the toolshed. He identifies that we can observe this in two ways. We can look at the beam, seeing the way the particles of dust fly in particular, predictable patterns; or, we can look along the beam, out into the world that it stems from, taking in everything: the sky, the clouds, the mighty sun.
Lewis’ argument revolves around disputing the modern temptation to value looking at something as holding more intrinsic truth than looking along. To use his own analogy, Lewis finds it funny that to find out more about love, we should ask the psychologist rather than the lover. Why would we not try to understand the phenomenon from the perspective of who it is most applicable and most salient?
I’m not here to discuss the particularities of Lewis’ argument or recap every single point of his proof, but to acknowledge that Lewis understands the inherent, reductionist danger of reducing large ideas into binaries. The conclusion he draws is that both methods of observation are key to a fuller understanding of any given subject.
I want to reinforce this idea with my own experience, and from this, it may start to become more clear how this all relates to activism. In the case of the young lady, I found myself both looking at her and looking along her potential perspective. The rub is in the “potential” — the uncertainty of my own perspective. The way in which I looked through this young lady’s eyes was a manifestation of what I understood to be the countryside: farming and a simpler lifestyle in which the problems of today and here far outweigh the problems of tomorrow and out there.
Is there a chance that there is some truth in my perception? Perhaps; but that is not the point. No matter how hard I try, I will never be able to look along her perspective perfectly; I will not understand the furious toils and the ecstatic joys; I dare say I may try in vain all my life and still fall short. If the primary goal is to understand something greater about life in the countryside, I have failed entirely, and even should I spent the rest of my life conversing with this young lady, I dare say I will fail every day to understand a world whose air I did not breathe.
This startling revelation is nothing new, both fortunately and unfortunately. Steven Justice, a professor of English at Berkeley, wrote an article titled Did the Middle Ages Believe in their Miracles? which famously grapples with the conundrum of writing on medieval miracle narratives. His famed intervention? To propose that for the common folk, skepticism in miracles was not only a possibility, but a probability: that is to deflate the idea that we can assume all people believed in tales of miracles and demons and aethereal realms.
Another example, one which will noticeably seem more relevant to now, is with William Wordsworth’s well-known poem Tintern Abbey. One of the most common (and most disregarded) criticisms against the poem is its shocking romanticization of lands that were occupied by vagrants and homeless individuals forgotten by society. What Wordsworth finds sublime, many readers find subversive and distracting to the greater political realities and transgressions of the historical moment. This is not to debate the ethics of art, but rather to say that no matter how hard Wordsworth tried, he could never look along the perspective of the vagrants who he wrote of.
So to serve as a foil to Lewis’ brilliant argument, many would say that in regards to perspective, to understand is a task beyond our capabilities, should any form of truth be our objective.
Looking Within: Plato’s Cave, Understanding Activism and the Role of Education
This brings us to the final section, in which I hope to address what might be a prominent thought after reading the first two sections. That is: what are we to do then, for the betterment of our neighbors, if to understand them is a futile effort? I believe the key lies within — literally. To look within, and to equip the coming generations not with pre-digested accumulations of presumed understanding, but to equip them with the tools to find understanding on their own.
Allow me to take from Lacan, Benjamin, Foucault and Nabokov in suggesting that, to some degree, we are all in Plato’s Cave — that we are prisoners to our own minds largely. To free ourselves from our respective Caves is to understand two things: that we are acted upon by forces larger than ourselves, and that our minds are molded from influences invisible that have been operating since before our birth. In the vocabulary of activism, this is to acknowledge the system that we operate exists and that it has implanted within us certain biases that we falsely label to be the results of “nature”.
Even stepping back from revolutionary impulses and anarchist ideologies — in our analogy, this would be akin to “blowing up” the cave — I believe that the heart of activism believes that society is benefitted whenever more individuals identify details such as the light sources which create the shadows and the shape of the puppets in the cave. That is to say, it is a worthy goal to strive for that as many people come to understand their inherent biases and the things that have shaped their experiences. To boil it down: we strive for people to look within themselves before looking outwards.
I believe this is why it is unproductive and dangerous to say that “the system does not exist,” or “the system is not racist,” when largely everyone needs to discern for themselves what unique experience they have. It is possible to believe the system is not racist; perhaps it is not racist FOR YOU. The agony of activism is the increasing temptation for people to speak for other populations, to reach across boundaries of oblivion with the attitude that they “have the world figured out,” whereas often times they have yet to even introspect as to their own positionality within the system.
To pivot towards the end of my argument, I would like to speak of why education and educators will have some of the greatest burden and responsibility in the upcoming years. The most dangerous outcome that we can push as educators is one of Social Darwinism — when the youth is encouraged to acknowledge the system and then to play it as a game for their own individual benefit.
To transfer this image to Plato’s Cave, this would be as if a certain population of the Cave awake to the circumstances of their condition. They leave the Cave. They see the beauty of the outside world. They build a business in which they charge other members of the cave to spend thirty-minute sessions outside for an exorbitant price. They live comfortably in mansions while the inhabitants of the cave believe those in charge of the service are doing exemplary work — they have “made it” in the unforgiving world.
Using knowledge for benefit is not the same as using knowledge for change. As educators, we will have the opportunity not only to equip the coming generation with the tools to awaken themselves from history, but with the hope that change can truly come. It is a tall task. Success and comfort are not inherently evil, but we are so often bribed with these things so that we turn a blind eye to injustice. The greatest, most poisonous myth is that society and life is a game to be lost by some and won by others. As Beckett says, “habit is the great deadener”. It would be nice to see a generation of dreamers. Dreamers who argue not with vitriol and bitterness, but with a deep understanding of themselves and a deeper curiosity of others. Dreamers who understand activism to be equally about listening as speaking. But before one can dream of worlds exterior, one must first awake to their world’s interior.