Short reflections on unruliness

When I was like 13 or 14 years old, I remember my late father exerted physical violence on my older sister, who was a fervent protester at the time. I guess that my father wanted to stop her from engaging in the violent, dangerous demonstration ironically by using violence – preventing violence with violence, which will never resolve any problem at all. Anyway, it was scary at the time. Tear gas, gasoline bomb, cobblestones, and tragic death are the things imprinted in my memory. The youth passionately took part in a series of violent protests for democratization in the country, risking their life. The rally site was like the battlefield where citizens and police army fought against each other to death at all sacrifices. It was the place where public outrage exploded, followed by tragic sacrifices. It might sound a poor excuse but all these scary and tragic memory have kept myself away from social movements whenever I encounter one of them.

 

In fact, one of the reasons that I took the Unruly Politics module was that I wanted to challenge myself and hopefully free myself from this imprinted scary and sad memory. Truth be told, it was too academic and philosophical for me to understand maybe partly because I was not ready enough to embrace either radical or challenging ideas from literatures, or still hesitant to step into the territory of unruliness. Besides, I still am not sure that I was truly unruly enough in the unruly performance at IDS, but one thing for sure about being unruly is that although under limited circumstances, the interaction based on empathy when it comes to the actual unruliness can be very powerful. It encourages people to stop for a moment and have a little bit more time to think about what’s going on around themselves and further be part of an unruly activity. And a serious of those precious experiences will surely crack my biased memory of unruliness one step at a time.

 

The lecture is over now, yet it is telling me, “I am not done with you, so please come and join me again. Let’s get to know each other more.” And I want to say, “Yeah, I really really do.”

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Reflections on Taegeukgi Rally

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On the 10th of March 2017, in South Korea, the Constitutional Court upheld the National Assembly’ decision to impeach President Park Guenhye over the huge political corruption scandal involving the president, her close friend, Choi Soon-sil, loyal aides, and some conglomerates including Samsung. During the weeks before the court ruling to favor the impeachment and after the ruling, the public have been divided severely into two groups: more than 70% of the people who want the President to step down immediately, and the other group mostly composed of the elderly in their sixties, seventies, and even eighties who are against the impeachment. Those who fall into the former group have held candlelight rallies on Saturdays in the Gwanghwamun Square and the latter group has demonstrated right next to candlelight rallies, which is called “Taegeukgi rally” because they always have Taegeukgi, the national flag of South Korea, with them when protesting.

In a democratic society, a wide range of voices can be heard, which is believed to be natural. These voices are based on various experiences, history, education, ethnicity, identity, and so on. Most of these elderly people are the generations who suffered from the Japanese colonialism, the Korean War, the resulting famine and poverty, and overcame these difficulties. They believe the former dictator Park Chung-hee should be given credit for tackling the miserable poverty. This might provide us with one lens through which I can see why they support the impeached President, who is the daughter of the dictator. I cannot say I can understand fully the workings of the psychology behind this blind faith for her, but still, it’s understandable considering the historical background.

What bothers me most, however, is that when those who are against the impeachment take to the streets for the rally, most of them carry with them not only ‘Taegeukgi’, South Korean national flags, but also American flags. AMERICAN FLAGS!!! How should I interpret this weird, incomprehensible unruliness? Is it because they love America? Or is it because they want America to help them with saving impeached, imprisoned Park like in the movie, “Saving Private Ryan”? What is the underlying motivation that mobilizes them into this ridiculous action? Is it a whole another kind of colonialism that dominates the mindset of the elderly, which stems from the historical background from the Japanese colonial rule to the Korean war and the current confrontation between the two Koreas?

Presumably, what is different from the almost forty years of Japanese colonialism is that the country dominating them has been changed to the US ever since Korea were liberated from the Japanese rule. Even so, I cannot understand why Park’s supporters get an American flag placed right beside the national flag. Is it an intentionally chosen behavior or unconscious one? Or a bit of both? What on earth do they want to prove or represent? I cannot understand why they are crazy about America, why they argue South Korea should not upset the country, and why criticizing the US is considered to be pro-North Korean and all these questions have confused and irritated me for so long. However, one thing for sure is that what my country has achieved within a relatively short period of time in terms of economic growth cannot be discussed without thinking of the US as one major contributor. Whether most of the Koreans like it or not, what this country takes up in Korean economy is so huge that it cannot be ignored. Given the strong influence that America has had on my country – although it hasn’t dominated Korea as Japan did during the colonial period, it might be obvious that this country is deemed as a favorable friend and solid ally in the elderly’s mind before they know it as Fanon argues the collective unconscious of black people has been formed in the framework of colonial history and colonial domination.

It needs to be analyzed whether the American flags on the rally site are the embodiment of such collective unconscious set against the historical backdrop of Korea’s phenomenal economic growth, where the US played a vital part, or an intentional message saying, “Hey, can you see our loyalty to your country? You are such a solid ally to our country, so please come and help us save our queen, the now-impeached President, who is in trouble.” For now, I just want to know where the lament and grief that I have about this seemingly irrational behavior done by these elderly people come from. Do these feelings just originate either from a simple frustration caused by anger towards them or from kind of empathy brought up by understanding that they cannot abandon the values firmly established in the history of strong colonial influences?

Unruliness with more care?

There was an exhibition hosted by a legislator of the then-opposition party at the lobby of Congress in Seoul, the capital city of South Korea in January. All the paintings were parody artworks. Among the paintings displayed at the exhibition was the one named ‘Dirty Sleep’, a literally translated English title, which is a parody painting of ‘Olumpia’ painted by Edouard Manet.

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Source: The Korea Times/Yonhap

 As you can see the painting above, the impeached president involved in the corruption scandal is lying in bed naked with some sarcastic symbols. This painting triggered controversies instantly on the day when it was displayed. Some conservative group members even visited the exhibition and damaged the painting. The then-ruling party legislators picketed at the lobby, criticized both the host lawmaker and the artist for being disrespectful to the then-President Park, and asked for the lawmaker’s resignation from the National Assembly. They also said the painting was an intolerable act of insult against women, which can be regarded as a sexual harassment. Those who favor freedom of expression, one of the values deemed important in a democracy, defended the lawmaker and the parody artist for what they did.

I believe that it is natural that there have always been fierce debates over controversial issues between those involved in any society whether their own stance about the issues is based on reasonable grounds or not. However, here’s one criticism that I feel perplexed: the parody artwork should have been done with more care; the painting should have been based on the correct understanding of the original painting, ‘Olumpia’ painted by Manet. To be honest, I do not know much about art, so there’s much to say in artistic terms. When it comes to unruliness expressed at the exhibition to criticize the ugly corruption scandal in which the President is involved, however, how should I interpret this unruly event? One thing for sure is that at least the exhibition was successful in drawing attention from the media, politicians, and citizens whether they like it or not and became the space for all walks of life to fiercely discuss what’s the message intended to deliver and further how it should be delivered to those targeted. And I believe that’s the point of unruliness. It could be provocative or easily accessible depending on issues, actors, and surroundings.

If the artist had created the parody work with more care as one of the critics put it, the resulting work might have been more effective and more influential in delivering the message. But unruliness with more care? Under risky circumstances like dictatorship, it should be careful. But South Korea is a democratic society where freedom of expression is guaranteed, and unruliness can let diverse voices heard out loudly through this freedom. Park with the naked body in the painting might look uncomfortable, disrespectful, and unprofessional either for those who support her or those who specialize in art, but what also needs to be considered is that occasionally this kind of seemingly reckless, immature unruliness to express anger, frustration, grief, and sadness can have a profound impact on a rigid society in need of change.