By Casey Lartigue, Jr.
In the 1988 song "Man in the Mirror," the late Michael Jackson encouraged people who want to make a change in the world to start by changing themselves. Nice thought, but the reality is that most people prefer to use a magnifying glass to examine others. This is especially true of my fellow social activists imploring people to "wake up."
A handful of activists will rally in a circle, but hundreds of fun-loving people show up, with very little notice, to join a snowball fight or mud wrestling festival. Fans fill up huge sports stadiums to support their teams. Two million people, mostly from South Korea, rushed to sign a petition denouncing the judging of an Olympic figure skating competition involving Kim Yu-na. Shaking their heads, regardless of ideology or issue, many activists ask: "Why don't more people care about (fill-in-the-blank important issue)?"
My answer? They may care, but have other priorities and that's fine. There is nothing wrong with free people minding their own business to raise children, work, study _ or to join snowball fights. In business, the customer is always right. For many social activists, people who haven't joined our particular causes allegedly don't care.
I am deeply involved in advocacy for the human rights of North Korean victims of the Kim dynasty, so I often hear complaints from fellow activists about allegedly apathetic South Koreans. I heard the point made forcefully by a respected Korean-American activist at a gathering I attended in late March in the United States. In an ongoing special interview series with North Korean refugees by the website NKNews, one refugee unequivocally stated that "South Koreans are, in fact, apathetic to North Korean human rights." She cited UN-COI commissioner Judge Michael Kirby as saying that South Koreans are apathetic to human rights issues in the North.
Some South Koreans defensively try to explain the apathy, but my advice to activists: Let's focus on the people who have already joined us. As I often say: "If you organize a planning meeting for 100 people, but only three people show up, then you know what? You've got three people to work with. Get started with them, don't focus the meeting on the 97 people who aren't there." There are probably at least 50 NGOs with operations in South Korea helping North Korean refugees, that is a great place to start by forming new alliances and strategies.
Most say they agree, but as Winston Churchill once said; "Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened."
A few people collaborating can get something practical done to attract others. I am co-founder and co-director of the Teach North Korean Refugees project hosted by the Mulmangcho Human Rights Center. We have directly matched 97 North Korean refugees with about 130 volunteer English teachers in the last year. There are almost 50 million people in South Korea. Does it matter that 99.9 percent of them are apathetic about our particular cause and will never hear about us? Koreans as a population may not care, but I found some people who do.
Co-director Lee Eun-koo (South Korean), academic advisers Han Yeon-hee (South Korean) and Victoria Oh (Korean-American), external coordinator Cho Joo-yeon (Korean-American), ambassador Park Yeon-mi (North Korean refugee) and I (American) hold a monthly session matching North Korean refugees with volunteer English teachers. To steal from another Michael Jackson song: We are not alone. We couldn't do it without the volunteers of various nationalities who have joined our project.
The point is: We focus on what we can do rather than brow-beating or guilt-tripping those who haven't joined our ranks. If we can't attract people to our particular causes, then we should reflect on our tactics, message, focus and funding strategy. The fault, to borrow from Shakespeare's Cassius, is often in ourselves, not external factors. Even after that kind of strategic self-assessment, it could still be that people won't be interested. That's life. But that doesn't mean others are apathetic, that there is anything wrong with them minding their own business or that they deserve to be criticized for not joining.
When I hear complaints that people don't care about a particular cause, I ask the advocate to explain what it is he or she is doing to attract newcomers. In most cases, they will admit: Nothing. For those who say they have tried, then what was Plan B or C when Plan A didn't work? That approach may be more challenging, requiring them to think more deeply or plan differently. Activists who truly want to make a positive change in the world should reflect more on the man in the mirror rather than turning a magnifying glass on society.