Awareness vs. Action

November 6, 2016 / Jongjin Park

On April 18, 2016, The Sympathizer*, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, won the 2016 Fiction Pulitzer Prize. To characterize the book, Nguyen himself writes in a The New York Times article, "The Hidden Scars All Refugees Carry,"**

Many people have characterized my novel, The Sympathizer, as an immigrant story, and me as an immigrant. No. My novel is a war story and I am not an immigrant. I am a refugee who, like many others, has never ceased being a refugee in some corner of my mind."

The intent of the book is everything the title implies: the sympathy and the empathy towards refugees. Though Nguyen himself was a Vietnamese refugee in a time (1975) when Americans didn’t want to accept Vietnamese refugees, the book’s importance is still relevant with our current situation with the Syrian refugees. He writes, "To some Europeans, these refugees seem un-European for reasons of culture, religion and language." And this is the kind of disconnect that many are criticizing from Nguyen to John Green who said, "Large numbers [of dead Syrian refugees] can feel cold and distant and even kind of comforting because they don’t feel like people," All of these criticisms have the same point: there is a feeling of lack of connection. Because we don’t visually see refugees running, it’s harder for us to empathize with them. Because we don’t physically interact with refugees, it’s harder for us to feel what it’s like to be a refugee. But could there be a case, in which there is a physical connection, but still, a lack of empathetic connection?

For the following, I won’t be talking about something 7,000 miles away. Sam Polk, a former Wall Street trader, witnessed misogyny his entire life. When he was a bond trader for Bank of America, he went to dinner with the managing director and a high-profile client. When the waitress came by and left, one of the men said, "I’d like to bend her over the table, give her some meat." This is one of the many examples he writes in the New York Times article, "How Wall Street Bro Talk Keeps Women Down."*** (Highly encouraged read). He does talk about high cases of sexual assault and sexism’s bad effects for the industry, but his focus is clearly about one thing: casual objectification of women. What he regrets the most, is failing to speak up and do anything about the apparent sexism in his workplace. From "I had to get a look at those tits," said by managing director, to "No means yes, yes means anal," chanted by Yale students, to the so-called "Bro talk," that happens in the workplace producing a "force field of disrespect and exclusion," for women, Polk stood by idly, doing nothing, except forcefully grin.

But Polk wasn’t a misogynist, or at least he didn't identify as one. He believed that sexism was wrong. He was always aghast and disgusted by the misogyny he witnessed in the workplace. Racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, sectarianism, etc. are all real, yet we find it difficult to regard them as anything more than distant problems, not because we don’t see it and not because we don’t find it wrong, but because it’s easier not to see it at all. Three years after he quit working at Wall Street, when Polk found out that his child was going to be a girl, he burst in tears. He realized that the horrible world he was facing, the disgusting reality that he didn't even try to prevent, is going to happen to his daughter.

Polk regrets his inaction to do anything about the overt sexism in the workplace. Today, there are refugees that are desperately wanting a temporary home, but it takes more than just acknowledgement of the problem. This apparent contradiction between being conscious of a problem and believing that one is sufficiently distanced from it to ignore it is another problem that needs to be overcome. Failure to understand doesn’t have to be due to distance or a failure to hear crying voices; it can come from our simple, conscious desire to not care. Nguyen, in his conclusion, writes, "We can be invisible even to one another."

* The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

** “The Hidden Scars All Refugees Carry,” by Viet Thanh Nguyen

*** “How Wall Street Bro Talk Keeps Women Down,” by Sam Polk

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