Though I am but a Beast, Do I Not Deserve To Live?

Choi Min-sik as Dae-su Oh in the 2003 film Oldboy

Every time I have ever come up against this world and reached for the feature of civilization that was supposed to protect me or help me it turned to ash in my grasp. These were phantom things.

This is the grim reality of living in a period where the institutions we depend on are hollow shells, impotent and fearful. These things you spend your life thinking will protect you end up being toothless parodies of the ideals you believe they represent. Once mighty, they are now just cruel energy sinks sapping our will and our strength screaming into their emptiness.

What won me these fights were never these institutions but my demand they live up to the ideals that used to reside in their hearts. I shamed them. I was cruel to them. I mocked their false piety. Their platitudes. I demanded results. I gave no quarter. I accepted no substitute but what was mine by rights as a human being living in a society of human beings that care for each other and recognize they have rights that transcend all status, even as wretched a soul as mine.

You cannot help but be radicalized by it. The system itself pushes you to its fringes. You don’t want to be there, but you cannot escape the cruel reality that if there is to be any hope in fighting this it will require radical action in order to succeed. Doing less invites failure, permits our leaders to compromise and capitulate and tell us that’s the best they can do.

As a young man I bristled at authority as a certain kind of young man must. I rejected the world they wanted to sell me, the lifestyle. It never felt like the life I wanted to live, there never felt like a true place for me in all these careers and status objects. The experience of becoming a father softened my edges, like so many men before me.

So I did what the culture wanted me to do. I got a job and tried to build a career out of it. I bought the car. I saw myself maybe climbing up out of the poverty I was rising up from. I spent within my means. We never got a big mortgage we couldn’t afford, instead we made the place we rented home and worked to at least get the biggest apartment we could afford.

The things I did to try and have a career. The awful, humiliating compromises of my values as a human being. The pathetic self-rationalization I would wrap myself up in to justify why I was doing these things that contribute to the net misery of the world.

What did I do these things for if here I am 20 years older and still facing an ejection from society? Still staring down the prospect of where my family would go if we lost our grip on the tiny piece of security and dignity we have. Still grappling with the annihilation of myself. What did these compromises do for me? What did the people on whose behalf I made them really give me in exchange?

It is only after they make you betray yourself to fit into the world they created that they too betray you and leave you a hull of a human being.

In the 2003 film Oldboy, director Park Chan-Wook weaves a dizzying revenge story that turns into a wrenching Greek tragedy. Dae-su Oh is one day kidnapped and imprisoned for years by an unknown jailer for an unknown crime. Upon his release his search for justice tears on a bloody path of revenge to learn the name of his jailer and the nature of his imprisonment. It is a path that stops dead when he learns the truth and that perhaps he deserved his punishment, turning his revenge sour. Tortured now by his own existence, torn between two moral poles he sees clearly for the first time and pleads:

“Even though I’m worse than a beast, don’t I deserve to live?”

Though I may not be the ideal worker, do I not deserve to live?

Though I may not be the most upstanding citizen, do I not deserve to live?

Though I may not pay the most in rent, do I not deserve to live?

These are the questions that sit with me as I take my own path to justice and what choice have I but to answer in the affirmative? To do otherwise is to accept that some people just aren’t worth a bare minimum of existence. Who am I to judge what is worthy other than to see a human face and recognize a common cause? Who are you?

Where should I go if I no longer fit into what my society considers someone deserving of humanity? Set up a tent in a park somewhere? Perhaps find some peace in that kind of community?

Until the state shows up and takes that little piece of life from me as well. Smashes it with batons and poisons the air with pepper spray.

Photo credit Nick Lachance

Where then, if every door, every possible place of refuge is closed to me or ready to be denied the moment someone decides I don’t deserve to live anymore? That I should be discarded like trash?

We are in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis and our political leadership is failing us. It’s deciding that there are those among us who – beast or angel – who don’t deserve the same protections and dignity as the rest of so called “decent” society. Systems of control like Landlord Credit Bureau and their private enforcement arm Canadian Tenant Inspection Services are helping drive this insult to the sanctity of human lives and homes.

The only hope for those of us now deemed unworthy of continued humanity is to come together with those still entrenched in society and those still clinging to its bottom rungs who are willing to stand with us. People must recognize that the machines of dehumanization that come for my family today will only be coming for theirs tomorrow, that the need for profit will transcend all social classes, all barriers. The escape is rejection of these perverse values of profit over human beings and reckoning with the machinery we built to perpetuate it.

Remember this: “Be it a rock or a grain of sand, in water they sink as the same”.

– Woo-jin Lee, Oldboy