Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Can Empathy Solve Class Conflict? A Brief Analysis of Houston Coley's Review of Parasite


About a month ago, rising YouTube star, writer, and filmmaker Houston Coley penned a piece reviewing the movie Parasite. His conclusions were essentially that the movie forces us to be empathetic towards both rich and poor, and that, in the end, violence isn't the solution to solving wealth and class inequality. Coley's implication seems to be that change cannot occur from the bottom-up—instead it must flow from the top-down. He states as much when he concludes with the following:

"I think many of us, including those who belong to the middle-class, probably have a level of self-inflicted ignorance toward the margins, too. When you start to feel empathy for the have-nots, it often demands action, and that’s scary. But if Parasite does anything in the lives of the middle and high-class people who see it, I hope it shines a light on those margins, creating empathy and demanding action."

While I had other problems with the review—primarily how it side-steps the role that race and ethnicity play in creating class division in South Korea—I'll focus the bulk of this article on analyzing the claim that we should rely on the empathy of the middle and upper classes to create positive change in society.

It is true that change is nearly impossible without the backing of some who are well-off. But it's dangerous to say that the poor should relinquish themselves to the fact they they will never be able to do anything without the assistance of the middle and upper classes. In fact, to use history as an example, it seems to me that in most cases where change occurs, it's first lobbied for by the lowest of the low, who's persistence and action over the years slowly attracts enough of the upper classes to their cause, which finally creates a tipping point in public opinion, whereupon permanent change (albeit usually less radical than what was initially intended) is wrought.

A prime example of this can be seen with both abolitionism and the civil rights movement. For the former, it required violent and non-violent resistance on the part of slaves against enslavers to create a political opening for antislavery ideology. For the latter, it required the blood, sweat, and tears of black radicals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to make civil rights so pressing of an issue that mainstream politicians were forced to do something about it in the 60s.

And so, to contest what Coley states when claiming that Parasite "reinforces the idea that violence is ultimately futile, and may further cement [class] divide[s]," I would argue that the moral of the story is that such drastic measures (which don't always have to include violence) are often a necessity in jolting the rich from their "obliviousness to the problems of the have-nots." The fact that these violent measures led to negative outcomes for the poor family in the movie is not an indictment of the acts themselves, or of the role that the poor play in enacting the change they desire to see, but an indictment of a system that forces them into such situations to extricate themselves from their subservient position in society.

If the poor did nothing at all, and instead relied on the empathy of the middle and upper classes, we'd probably go nowhere in terms of societal progress with regard to eliminating wealth and class inequality. I understand, I think, where Coley is coming from with his closing remarks, that hopefully viewing Parasite—and not being subjected to actual class warfare—serves as the impetus to getting the middle and upper classes to take inequality seriously.

While an optimistic sentiment, and one I would like to subscribe to, I doubt that cinematic brilliance alone can save us from our tendency to take advantage of those who require the most assistance. Real change requires action, not passivity, and that action isn't always pretty to look at.

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About The Author

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Nicholas Garcia (M.A.) is a PhD Candidate at the University of California, Davis. He is also a Co-Founder of the Bulosan Center for Filipino Studies. Previously, he contributed to Lifehack.org and the Davis Humanities Institute.