Otto Warmbier was a 22-year-old American who, early in 2016 was convicted by a North Korean court of stealing a poster. He was put in a North Korean prison, until he was returned to the US in a coma on June 13th of this year. Warmbier died without waking up on June 19th.
A few progressives have responded by saying… Well, I’ll let Affinity Magazine’s (now deleted) tweet speak for itself.
The comedian Larry Wilmore (who I’m usually a fan of) also criticized Warmbier harshly about a year ago, making fun of Warmbier for crying as he begged for mercy:
Look frat bros dudes, if your hazing includes international crimes, you’ve got to read the fine print on your American frat bro warranty. It’s all the way at the bottom so it’s easy to miss, but it says: “Frat bro privilege not valid in totalitarian dystopias.” Listen, Otto Von Crybaby, if you’re so anxious to go to a country with an unpredictable megalomaniac in charge, just wait a year and you’ll live in one! It’s coming, you guys! You know that shit is coming! Make America Great! It is catchy. I’m going to cry. Okay, to get a better sense of Otto, let’s talk with some of his fraternity brothers. So, please welcome Preston and Hawes. So guys, is it upsetting to see your frat brother begging for mercy in North Korea?
Do I have to explain how repulsive that is?
(Wilmore apologized a couple of days ago.)
The writer La Sha wrote the HuffPost article “North Korea Proves Your White Male Privilege Is Not Universal.”
It’s important to note that La Sha’s article was written before Warmbier’s coma and subsequent death. Also, the article’s approach is all over the place; for a few paragraphs, it verges on satire, demonstrating what it would sound like if people responded to Warmbier’s case the way many whites respond to police shootings of Black people. But that satiric tone, if it was intended at all, is ambiguous and not maintained. Both the introductory paragraphs and the conclusion seem very much in earnest.
All these views fall somewhere on the spectrum from wrong to disgusting. Here’s why:
1) It’s blame-the-victim. Placing the blame on a victim when what happened to them is grossly disproportionate for whatever they allegedly did wrong is, well, wrong. And it blames the wrong person.
The reason I object to people saying “well, rape is horrible, but she shouldn’t have gotten drunk” when a woman is raped is not that I think it’s never a mistake to get drunk. (For example, if she had gotten drunk, slipped in a puddle, and thereby gotten mud on her favorite shirt, I probably would think it’s her own fault for getting so drunk.) My objection is, first of all, that it’s unreasonable to say “well, she shouldn’t have gotten drunk” regarding a rape victim, because the harms she suffered is so grossly disproportionate to anything she did wrong, that bringing it up that way is frankly indecent. And, secondly, it fails to put the blame where it belongs – on the rapist.
That the person acknowledged “rape is horrible” in passing on route to their main point doesn’t change any of that.
The logic in this case seems similar to me. Even if Otto Warmbier did steal a poster, what happened to him was so vastly disproportionate that blaming Warmbier himself becomes indecent. And La Sha’s passing acknowledgement that the punishment was wrong doesn’t make it okay.
2) All of these people take it as fact that Otto Warmbier stole a poster. But we don’t know if that’s true. The face of the man in the video is impossible to make out. Human Rights Watch called his trial a “kangaroo court.” And it’s safe to assume that Warmbier’s “confession” was coerced.
This is not a trivial point. When we accept without question North Korea’s version of events, we are (effectively if unintentionally) taking the side of the oppressor against the victim.
3) Using “privilege” to explain one individual act (that may not even have happened) is the wrong way to think of privilege.
Privilege is a useful way of talking about aggregate disparities between groups of people. We can say, for instance, that employers favoring thin job applicants over fat job applicants (because they assume fat job applicants are lazy) is an example of thin privilege. But we shouldn’t point to a single instance of a thin person being hired and say that it’s an example of thin privilege.
We don’t know that. Even if thin privilege didn’t exist, some thin people would still get hired. Similarly, if even white male privilege didn’t exist, some 22-year-olds would still make foolish mistakes.
Privilege is a little like global warming in this way. We can say for certain that extreme weather events are happening because of global warming. But that doesn’t mean we can point to any one storm and say “this was caused by global warming.” Global warming tells us what’s happening in the aggregate, but it doesn’t establish causation for any single event.
Even if Otto Warmbier stole a poster – and I feel compelled to repeat, we don’t know that he did – we can’t know what caused him to be do that. It could be white male privilege, but it could also be any of dozens of other factors that make up any individual’s personality. Privilege is real and important, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all explanation of any time a privileged person acts badly.
4) It’s not always wrong to politicize tragedies. Sometimes a tragedy suggests policy actions we can take to make future tragedies less likely, and in that case not talking about the steps we could take might be irresponsible. (Questions of time and place still apply, of course). Are there policy options that would make it harder for firms to promise American tourists that visiting Korea is safe (as the tour firm that took Warmbier promised)? If so, now might be a fruitful time to push for that change.
Similarly, BLM activists are 100% right to use each new police shooting as an occasion to push for change.
But it doesn’t follow that every tragedy should immediately be politicized. When we consider responding to a tragedy with politics, we should ask ourselves: Is what I’m saying related directly to a policy change that could have prevented this tragedy? Am I discussing this in a way that disparages the victims? Is talking about this in this way showing a lack of compassion for the victim and their family? Will this actually help in any significant way?
I assume that La Sha, Wilmore, and Affinity Mag failed to ask these questions. They considered only one factor. That’s rigid one-note thinking; that’s doctrinaire politics taking precedence over compassion. And yes, it’s wrong.
I have no interest in being part of a political movement that blames the victim of an authoritative regime; that laughs at the suffering of torture victims; that can’t imagine any priorities other than their own political narratives could ever be relevant. But that’s what our movement would be if Affinity Magazine’s attitude, as displayed in that tweet, becomes the norm.