When Numbers Fail

As I reflect on the many things I learned last week at the Hidden Gulag conference, the power of story stands out the most.

Shin Dong-hyuk, who spoke briefly of growing up in a North Korean prison camp, captured everyone’s imagination and brought a room full of DC businesspeople to tears. His co-authored autobiography Escape from Camp 14 is changing the way the world thinks about North Korea.

But not everyone has stories like Shin’s (thank God); so what can the rest of us do?

First let me offer a few suggestions of what I don’t think is working:

#1 – Stressing Huge Numbers

Words like thousands, millions, billions, etc are important when factual. However, those numbers needs to be accurate, easily referenced, and used sparingly.

I’ve been guilty of not citing references to my numbers, at least until people have called me out on it. I can get so excited about something that I want everyone to know “how! bad! it! is!” and crazy big numbers – I wrongly believe – will help me get there.

Unfortunately huge numbers are very difficult for most people to visualize or even believe. So non-profits and activists start adding silly concepts to help people, like “That’s enough starving children to fit around the moon THREE TIMES!” Sorry, but we can’t really visualize that, either. We tune out, overwhelmed, and move on to something manageable like what to eat for dinner.

Plus big numbers, when used too often, encourage us to think about people in faceless, nameless ways. We’re not helping a person when we talk about the  “billions without clean water” – we’re helping a cause. We can do both by focusing on the former, and we’ll become more compassionate citizens in the process.

#2 – Statistics

Like #1, statistics can be very useful. Also like #1, statistics take us to a place that’s hard to visualize; but I think the real problem with statistics is how much of a distraction they can be.

Should the math matter? Absolutely, once we learn the even more important stuff.

No one needs to know the percentage of children who have died in a famine in order to care about it. If a child you personally knew died a slow and horrific death, the percentage of how many children are left in the world wouldn’t matter to you. You would mourn the one child.

And it won’t matter when someone is deciding whether or not to care about other problems in the world, either. A good, true story well told will trump statistics every time.

#3 – Yelling

I shut down when I get lectured about how much I’m supposed to care about something, and I’m not alone in that.

Even though sometimes I want to run up and shake people and tell them how important a cause is, I am learning (sometimes the hard way) that we aren’t wired to respond well to aggression. We want to be invited into something and be convicted with kindness. Don’t tell me to care. Show me; and if you show me well, I will care.

Story: The Trump Card

Which leads me to the big conclusion. When the conference last Tuesday ended, I had a much better idea of what actually happens in North Korean gulags. I left with resources about the subject that could inform me well.

And I knew, if I spent all my energy passing that information on fact-by-overwhelming-fact, it would be for naught. It would sound like #1, #2, and maybe even some #3.

My husband attended the conference with me, and as we stood in the emptying room afterwards neither of us said, “Everyone needs to read this report,” although that would be great. We said, “Someone has to tell these stories.”

North Korea is a foreign place to almost everyone. We can’t visit, and most of us haven’t even met a North Korean. To believe the outrageous statistics and terrible numbers, we’ll have to see the Hermit Kingdom and the people in it. Somehow, we’ll have to have it shoved in front of us in a way that’s just beautiful enough to make us willing to look.

The defectors who make it out of North Korea – often severely malnourished, handicapped, and traumatized – are telling their stories right now. Shin Dong-hyuk is only one example. On Friday I wrote for We Love DC about a different defector who’s become a pop art icon in South Korea by painting satirical propaganda; and the North Korean Human Rights Archives (NKDB) has completed over 10,000 interviews with former prisoners and escapees in South Korea who all speak to the trauma experienced across the border.

You may remember that I’m not a firm believer in raising awareness as a first step. I think the first step should always be to look to the people affected by a problem, learn from them, and then respond as compassionately and effectively as we can.

The defectors know North Korea better than anyone; and in many ways it’s their story to tell. But we can retell it – again. And again. And again.

As people blessed with freedom of expression, we create from what we love. We talk about what matters to us. We communicate online and on canvas the things close to our hearts. And to the degree that we love the North Korean people, we will read and retell the stories they have so willingly and courageously offered us.

I will know that us outsiders to North Korea have learned to love the people inside it when we relay the plight of their gulag prisoners simply because that is what’s inside us to do.


Photo: Song Byeok – “Beloved Leader;” acrylic on hanji; courtesy of www.songbyeok.com

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