“You asked me to teach you chess and I’ve done that. It’s a useful mental exercise. Through the years many thinkers have been fascinated by it, but I don’t enjoy playing. Do you know why not?
Because it was a game that was born during a brutal age when life counted for little and everyone believed some people were worth more than others. Kings and pawns.
I don’t think that anyone is worth more than anyone else. I don’t envy you for the decisions you’re going to have to make.
And one day I’ll be gone, and you’ll have no one to talk to. But if you remember nothing else, please remember this:
Chess is just a game, real people aren’t pieces. And you can’t assign more value to some of them than to others. Not to me. Not to anyone.
People are not a thing you can sacrifice.
The lesson is, that anyone who looks on the world as if it’s a game of chess deserves to lose.”
Person of Interest, Season 4 Episode 11
I was reminded of this thought-provoking comment from an episode of Person of Interest (it was stunning, do watch the series if you have a chance) after attending a few lessons coincidentally focusing on a particular theme in the past week.
The first was in a lesson about nationalism. We were discussing how the narratives of Korean comfort women were subsumed into a narrative of Korea’s colonial past, and how WWII affected the nation as a whole. Central to the discussion was how the issue of comfort women was seen on a ‘national’ level. The Korean and Japanese governments went back and forth about the issue of compensation for these comfort women, but by doing so, they trivialised their stories by disregarding the self-determination of these women. Their personal stories were being used as a crux for the Korean government to stir up national pride, by using their treatment as a whole as an example of how the Japanese had both metaphorically and literally raped South Korea.
At the end of the intense discussion, my lecturer piped up, “I think one important thing to take away…is that whenever you write about these people, remember that they were actual people with real stories behind them, and not just statistics on a paper.”
A similar discussion took place in my lesson with another lecturer, who was an ex-Secretary General of NATO. When asked about how multilateral institutions make decisions regarding security and their response to crises based on his personal experience, he recounted, “Every morning when I woke up and went to the dining room for breakfast, I would receive a list of all the soldiers and civilian casualties who died in the past 24 hours. That was never nice to come back to. And this is why I think there’s more to making these decisions than pure strategic calculations. These are real soldiers, real people whom you’re sending off to fight.” Just like my previous lecturer, he was making the point of remembering that the discussions we have in class are not hypothetical – they are/were real, and we should treat them as such.
Being a political science student, we often learn about how governments make their decisions, the various theories behind international security, and concepts about governance, amongst other complicated structures. International relations, in particular, has a realist school of thought which tends to assume nations as homogeneous identities , ‘billiard balls’ that interact with each other, if you will. Inevitably, this results in the ‘nation’ taking precedence over the role of individuals, as the earlier examples have showed. People only matter insofar as the status of the ‘nation’ is concerned.
While I ascribe to the realist school of thought and believe that nations always look out for their self-interest first, I feel that this is a dangerous way of thinking. Humans matter. Individual lives matter. It’s so easy to say “oh the US should have intervened in Syria” without sparing a thought about the men and women who actually go and fight. It’s why I admire Henry Kissinger for his political acumen, but am enraged whenever I think about his human rights violations. As the US Secretary of State, he was instrumental in advancing US interests in the Vietnam War and Asia as a whole. However, his actions caused millions of lives to be lost. The realist would write it off as the unfortunate result of strategic political moves. However, that to me personally, is unacceptable, because while for Kissinger the preservation of the status quo constitutes the highest morality, treating morality as an inflexible absolute is not an option in the real world.
An intriguing case has emerged recently in Singapore. MPs have criticised the public service for ‘losing its heart’ when dealing with the needy, because of a need to follow bureaucratic policies. While I agree that this may happen sometimes, I find it ironic that by doing so, the MPs themselves have relegated roughly 143,000 unique individuals in the public service into a collective. Are the MPs themselves the ones who have lost heart then? Was there a political goal in making such a statement? These are food for thought.
At the end of the episode (spoiler alert!), the main character seemingly sacrificed herself to save the rest. The show had hinted at the theme of sacrifice throughout the episode, but I was still shocked when the moment came. It was the most fitting way to end the episode, but a heartbreaking way.
In the grand scheme of things, perhaps the little things don’t matter. After all, nations were built on many deaths. But the moment we see people as statistics, or disregard their personal stories as mere anecdotes for a theory/paper, we start to lose a little of who we are, and the whole reason we learn about them in the first place. Let us always remember the stories, and the people who matter.
Picture credits here.
About the Author
Isaac is a Year 2 FASS student, intending to major in Political Science. He wants to explore and understand the world, but is content with just surviving in university for now. He loves the works of Haruki Murakami, and finds the magical realism in everyday life.