Possibility Is Not Probability in Korea
By Jon Huer
Korea Times Columnist
Korea is rapidly becoming a possibility society. Everywhere you turn, in the media and on billboards, and in the general push of society and culture, you find Korea's excitement about what is possible.
The English expression, "You Can Do It," is often used to sum up this fever that grips Korea at large. Even conservative newspapers that otherwise lament security risks and rising individualism in Korea are awash with individual success stories in their "economics" and "finances" sections.
This you-can-do-it mindset is one of the latest invasions from the U.S. where Hollywood and Disney conspire to promote this individualist consumption and success idea.
Movies like "Pursuit of Happyness" are typical of this trend: The story, starring Will Smith, has the once-homeless man becoming a millionaire.
The currently popular film, "Slumdog Millionaire," has a similar storyline: You can do it, and all you need is to put your mind to it; with enough luck and breaks going your way, you can succeed and you can do it! You can all be exceptional!
As a sociologist I know something about "probability," statistical or otherwise, the nemesis of "possibility." Sociology teaches us that all life in society is based on probability, not possibility.
While psychology (the pop variety) teaches us that it is possible for us to win a lottery, we do not carry a large money bag with us just in case we win it. It is possible we can get into an accident when we are on the road but we do not have an ambulance waiting for us everytime we drive.
It is possible for a David-like team to beat a Goliath-like team but we generally bet on the Goliath team to win most of the time. It is the probability of life, what is likely to happen, not what could possibly happen, that is the basis of our daily expectations and directions.
In our sane and rational moments, we live by probability, not possibility. It is what is likely to happen to the majority of people that sets the routines of society and personal life. We give this faith a very unappealing name of "probability."
But the appeal of "possible life," not probably life in society, is extraordinary. Every front page, every evening news, every magazine cover, you name it, is plastered with "possibilities."
If one man wins the lottery and 8 million men lose, it is the one man that gets on the front page. If 10 million people safely drove home that night, it is the few who didn't, due to traffic deaths or accidents who get on the evening news.
If a team has an unexpected upset win over another team, a rare occurrence, it is all over the news. If a homeless man becomes rich, he becomes the model of inspiration and success, never mind the thousands who still live on the street, still homeless, and likely to die there.
But, then what explains this extraordinary popularity of the you-can-do-it pitch and why is it so effective as a mechanism of mass persuasion? Most of the people most of the time attribute this tendency to their own natural weaknesses ― moral, intellectual, psychological, personal or whatever ― that has them succumb to the false appeals of possibility while they live and die in actual probability.
While they may realize that their reality is all in probability, they still bet their dreams on possibility. When their reality is, in all probability, nasty, brutish and solitary, they tend to find escape, naturally, in the possibility world of fantasy and, even, illusion. Hollywood and Disney, along with the advertisers on Madison Avenue, who are masters of this fantasy-and-illusion making, are now flooding Korea with their possibility-is-yours life scheme.
Of the nations in the world, the U.S. and Korea are particularly susceptible to this form of addiction simply because the two societies have been most successful in showing that "possibility life" can be "probability life" for many people.
Witness the frontier openness of the American West, the industrialization of scale, the high-tech computer revolution, all of which have spawned the myth and reality of individualism in the U.S.
In Korea, in the last half century, the average annual income has grown from $100 to $20,000, the likes of which have never been witnessed in the normal growth pattern of a society, thus creating its own myths and tall-tales of individual success.
The U.S. and Korea are so different from each other, yet share in the belief of possibility life. No two other societies share this drama of a meteoric rise. But this is so only historically.
Whatever headline there is, whatever magazine covers might convey, our lives remain probably the same today and tomorrow as they were lived yesterday and the day before yesterday, probably until the day we die.
Aside from the few individuals and the few historical times of extraordinary change and possibility, most people most of the time lived quite ordinary lives that are probable to their lot.
Even today, where our lives seem to be changing every minute with new possibilities, such changes are still rare. It is in the very nature of social life that we live today as we lived yesterday, and we will live tomorrow as we live today.
Should we worry? Does this mean that the possibility life energizes people into action while the probability life puts them to sleep? Should we give up the excitement of possibility life in preference to the humdrum repetition of probability life? Quite the contrary.
Those who try to sell possibilities tell you that so few of us can succeed, hence the attraction, but you can be one of those few. How? Since hard work alone is not the solution, as it is not enough to ensure your selection and everyone can work hard, you must rely on luck, fortune, chance and other such elements over which we have, individually and together, little or no control.
Bill Gates would have never succeeded without his luck, fortune and chance, nor would Oprah or Warren Buffett. But life schemes based on luck, fortune or chance are basically the life schemes of dreamers and fantasizers, not real people.
Those who live in the probability world, the world where events and actions follow the logic, rationality and wisdom of humanity, have a different view of life and what life can become.
Instead of false hope in luck, fortune or chance, they believe in the real power of actions and ideas. They believe societies can improve and human destinies change only if they act together to create political movements, power groups, legislative changes and social transformations in the way that would benefit all.
Obviously it is easier to inspire one man with his dreams and fantasies than organize a one-million-man march. Obviously it is easier to use psychological-emotional-individual appeals than to effect political-social-historical changes in society and humanity as a whole. In the meantime, our attention is focused on the moment's colorful, attractive, pleasing appeals of you-can-do-it psychology and advertisement, on the one man who made it than the 8 million who didn't.
How do we, then, explain those few individual heroes and inventers and geniuses who have made extraordinary accomplishments with their actions and ideas? How do we explain the Napoleons, the Edisons or Beethovens?
We have no way of explaining how these individuals did what they did. Otherwise, we would simply re-create all the Napoleons, Edisons and Beethovens we need at will.
Our modern social theories can explain what is only probable, not what is possible. We can predict that Worker X will report to work tomorrow, and many economic and behavioral theories will explain or predict this; but we cannot explain, and there is no theory for it, how Worker X might turn out to be a mass murderer, or kill himself. Science functions only for the probable, for the likely and the routine. For the possible, we still rely on luck, fortune or chance, with much advertisement and fantasy thrown in for good measure.
It is amazing that in this day and age of high-tech science, many are still enslaved to luck, fortune or chance for a large measure of our social lives. Especially in Korea where they can least afford to be fantasizing in self-deception.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.