[VIEWPOINT]Debates Produce More Heat Than Light

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[VIEWPOINT]Debates Produce More Heat Than Light

If you want to be a high-status driver on Seoul's streets, you should invest in voice training. That is because the person with the louder voice tends to win whenever there is a dispute over a vehicle accident. If you attempt to use your knowledge of traffic regulations instead, the street smart person you are arguing with tends to change the subject by saying, "You are not using the proper honorifics in your language." Resolving conflicts through conflict has long been ingrained in Korean society.

Since this is what our society as a whole is like, it is no wonder that the members of the National Assembly who represent them are no different. Legislators with long political careers tend to be those with the ability to fight and to pull the right strings rather than policy wonks and those with compassion for the people. The words that political party spokesmen use are more like those of gangsters than of cultured, intelligent statesmen.

If you try to console yourself by watching intellectuals speak on television, you will become even angrier. Rather than persuading their opponents with logic, most of them enjoy playing with the other side's words. Given the low quality of these intellectuals' debates, it is only natural that viewers would think they are just as qualified to air their opinions on television.

I get the impression that the entire society has recently been arming itself for an all-out war over social issues such as health care reform, North-South relations, chaebol reform, education reform and media reform.

What concerns me in particular is that it is not easy to express an opinion or take sides in any of those debates. Should you try to do so, you are likely to be labeled a "leftist" or a "ultra-conservative." It is a pity that the persons who are the most outspoken in those debates are neither average citizens nor intellectuals who actually have a stake in the resolution of the problems they are discussing.

When your children are engaged in a fight, your stance becomes a choice between blood ties and civic-mindedness. It is natural for most parents to feel that they should take sides with their children even if they are clearly at fault. But even then, those who are civic-minded warn their children about what they have done. Conflicts over social problems tend to develop into fights between ideology and logic.

Logic is something anyone can readily agree with, but arguing over what kind of society we should have brings in many subjective issues and different values and thus may produce a variety of answers.

Ideological struggle based on different values is a reflection of a diverse, democratic society. While you are free to criticize others with logic, you should not outright deny your opponent's existence. Nevertheless, there is virtually no debate based on logic in ideological confrontations these days. All we see is people aligning themselves with one camp or the other. If you are directing obscenities at people just because their ideology is different than yours, then what is the difference between you and parents who blindly take sides with their children?

Most people who call themselves the leaders of either the left or right tend to say nothing substantive in their remarks. A proper ideological debate cannot take place with the primitive position that being pro-reform is progressive and emphasizing market principles is conservative. Where do I belong? I advocate both reform and market principles. If you want to be an ideologue, you should first have a proper ideology and the logic to back it up. Because many people do not know how to argue logically, they tend to change the subject and paint their entire debate in emotional, ideological terms.

While you can blame policy failures as having been responsible for the health care reform debacle, you cannot blame everything on the pro-reform nature of the ruling party. Even if you want to criticize the government's chaebol reform, you cannot dub them ultra-conservative. The reality today is that you are looked at askance even if you criticize North-South economic cooperation based on the economic principle of efficiency. If you emphasize structural reform to lay a foundation for further growth, you are labeled an anti-state person.

Just what does media reform have to do with ideology? I don't understand why the confrontation is taking place along ideological lines. The shaky nature of the government's reform drive stems from an inadequate policy logic rather than from an ideological backlash against reform. The reason why the approval rating for the opposition party does not rise even as criticism mounts against the government is because the opposition has not presented a clear picture of where the country should go from here. The newspapers being investigated on charges of alleged tax evasion should focus their debate on the independent nature of the media rather than bringing in conservative writers to instigate an ideological fight.

Ideological debate without logic cannot garner public support. Press and political parties alike should stop this ideological mudslinging, even though doing so may appear to be a loss in the short run.


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The writer is a professor of economics at Ewha Womans University.

by Jun Joo-sung

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