[VIEWPOINT]Selecting the Proper Word Is Important

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[VIEWPOINT]Selecting the Proper Word Is Important

Humans are animals of language. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger said, "Language is the house of Being. Man dwells in this house." Just like the house in which we reside, language is the intangible house for our spirit and our mind. Just like there are different entrances for the bedroom, the living room, and the kitchen of a tangible house, there is a set of promises on words and their word order on which we all agree. The promises allow communication between two or more people. If people cannot communicate through language and there occurs confusion in understanding each other, it is because the name of someone or something has not been called what was agreed upon, and a word order has not been abided.

The Korean society is currently undergoing a great confusion in its "house of Being." Confusion exists to the extent of our calling the roof a garden, and the bedroom a kitchen. If the government says "reform," but the public thinks of it as "chaos," or if the government says "economic restructuring" but the public thinks the core of our structure is being shaken, then it is because both parties are using different set of words than the agreed upon ones.

Now, the confusion over wording has emerged over the word "unification." The president has used the word in such a context, which the public says should not be the context in which the word "unification" should be used.

During the former Kim Young-sam administration, there was an education minister who resigned after calling the South Korean soldiers dispatched to the Vietnam War "mercenaries." Mercenaries are soldiers recruited with money, usually by foreign governments and usually with foreign backgrounds. Mercenaries work only for money, not for political ideology or noble spiritual causes.

Thus, labeling the South Korean soldiers mercenaries may stem from the lips of a North Vietnamese military officer during war, not a South Korean. Such labeling of South Korean soldiers dispatched to the Vietnam War by a South Korean education minister is a ridiculous happening.

When the president of a country uses such wrong words that do not fit to the political situation, the public will start to wonder about the government's ideology, orientation and goals.

During the speech to mark the anniversary of the nation's military, President Kim Dae-jung referred to the 1950-1953 Korean war as "an attempt for unification by force" that failed. It was clearly "an attempt to unify under communism" in the sense that the war tried to break down the South's liberal democracy and unify the two Koreas into a communist state. The North Koreans may call it "unification," but for the South Koreans who hope for liberal democracy, can the word "unification" be used to refer to that event?

South Koreans would not dare to use the word "unification" to refer to anything other than unifying the two Koreas through a peaceful and democratic means. So, when the president uses the word in the context that would not be used by ordinary Koreans, not just once, but many times over the past several months, we wonder from which side's standpoint he is speaking.

Formally, the North takes the position that the Korean War is an "attempt at unification through use of force" as well as an attempt to "liberate" the Korean people. The South takes the position that the Korean War was a clear attempt at "breaking down liberal democracy." Where in that description can we use the word "unification?"

What is important to us is not unification or an attempt at unification, but what kind of unification it is going to be. Unification cannot be a goal in itself, nor can it be a good on its own.

It is simply a means for a better life. A means for a better life of freedom, of human rights and of a rule of law that we can pursue.

A liberal democratic system of government embodies these virtues of freedom, human rights and the rule of law. If the Korean War, the legacy of which still looms for us, the word "unification" cannot be used in any relation to the war whatever the intention behind the words.

In the Discourses of Confucius, there is a saying that a name (or word) not used properly will not yield reason, without which, no work or accomplishment will be achieved. This is the famous "using the right word" teaching of the Confucius.

The current miscommunication and chaos raging in our society is because those in positions of power are abusing or misusing the words to expedite their conveniences. Moral decay also occurs from the misuse of words. Fundamentals of morality of the government begin with "using the right word," and choosing and using the proper word is both the beginning and the end of noblesse oblige.


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The writer is a professor of political sociology at Yonsei University.

by Song Bok

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