[SCRIVENER]The art of friendly disagreement

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[SCRIVENER]The art of friendly disagreement

Many years ago I asked a friend why he believed in the existence of evil.

He was one of those people who had a remarkable ability to cut to the heart of something and challenge you. "Pray for an experience of hell," he said.

I didn't, but ever since I've accepted that religious experience has to be experienced to be known. It can't be argued, for or against.

Another time, my friend and I were arguing about language and, being right because I'd studied linguistics in college, I grew a bit heated. Then he said, "You may be right or I may be right. I guess that will become clear to us later. But right now what's important is whether we can disagree and still remain friends."

I was right, of course. He was trying to convince me that my use of slang -- I'd said "bread," meaning money -- reflected a mental sloppiness, whereas my point was that language was constantly changing and you couldn't slap such hard and fast judgments on its use.

But my pseudo-intellectual theory of language had been rendered moot by a deeper truth and, from then, I began to develop an aversion to -- the very Western -- tendency of judging people, accepting or writing them off, according to whether they agreed with your opinions.

Such lessons are, of course, part of growing up. But they came for me at the right time and, most important, from someone who accepted them as insightful. He later, appropriately, became a therapist.

I once fancied myself a deep-thinking adviser to modern youth, but eventually I realized I was not cut out for the job. For example, I've occasionally employed the "pray for an experience of hell" line, only to be met with blank stares, or disagreement.

The special piece of wisdom that has received the most blank stares derives from something that this same friend said to me on the day 20 or so years ago that Margaret Thatcher declared war on Argentina over the Falkland Islands. The news of the British Navy steaming south to challenge a dictator stirred my crusading patriotism. As a fellow Brit in New York, I thought he'd feel the same.

"I have no interest in what Britain does unless it serves to better the world," he said. This irritated me. Are you with us or against us, Gandhi? I thought.

But I knew what was really irritating me was that he had articulated something I recognized to be true and that had exposed my bellicose enthusiasm for teaching the Argentines a lesson. The lesson: There are higher causes than nation.

This is an idea I find that Koreans have great difficulty with.

But it's something that over the next 100 years, Koreans and others are going to be facing as the concept of nationhood dissolves.

And why, pray tell, do I think like this?

As we become wealthier, freer and more informed, it starts to become patently obvious that, as rich and diverse as our cultures may be, we humans are remarkably similar. And once we can agree on a few things, like free markets and elections, the rest of our disagreements need not stop us from being friends. At this point, national boundaries become as relevant as county boundaries.

In the future, saying you come from Korea or Japan will mean as much or as little as saying you live in Mokpo or Gwangju.

Factual, interesting but pretty irrelevant when it comes to your values and loyalties. Those belong to the planet Earth, nay, to the galaxy.

If you don't believe this, pray for a vision of peace.

* The writer is managing director of Merit/Burson-Marsteller and author of "The Koreans." He is a member of the JoongAng Daily ombudsman committee.


by Michael Breen

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