[INSIGHT]Plain speaking just plain badEvery political authority has its own culture and that culture is bound to vastly affect society. Consider food. Knife-cut noodles and monk fish with red chili and garlic sauce were the rage during the Kim Young-sam government because that was what they served for lunch at the Blue House. In the days of the Kim Dae-jung administration, skate, a fish with a flat body, and a type of seaweed known as mesaengi were popular for their association with the president. Even provincial dialects have become fashionable according to changes in the administration. The lolling accents of South Gyeongsang province followed President Kim Young-sam into mainstream culture, and the Honam region’s dialect could be heard everywhere during President Kim Dae-jung’s administration.
Regardless of intentions, presidents and those in power influence the public with their behavior, tastes and habits and often become the object of imitation. The personal culture of political leaders is an important matter of interest in that it could either raise or lower the level of society. The use of military terms and the culture of “bomb drinks” in our daily lives are the product of the long rule of military governments in the past.
Three months into office, the Roh Moo-hyun administration has already hugely influenced society with its unique characteristics. The most salient characteristic of the Roh administration could be described as “breaking formalities.” This can be found especially in the language and well-used expressions of the president, which are already enjoying considerable popularity. “Matsumnida, matgoyo,” which would be something like “That’s right. Yes, righty,” in English, has already become common parlance. The president’s use of blunt expressions that would usually not be used in polite conversation ― “So, you want to have a go at it?” or “Temper rising here” or “I can’t do my job as president!” ― have also caught the attention of the press.
Perhaps influenced by his boss’s frequent slips-of-tongue, the Blue House chief of staff has also bumbled recently. He publicly claimed that he “scolded” the prime minister, who is technically his superior, a complete no-no in any political scene. Another way the Roh administration shows its disregard for formalities is in its sense of fashion.
The no-tie work uniform of the culture minister, Lee Chang-dong, who also personally drives his sport utility vehicle to work, and the stir created by the pro-Roh legislator, Rhyu Simin, when he appeared in informal dress to take his oath of office on his first day at the National Assembly all give the feel of a certain culture within Mr. Roh’s ruling circle.
On a slightly different note, President Roh invited several influential political figures to a Korean ginseng-chicken soup restaurant in a bold move, which was also considered to be breaking formalities.
The real problem, however, is how this culture and behavior of the Roh administration influence society in general. The Blue House calls it “post-authoritarianism.” Presidents in the past lorded over the common public, Blue House officials say, and the Roh administration is trying to get rid of that authoritarian smell. When the president occasionally uses unsophisticated language, it shows his humble and democratic leadership, the Blue House explains.
The no-tie dress of certain officials is also a step toward diversity in a world of men dressed uniformly in dark suits, their explanation goes. And quite convincing they are. It is very desirable that our president should push a democratic leadership that breaks through the formalities to reach out to the people in a friendly manner.
What is still left unexplained is how using low language is the road to post-authoritarianism. Certain words the president used on public occasions were hardly of a kind that exhibited a friendly and earnest attitude. It may be that the president is trying to express his thoughts and himself without frills or too much inner calculation. Nevertheless, has the president considered how his indiscreet choice of words might affect people from elementary school students to office workers, with the resulting degeneration of our language culture and the many negative influences on our children’s education?
Language is not simply language. Language reflects the mind of the speaker. Resorting to coarse language too often will lead to the coarsening of the mind. The language a person uses and his mind cannot be separated. There are enough problems with the usage of language among members of the younger generations these days. Profanity seems no longer to be profane anymore. Even if the older and more responsible generation cannot lead the young people in the right direction, they should at least not mislead them by joining them in using crude language.
The breaking away from old and authoritarian formalities is fine. But dignity, refinement, etiquette and consideration for others are not elements of authoritarianism nor the forces of the reactionary. Rather they should be encouraged and practiced by the government and the political leaders to become models of behavior for broader society.
Shamefully, such virtues seem to have been degraded into objects to be scoffed at these days, while conspicuous, flippant, tantrum-like behavior and coarse language are the manifest models of social interaction.
Is this phenomenon irrelevant to the unique culture of the Roh administration? When the president publicly uses crude language, how do the people react? When the president names flamboyant characters to important posts in the government, doesn’t this endorse flamboyancy in state affairs?
The goal to become a gentler and more refined country is as important as the reforms of democracy and economic competitiveness. It is about time Mr. Roh and his administration paid attention to their “administrative culture.” An important element of governance, they should know, is refining the walk they walk and the talk they talk.
* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Song Chin-hyok