[VIEWPOINT]Corruption rooted in our psycheAlthough there have been several changes of administrations here, there is an unchanged “task for reform” ― clamping down on corruption in our society.
Despite the determination of past administrations, their anti-corruption policies failed to make much of a dent in the problem. The so-called “participatory government” of President Roh Moo-hyun, which emphasizes morality, also says it will fight corruption as its overriding task for reform. I hope the policy will be successful this time.
The unfulfilled nature of anti-corruption policy here is indicated by a survey on nations’ corruption perceptions. In the index compiled by Transparency International, Korea ranked 48th among 90 countries in 2000 and 42d among 91 countries in 2001. Korea is the 14th largest economy and the 13th largest exporter in the world, so this low ranking makes me wonder if our moral status matches that of our “advanced economy.”
Faced with the ceaseless outbursts of corruption scandals, I sometimes feel that corruption has taken root in Korean society and is not just an incident. We are greatly disappointed with the political corruption in which our leadership is often involved, but upon closer inspection, corruption in our society is not restricted to a specific class. Corruption is so widespread and so deeply rooted that we can no longer decide who are the victims and who are the offenders. In our everyday lives, we often see people make compromises with big or small corruptions whether in the name of humanity or virtue. When others do something bad, we think it corrupt or dishonest, but when we do something similar, we rationalize it. We are strict on others while being generous to ourselves. We may have the same attitude toward corruption in our society.
Deep-rooted collectivism based on connections played a large part in the spread of corruption in our society. A psychological propensity towards collectivism is apparent; Koreans regard groups as extensions of themselves and the good of the group becomes paramount.
People with collective mentalities tend to ignore warning signs from outside, thinking that they are moral and safe from danger. This is why collectivism is vulnerable to corruption.
The anthropologist Ruth Benedict explains the difference in behavior patterns using cultural patterns such as a “shame” culture and a “guilt” culture. In a shame culture, people feel ashamed only when they are conscious of another person’s gaze, but even if they do something wrong, it doesn’t matter at all if they are not caught in the act. She says that in a shame culture, people tend to feel chagrin instead of guilt when the latter emotion is the more appropriate. In contrast, people in a guilt culture feel the pricks of conscience or guilt regardless of whether someone is looking. In general, the shame culture represents a collectivistic culture while the guilt culture represents an individualistic culture.
In most cases, people involved in corruption scandals feel chagrin instead of guilt or they are connected with either large or small-scale corruption without feeling any particular shame or guilt. Because this pattern of behavior is typical in a collectivistic culture, we can reconfirm that corruption in our society is closely related with such a collectivistic consciousness.
So corruption is related to a collectivistic propensity, and in order to fight against corruption, the government should start with guarding against and monitoring collectivism grounded on interest groups and ideological relations, including academic, regional and blood ties. There are many pitfalls of collective thinking that collectivism can easily fall into. And if people at the core of political power strictly apply this strategy to themselves as well, there will be a greater reliability in policy and its spillover effects.
* The writer is a professor of journalism and mass communications at Kyunghee University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Kyung-ja