[OUTLOOK]Authority and authoritarianism

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[OUTLOOK]Authority and authoritarianism

Our society is faced with an overall crisis of political community that originates in the loss of authority. Korea has become a society where no one acknowledges the authority of others.
Children do not recognize the wisdom of adults and students do not respect the knowledge of teachers. Juniors do not acknowledge the experience of their seniors, and beginners do not admit the expertise of the masters. The concept of authority is altogether rejected in today’s Korean society.
In the 18th century, Europe found itself in a similar situation. Under the banner of utilitarianism, Enlightenment thinkers and activists challenged the church and the monarchy that once dominated European societies. Their goal was to destroy the concept of authority that had given the church and the monarchy unmatched power.
Breaking away from unreasonable authoritarianism in the name of utilitarianism was a necessary and proper development in history, but destroying authority itself along with authoritarianism is not desirable.
Korea is a model case of failing to save authority while rejecting authoritarianism.
Korean politics is caught in chaos largely because politicians and leaders have lost authority. Authority is a quintessential requirement for respectable leaders. True leadership can only be built upon authority. But the president and other politicians are suffering from a chronic deficit of authority. Even the entourage and aides of the president do not acknowledge the authority of the president. Despite an order to keep their lips sealed and stay prudent, Blue House officials speak and behave as they wish.
The absence of authority is apparent on campuses as well. Students no longer feel intimidated by teachers. Instead, they criticize teachers as being “irrational” whenever teachers do not meet their expectations.
The extreme rationalism in politics and society is destined to threaten the organization of the state and destroy the community of citizens in the end. A social community is not a product of reason and logic. A nation is an outcome of customs and traditions accumulated in the course of real lives. Human beings need logic, but rationalism does not define the lives of people. Political community can be sustained only when emotion and logic, development and tradition are organically harmonized.
Skeptics say authority is meant to be authoritarian. They claim that we can only do away with authoritarianism when authority is destroyed.
But we need to understand the difference between authority and authoritarianism. Authoritarianism will bring autocracy, totalitarianism, and oppression, but authority is capable of persuading others when challenged or threatened. Those with undisputable authority can move the people and attract a following without justifying themselves, because their authority is built on the positive premise. On the surface, both authority and power make people obey. But the essential difference is that people are forced to follow power, while they will voluntarily summit to authority.
Authority is applied to a certain academic or social field. When a person is recognized as an authority in an area, it means that people will listen to and count on him when expert opinions and persuasive explanations about that field are needed. A society that recognizes authority is not as noisy as the one we live in right now. When certain things are conditioned, people will accept and respect the guidelines. Authority is not binding, but will bring natural harmony and order.
Those who advocate “reform” seem to believe that anything that is not reasonable should be expelled from the society. While working to create a new Korean society, people should remind themselves of the fate that the utilitarianism of the 18th century brought to Europe.
Europeans were vain to believe that they could create a perfectly rational society by rejecting customs and traditions. But keep in mind that the arrogance of the people gave birth to an era of totalitarianism in the 20th century. Authority does not deny that there is limit in rationalism. It prefers moderation over perfection and takes tradition and life along with logic.
This is reason enough to keep authority alive.

* The writer, a former ambassador to the United States, is president of the Institute of Social Science. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Kim Kyung-won

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