[OUTLOOK]Savages and missionaries

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[OUTLOOK]Savages and missionaries

According to the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, the native tribes of certain parts in South America would capture white people and put them in water to see whether they really died and rotted. They wondered if whites were immortal. And on the other hand, white missionaries even debated earnestly among themselves as to whether the natives had souls to be saved. Mr. Levi-Strauss’s book “Tristes Tropiques” is devoted to describing this mutual ignorance.
Recently, the leader of the government party was toppled from his position because of something his late father did before he was born. His father was born about 10 years after the Japanese annexed Korea and was still in his mid-twenties when this country was liberated. He attended an elementary school set up by the Japanese imperial authorities and was educated for over 10 years to become a citizen of the Japanese empire. The days of his youth coincided with the time when the Japanese were desperately pursuing their last attempts to brainwash the Korean people.
A few days ago, I saw on television that another legislator in the government party is under fire for her father’s career during the Japanese colonial period. As of now, only the organization to which the legislator’s father belonged is known. There are no known details of his deeds or any pro-Japanese activities. Yet a political storm is already brewing over the matter. What has happened that we are living in such dark ages?
The government party insists that it has no intention to apply a guilt-by-association principle in its current movement to dispel historical inaccuracies, but no one can deny that innocent people are indeed being put in the spotlight for their ancestors’ “sins.” And if the standards are even more strictly applied, there would be even more people, including legislators of both the government and opposition parties, who would find themselves “guilty by association.” Political careers are being ruined because of wrongs that were committed by a forefather 60 years ago at the earliest. How could such a thing be happening in our society in the 21st century?
The main concern is not in the resurrection of this cruel and irrational system of implicating all those associated with a guilty person. What is more worrisome is the division, strife, wounds and animosity that would be reproduced on an enlarged scale while politicians are risking their careers in attacking one another with such accusations.
Admittedly our society hasn’t always been harmonious and unanimous. But the atmosphere of conflict and strife has never been as serious as it is now. These days, tolerance and understanding have become obsolete in any dispute between conflicting forces in our society. Persuasion and patience are not options anymore.
What is truly fearful is not the heightened tension and strife in our society and the accumulating wounds and hostility, but the ignorance that this breeds among us. This ignorance would lead us to deny one another and to aggravate sentiments of “mental massacre,” often impelling us to fall to the temptation of violence. No third party would be safe; he would be forced to choose between harsh and merciless options and this would ultimately breed a psychology of civil war.
People who differ in political ideology and in opinions about the world and life in general are not trying to understand and acknowledge one another, and are breeding ignorance based on bias and subjective judgments instead. Our society is starting to resemble that of “Tristes Tropiques.” Whether this ignorance is a passing phase or a step in the path toward a tragic conclusion, we do not yet know. Let’s go back to Levi-Strauss for clues. He said while the Europeans and the South American natives were equally ignorant of each other, it was more humane for the natives to suspect the white people of being gods than it was for the white people to suspect the natives of being animals. That is the kind of attitude we need right now. No matter what kind of strife and conflict we may be in now, let’s have the wisdom and humbleness not to suspect the opposite side of holding different opinions because they are soulless animals, but because they have a more superior and nobler disposition that led them to reach such conclusions.

* The writer is a novelist. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Moon-youl
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