[OUTLOOK]In support of eloquenceGrand National Party spokesman Lee Ke-jin has started a small ripple in politics with his experiment of “pleasant talk.” Mr. Lee is determined to use language that can bring a smile to people.
Mr. Lee puzzled people from the day of his debut. Just in time, there was news that Minister of Construction and Transportation Choo Byung-jik had received 50 million won ($48,398) from a man arrested for involvement in the Opo corruption scandal. The opposition party would normally have immediately raised suspicions of bribery and urged the minister to step down. However, Mr. Lee called the matter “understandable.” Naturally, the opposition party insiders are not happy with their new spokesman, who did not use the awaited chance to attack the government. Even Grand National Party Chairwoman Park Geun-hye expressed her doubt and asked those around her whether the spokesman was doing all right.
Mr. Lee’s “soft” speech has continued ever since. Even when the government and the ruling party harshly attack the Grand National Party, he just says, “The ruling party shouldn’t have said that.” He chose roundabout criticism over a direct attack and said President Roh Moo-hyun was “too kind” and “has a lot of time to spare.” While his underlying message is critical and poignant, of course, his use of language is mild and soft. Those who are used to a rancorous tongue might feel his soft language is too weak. It is not certain how long the Grand National Party will put up with his blandness. However, if we look back on the superficiality of Korean politics, Mr. Lee’s attempt is meaningful and distinguished. If his style matures, it will become a restorative not only for the Grand National Party but also for overall Korean politics.
Dignity has long been missing in Korean politics. The acute jokes and sophisticated humor of the past are nowhere to be found, and childish word play and slander bordering on curses prevails. On the frontline stands the offices of spokesman for each party. With an army of deputy spokesmen, the office of the spokes-man spews abusive language. Mr. Lee, whose career involves “speaking” as a former television anchor, must have thought he desperately needed to purify the language spoken in politics, especially in his office of spokesman. Mr. Lee said, “The citizens abhor politics and are tired of the political culture. While I will be still doing my job as an opposition spokesman, I do not feel that my choice of words should cause disgust.” I support Mr. Lee’s cause and hope his experiment succeeds.
The deterioration of political speech is not just a problem in Korea alone. An American magazine, the Princeton Review, evaluated the level of presidents by analyzing the debates of presidential elections. The magazine analyzed the transcripts of the presidential debates with a standard vocabulary search that indicated their educational level. In the 2000 presidential debate, George W. Bush was at a six-grader’s level while Al Gore was at seventh-grade level. In the 1992 debate, Bill Clinton spoke at seventh-grade level while Mr. Bush and Ross Perot were still in sixth grade. John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were judged to be tenth grade, and Abraham Lincoln and Steven A. Douglas debated at eleventh- and twelfth-grade levels, respectively. The research showed the level of debates was worsening as time went by. Hungarian-born British sociologist Frank Furedi claims in his book, “Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?” that politicians are turning the public into fools by treating them like fools.
I would like to ask the magazine to evaluate Korean politicians as well. Even President Roh, who is considered to have a “uniquely eloquent tongue,” is far from being graceful. From when he raised his voice in a meeting with prosecutors early on in his term to the latest replies he has posted on a government Web site, Mr. Roh’s speech and conduct have not been suitable for a president. Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan often speaks with rancor and uses harsh language. What grade would they be in? Some lawmakers with rough tongues might be evaluated as at kindergarten level.
While deterioration of political speech is a worldwide phenomenon, Korean politicians have sunk too low. It’s about time for them to change. I do not expect them to speak fragrant language, but at least, they should not stink. I hope the refreshing experiment of pleasant speech serves as an opportunity to elevate the dignity of political language and upgrade our political culture.
* The writer is the chief of the editorial page of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Heo Nam-chin