[OUTLOOK]Appreciating differences

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[OUTLOOK]Appreciating differences

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, who was born to an African-American father and a Korean mother, won the 2006 Super Bowl’s most valuable player award. Thanks to his fame, people are taking an increasing interest in mixed-race Koreans, and society is paying attention to the plight of the mixed-race citizens who have been discriminated against in Korea. Why have mixed-race people become such an issue in Korean society? Maybe it is because the country has been inhabited by a single race for half a millennium and maintained its ethnic homogeneity despite numerous foreign invasions. Or it might owe to the fact that the country is divided into the South and the North, and that the confrontation has further expanded to antagonism between the eastern and the western regions of the nation. The polarization of Korean society is more serious than ever, with confrontations between the Honam and Yeongnam regions, the progressive and conservative factions, the governing and the opposition parties, the young and the old, the rich and the poor and employers and employees.
Why is Korean society divided into two sides, in such a way as “our side” and “your side” or “our side is good, but your side is bad?” And why do we confront each other and suffer from conflict?
People have a tendency of distinguishing “my side” from “your side” based on very small differences and then treat the two groups differently. In a psychological experiment, the participants were shown two pictures and asked to choose one of them. They were then given two lists of names, one of those who chose the same picture and the other of those who chose the other one. Although the participants had never before met one another, they tended to consider those who chose the same picture as themselves as better people. A man gives preferential treatment to the group to which he belongs and discriminates against the other group because of such a small difference. How does such a trivial difference amplify into extreme discord and confrontation between groups?
All groups have a set of rules by which their members abide. Even if the rules are against socially accepted values, the members are strongly influenced by the rules of the groups to which they belong. For the exclusivity of the group, rules that exert a strong influence on its members are created at a point where differences within the group are minimized and differences with other groups are maximized. Therefore, the rules are often made not at the median point but at an extreme point. The extreme group rules increase differences in opinion with the other groups and encourage group members to be more hostile and confrontational.
An interesting fact is that those who blindly follow the extreme rules and aggravate confrontation are not the central figures of a group, but peripheral members. In order to elevate their presence and out of a desire to become a central figure, the peripheral members behave with more extreme bias against the other groups. According to research on racial discrimination in the United States, the class that discriminated against African-Americans the most was not central members of the mainstream Caucasian society but the peripheral members, the whites with a similar social and economic status to blacks in slums.
Let’s look back and consider whether we have been promoting unnecessary division and polarization. If you are a central member of society, or want to be a true key player, you should break away from such a habit.
First of all, we need to do away with the group concept, such as mixed-race, Yeongnam natives and the haves, and think of individuals as independent human beings. That way, we can get out of the dichotomy of “our side” versus “your side” and be more open-minded about diversity.
It is important to acknowledge diversity ― that people can have different opinions from mine. We need to understand that being different is by no means being wrong. Everyone has a different standard of judgment. Let’s grow out of the immaturity of thinking that having a yardstick with a different gradation from mine makes a person bad. The understanding that being different is not being bad will ease confrontation and discord in our society and, moreover, bring greater reform and development than expected.

* The writer is a professor of psychology at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kwak Keum-joo
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