[Viewpoint] Conflict resolution over a drink

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[Viewpoint] Conflict resolution over a drink

Karakorum, the capital of the Mongol Empire, was the center of diplomacy and trade where delegations, missionaries and merchants from Europe and Asia gathered. The Mongol Empire’s power was a key reason for Karakorum’s importance, but the city was ultimately popular because of the Mongol’s open-minded attitudes to those with different religions and cultures.

In 1254, a Franciscan monk, William Rubruck, paid a visit to the empire’s fourth emperor, Mongke Khan, and informed him that he had come to spread the word of Jesus Christ.

The Mongol emperor hosted discussions, inviting Rubruck, Buddhists, Muslims and Christians. They were guaranteed that they could speak freely, with a single restriction: No one was to say anything that could trigger a quarrel.

A long discussion followed about God, the soul, and good and evil. When one round of talks ended, participants drank while preparing for the next round. As they felt pleasantly drunk, the participants gave up persuading the others with logic. Christian participants began singing gospels, while the Muslims began reciting the Koran. Naturally, Buddhists began meditating. The discussion ended when the participants were three sheets to the wind and unable to continue. In the end, no one was converted and no one was killed.

The Mongol way of dispute settlement suddenly came to my mind while reading accounts of a recent episode in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the United States concerning a potential racial dispute. U.S. President Barrack Obama decided to try to mediate the matter by hosting those involved for some beers at the White House. In the end, though, the Mongol and White House ways are stop-gap measures. Instead of resolving the fundamental problem, a bomb was simply covered up. When the situation changes, the bomb could still detonate.

And yet, the Mongols showed a mature attitude, because they knew that the problem could not be resolved instantly. The best solution, of course, would be to defuse the bomb. The Mongols knew that siding with a particular religion would anger others. Therefore, the emperor ordered them to have a discussion and reach a conclusion on their own without a fight. A panel of judges, comprising equal numbers and representing each religion, was also present, but the matter was not something to be ruled on by them. That’s why no conflict arose and the situation was resolved peacefully.

The situation is similar in the case of Obama’s plan to sip beer with a cop and a scholar involved in a racial row. The black Harvard University professor had every reason to be angry for having been arrested at his home for disorderly conduct. The white cop also had every reason to be angry for being insulted when he asked the professor for his identification. And yet, the things that were particularly thoughtless were the words Obama initially used. If the incident took place during the presidential campaign period, he could have criticized the police for having “acted stupidly,” but it was not something he should have said as the president.

Obama, however, was wise enough to realize his mistake and apologize shortly thereafter. After that, the black professor and the white cop acted even more wisely. As Obama expressed regret for his choice of words, the policeman asked the president for a chance to have a beer together. I found the cop incredibly charming. The professor also accepted the invitation for a beer gathering, although the president had backed him initially but later changed his stance slightly. I found the scholar also very charming.

Such a charm is based on the wisdom of accepting differences and trying to find common ground. Just like a religious dispute, a racial row is not an issue that can be resolved easily. A society possessing such volatile conflict needs the wisdom of avoiding a match to light the bomb. It is necessary to accept that others have different opinions and respect those differences, while trying to find common ground. That is a mature society.

It is probably too much to simply compare Korea with the 13th century Mongol empire or to the United States across the ocean, but it is still disappointing to see drastic conflicts in our society. Whenever a conflict arises, the nation is divided and fights until the end. Some even find it difficult to accept the outcome of a presidential election. An extreme fight over the media industry reform bills sees no end. While a company is on the brink of bankruptcy, employees are divided and fight against each other. While non-regular workers are being fired one after another, no one agrees to resolve the problem.

The conflict between Korea’s left and right cannot be resolved overnight. Therefore, we may need to stay away from it for a while, instead of poking the wounds. We need to respect each other and try to find common ground. Will it be too much for us to have a drink and discuss a way out? Of course, the participants must agree that no quarreling is allowed.


*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Hoon-beom
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