[Viewpoint] Moving beyond comparisons

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[Viewpoint] Moving beyond comparisons

From the cradle to the grave, people constantly compare themselves with others and in turn are constantly compared.

A boy, for instance, might be compared to the son of his mom’s friend. By the same token, a married man might measure himself up against another woman’s husband.

But comparisons extend well beyond the realm of people.

We are constantly stacking one period or era up against another, comparing, say, the times before and after industrialization or the times before and after democratization.

Nowadays, we often compare the Korea of today with the country of a half century ago.

Living in a society with multiple religions, Koreans also compare beliefs. Those who are searching for religious guidance look at how Protestantism, Buddhism and Catholicism differ from each other.

We are constantly comparing countries to one another as well.

Businesses compare Korea to other countries for investment and expansion purposes. Similarly, when companies here make investments abroad, they compare the potential countries and chose the most appropriate target.

Jonathan Swift, the author of “Gulliver’s Travels,” said that nothing is big or small unless comparison is used.

On a personal level, if you don’t compare yourself with others, you can avoid a lot of misery. At the same time, however, you will never experience the feeling of satisfaction from comparison.

When used wisely, comparison can be a useful tool. Comparison comes in handy not just in our daily lives but also in academia. The comparative method is widely used in various studies, such as literature and political science. Under this method, you examine both the similarities and differences between two or more objects. Masterpieces like “Politics” by Aristotle, “The Spirit of the Laws” by Montesquieu and “Democracy in America” by Alexis de Tocqueville are written using the comparative method.

Tocqueville wrote that one of the positive characteristics of Americans is that they like to form associations and groups. Their tendency to do this is the basis of American democracy.

He also focused on the fact that Americans are more passionate about their religious lives compared to Europeans.

What would Tocqueville have to say if he visited today’s Korea?

He would thoroughly point out the positive and negative characteristics of Korea. He’d show what Korea has and lacks and what we need. He would be able to evaluate the social issues and the country’s national strengths.

Koreans have a tendency to disparage their home country when comparing it with developed nations, often finding something positive we lack or beneficial we need. Through the last few decades of modernization, it was helpful to set goals and objectives by comparing Korea with developed countries. However, Tocqueville would tell us that the developed nations we have been following might not be apt examples now that Korea is one of them. For example, he might say, “Koreans don’t make heroes, and such a trait stands out in comparison to Japan. Former presidents who have made great contributions to the nation by founding, industrializing and democratizing deserve to be heroes, but Koreans look for their faults and mistakes and put them down. However, such a tendency is more positive than negative. Because Koreans like to solemnly investigate faults and merits instead of idolizing those with accomplishments, the leaders have to contemplate their political legacies and stay sharp.”

The latest controversies over capital punishment and free school meals are discussed using comparative methods, with officials uttering phrases like “most developed countries except for the United States” and “some nations provide free meals to school kids” and so on. The champions of free school meals will cite the countries that provide them now. Opponents will then refer to a list of developed countries with no free meals at schools.

Today, the examples from developed countries should be used for reference only. It is more important to consider Korea’s circumstances than to rely on foreign examples.

The social consensus in Korea toward capital punishment, for instance, is more important than what people in other countries think. And the Korean political climate is different from the political structures of other developed countries. We therefore need to look at ourselves first.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is an editor of the JoongAng Sunday.

By Kim Whan-yung
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