[Viewpoint] Subway passengers say it all

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[Viewpoint] Subway passengers say it all

As I entered a subway station on my way to work yesterday morning, I witnessed the local elections being treated with contempt. As I stepped down the stairways, I saw hundreds of candidate name cards had been thrown on the floor. Campaigners started giving these cards to voters at the station early in the morning, but apparently no one bothered to look at them. The voters don’t care to think about the elections. Inside the station and on the platform, it was easy to spot “election materials” receiving disdainful treatment. It was a scene I’m sure was repeated across the nation, and it simply depicts a pitiful portrait of the June 2 local elections.

I think the public indifference to the elections amounts to contempt. A few days ago, I had a drink with four hometown friends. As we discussed the local elections, their interest was in who will be the next Seoul mayor. They said they were interested in the outcome because it will be linked to the next president, or the one even after that. But when I asked if they would cast ballots, two complained that the local elections were too complicated because they have to elect so many, and the other two said they were not very interested.

Youngsters were even less interested. I asked my 19-year-old son, who is a college student, what criteria he uses to decide on a candidate. He responded with a question: When is the election?

I was dumbfounded. It appears that turnout in the upcoming local elections won’t be any higher than the average 50 percent level of the past four elections.

As I look at the “migratory tribe” on subways, I can see the important role their numbers could play in the upcoming elections. The migratory tribe moves en masse inside a subway car as its destination approaches. It usually moves from the rear to the front, with everybody inside the car struggling to get out from the front door. It’s a strange and deplorable scene that cannot be found in subways of other global cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai or Bangkok.

The members of the migratory tribe share some common points: They are relatively young, and almost always bump into other passengers’ shoulders or backs. Of course, only one out of a hundred of them would say “sorry.”

I can imagine why the migratory tribe moves en masse inside the train. The passengers want to get off from the doors that are close to their destination’s exits so they can save a little bit of time. If I look at the practice with a positive perspective, it could seem like an efficient habit.

However, let’s think for just a second. A subway train is about 200 meters (218 yards) long, at most. Even if you were in the last train in the back, it would take no more than two minutes to walk all the way to the front car. If you were in the middle, one minute would be more than enough.

Then why does the migratory tribe insist on marching to the front door, even when it causes discomfort to other passengers? They appear to be dominated by “collective heteronomy,” rather than individual autonomy. When they vote, what will be their standard for choosing a candidate? When they compare pledges and characters, they should have individual autonomous thinking. But they want something simple, nothing complicated.

All they care about is the number next to their name on the ballot. That is why the candidates for the education officials’ election say that being put on the top is like winning a lottery.

The subway seats designated for elderly, ill and pregnant passengers can be a reflection of Korean voters’ sentiment. During the rush hour, I have often seen that the special seats were left empty. That is a virtue of Korea. Behind that virtue, however, is the traditional philosophy that we value filial piety more than patriotic duty. We often think respecting the elderly is a higher priority than respecting the country.

The stories of Seong Yeong and Hong Hyo-sa, both officials of the Gangwon provincial government during the Japanese Invasion of Korea in 1592, are a good example. At the time, both men lost parents, but their reactions were different. Seong upheld his country’s call and joined the military to fight against Japanese aggression. Hong, however, took refuge to lead his family as the chief mourner. Later, the people criticized Seong for valuing patriotic duty more than filial piety.

There will be voters who value family outings more than voting, which explains why the highways were jammed and more than half of the nation’s citizens didn’t bother to vote in the past four local elections.

We often say that local autonomy is the flower of democracy. That means local elections are much more crucial in our daily lives than legislative and presidential elections. A JoongAng Ilbo report on May 18 confirmed that the mayors and district heads have jurisdiction on 6,615 matters.

And yet public indifference is running high, and I don’t think it is entirely because of election corruption and candidates. The psychology of collective heteronomy toward the country, society and elections is the key problem. It is time to resolve the indifference and thoughtlessness of our society.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is the national news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Choi Hyung-kyu
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