[Viewpoint] Is there an antipathy gene?

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[Viewpoint] Is there an antipathy gene?

In his book “Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans,” the historian Plutarch warned: If you defy the will of the public, you will fall by the hands of the public; if you follow the public, you will fall with them.

The ancient sage was rebuking two phenomenon: the condescending leader who lacks a connection with the people and the leader who resorts to populism to gain public approval. The last government erred by taking an easy ride on the populism bandwagon, and the current for its lack of connection with voters. The wise man’s insight into human nature unfortunately hit the bull’s eye on our contemporary leaderships’ wrong turns.

Connection starts not through the lips, but the ears. The ears must be open in order to reach the heart. When forming the Chinese character for “wise,” you must first write ear, then mouth. From ancient days, we lauded rulers who listened before they talked, and called them “wise monarchs.”

The tongue has no bone, making it pliable. But the tongue does not always deliver tender words. It can be the source of malice and coarseness like a rough child who was badly raised.

We find a puppy adorable because it wags its tail, not its tongue. It would be less likable if it only barked. A government too can get the boot if it talks incessantly and never listens, and we have seen many such cases in our history.

A true connection cannot take place if one chooses only words that are pleasing to the ear. The ears of an authority must be open to the right as well as to the left. Voices of lament, ridicule and rage are being registered from the grassroots of society. Here’s what they’re saying:

“The rich are corrupt and the corruption of the elite class enrages the common people.” “People without jobs are everywhere yet the government is excited about positive economic data.” “Key government offices are dominated by people from a certain region and background.” “The national security leadership is stuffed with people who have no military experience.”


“Sons of the elite government class are nowhere near the military front lines.” “The government has lacked competence in every major affair including the Cheonan crisis, the Sejong City revision and the four rivers project.” “The ruling party, despite its crushing election defeat, is busy fighting among factions.”

If the ears of the leadership are deaf to these messages, it is cut off from the public and must await judgment by the hand of the public, as Plutarch warned.

But the ruling clique is not alone in suffering from a connection deficiency. The opposition tends toward populism. But leaders often resort to populism in order to pursue self-serving interests rather than to serve the people, a stopgap to divert attention from a problem and an expedient political instrument to mislead the public.

The opposition must give some thought to whether it really wanted to address public needs, or whether it used the people and took them for gullible fools.

Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset chastised the “revolt of the masses” against culture and reason, swayed by populist aspirations. History can instruct us how a society can turn maniacal when masses are endowed with authority and encouraged to rebel against common sense and reason.

The German Nazis and Chinese Cultural Revolutionaries are good examples of Plutarch’s warning against falling with the public.

Both polar ends of the right and left coexist north of us in a closed society worshiping an outdated Socialist revolutionary personality cult. Such a society is headed for an inevitable end.

Our society is clamorous with quarrels among different regions, ideologies, generations, classes and political parties. Uncensored liberty and freedom of speech allow some to paint North Korea, with its record of testing nuclear arms and firing torpedoes, in a favorable light, and South Korea as anti-unification and full of war-hungry maniacs.

Civilians sent a letter to the United Nations condemning an investigative report by a multinational group of experts on the Cheonan sinking. Factional disputes in the royal courts of the Joseon Dynasty would have been child’s play compared to today’s rants against the government. We have to wonder if there are some kind of inherent genes of contradiction and antipathy running through the blood of these people.

Laozi, in Daodejing, wrote: “He who knows does not speak, and he who speaks does not know.” How can we expect a connection between the politicians and civilians who consider themselves perfect and their opponents undeniably wrong?

*The writer is a partner at Hwang Mok Park and former head of the Seoul Central District Court. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Lee Woo-keun
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