[Viewpoint] The value of uncertainty

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[Viewpoint] The value of uncertainty

Uncertainty makes people anxious, but it sometimes begets power. In the course of overcoming uncertainty, you can accomplish unexpected triumph. For example, the rapid modernization of Korea may have been propelled by uncertainty.

Let’s look at the origin of capitalism. German sociologist and political economist Max Weber (1864-1920) advocated his socioeconomic theories in the “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” According to Calvinistic predestination, God selects some people for salvation and others for damnation.

The Calvinists, including Presbyterian believers, thought that the accumulation of profit and material success were proof of salvation. In the course of resolving the uncertainty over whether you have been chosen for salvation or for damnation, capitalism was born. The psychological pressure from uncertainty of salvation has led to a positive effect.

If Western civilization was propelled by the “salvation complex,” the driving force of Koreans may be the “yangban complex.” You will not find a Korean who does not claim to be a descendent of a prestigious aristocratic clan. In the process of selecting a last name as the country was becoming modernized, Koreans chose traditionally noble last names.

It is rare in the world that every citizen officially has an elite background. Of course, there are many fake noble families. Since the collapse of the traditional class system, it became uncertain who would be able to acquire or maintain the yangban status in the new era. The opportunity was opened up for both real and fake aristocrats.

The abolition of the royal state examination severed the link between the government and Confucianism, and the teachings of Confucius and Mencius became useless. However, the mind-set of distinguishing the noble from the lower class remains. Koreans prefer professional occupations that require advanced degrees and pursue higher education whenever possible.

Also, people who become successful in their careers often run for public office or the National Assembly because government positions have a special significance in Korean culture.

No one likes uncertainty. We all try to reduce uncertainty whenever possible. The Calvinist approach and Koreans’ passion for education are results of relieving uncertainty in a positive direction.

But attempts to get over the uncertainty often exert negative impact on the community as a whole. Political parties make rosy promises in order to use uncertainty to maintain or seize power. The savings bank case and business corruption and wrongdoings may be essentially motivated by the desire to reduce uncertainty in the future.

In a modern system of educating and training specialists, such as in law school and medical school, social leaders may end up bringing a less certain future for the next generation.

Universities are one of the places where the attempt to remove uncertainties is most intense. However, the college degree no longer has the power it once did to reduce uncertainty in the future. The reality in American colleges and universities is similar to the situation in Korea. Graduating from prestigious Ivy League schools does not guarantee employment. It costs over $250,000 to graduate from one of those good, private institutions. Many students and parents end up with large debt payments after graduation.

The bureaucratic system at American colleges is overgrown, and despite criticism, instructors fill teaching positions when professors take sabbaticals. Despite the problems and challenges, the college industry is thriving both in Korea and the United States. In an age of uncertainty, people become more obsessed with what provided certainty until the recent past.

As individuals cling to certainty, uncertainty of the community grows. An individual’s uncertainty often brings good results for society. When we don’t know who will succeed and who will win, practicing fairness and honesty will be possible. We need legal and systematic mechanisms as well as slogans, declarations and campaigns. But as much as the systematic supports, what we desperately need is to recognize the value of creative tension from uncertainty and to restore the uncertainty damaged by the vested interests.

*The writer is an editor of the JoongAng Sunday.

By Kim Whan-yung
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