[Viewpoint] What happened to public spirit?

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[Viewpoint] What happened to public spirit?

Anyone with a sense of common decency will feel outraged to see video footage capturing the incredibly rude behavior of a young man and a young woman toward elders inside subway cars. Although we weren’t there at the scene, our emotions are stirred. In contrast, consider the public reaction to the massive layoff of cleaning workers at Hongik University and their despair. It has made little impact. Even the university’s students pass by the workers’ protest without a glance, and some deplore the protest, demanding their right to study.

The first incident stirs public indignation, while the latter gets a modicum of sympathy. The two are very different issues, producing different reactions in the public mind. The difference is that we feel deeply about the first case because we take it as a personal matter, while the latter comes within a social framework or several: between labor and management, between right and left.

From the perspective of the public mind, however, the two have a commonality. We are living in an era of individualism and we are used to public indifference. But we are social animals and a society can no longer exist when everyone acts as an individual.

Thinking back to the past, cleaning the bathroom of a house was often the duty of a family’s children. The mother spent all day taking care of the family, the father worked outside to support the family. Therefore, the children naturally cleaned the bathroom, a simple and lowly role based on the sense of community.

School education for the older generation was no different. We cleaned school bathrooms, windows and floors of the elementary school because of the same sense of community, which taught us our responsibility for our common space. Furthermore, we joined community service every week to clean the villages. That was a very important duty and a lesson about our lives as members of a social community.

Contrast the past with today. A mother yells at a child for picking up something from the street, saying, “Why are you touching a dirty thing?” Her comment has a underlying meaning: that there are a certain group of people who handle dirty things - not she or her child - and this notion is absorbed by the scolded child. Children listen to their mothers.

After coming down from a skyscraper apartment building in an elevator, a child gets to school by getting into a car driven by his mother. The child will attend school with classmates of similar family backgrounds and go to private tutoring with them. Mom picks him up in the car and they head home. This child won’t have any notion at all how the road to the school was maintained, how people worked incredibly hard to build the apartment building or what life is like for other children who have different family backgrounds.

The child will build his or her own world.

These children will grow up, pass exams, build careers and become businessmen, politicians, journalists and other professionals. When they become the elite of the society, they will exercise their power and authority for the country and over the country.

It is scary to imagine such a world.

The older generation is different from our youngsters. The older generation, which still understands a spirit of community, is still conceding seats on the subway to elders and shedding tears over the pains of neighbors. But some members have different success stories from ordinary people. Some of the successful people are turning against the community and acting proudly, as if their cheating, unlawful and unfair pasts were unavoidable and justifiable.

Children learn from adults’ behavior.

The elite, powerful people who attend the National Assembly are failing to prove that their sense of community was any better than that of a street vendor at Namdaemun market. Ordinary people have maintained their sense of community, but many successful leaders turned their faces from the values still held by the public. In our society, the two are in an unstable balance.

If this risky balance is handed down to the next generation, with our over-individualized school educations, we have to seriously worry about our future. Public spirit must be the most important standard in all education and the qualification of all leaders. Power must be used for the public, not for an individual. Education must give opportunities to all children, not to the children of elite families. That will be the only way for us to avoid insults and humiliation from the younger generation when we grow older.

*Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a doctor, stock investor and columnist

By Park Kyung- chul
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