[Viewpoint] A question of relativityA crisis for a country can start from within. A country can rise or fall on internal factors. History has been witness to numerous collapses of powerful states brought on by themselves. Internal conflict can also invite provocations from outside. But if a nation is internally solid and unified, it can withstand any risks and challenges regardless of its size. The biggest cause of implosions are crises in values. If traditional beliefs are shaken, people turn gullible and collectively succumb to a state of doubt. Too much diversity and individuality can muddle up a society and send it into turmoil.
For the sustainability of a state or community, fundamental guidelines should be upheld. We are at a loss these days because our social guidelines have shifted ground. Police firing water cannons at illegal demonstrators came under attack. The ruling party scolded the police for firing cold water at people in wintry weather.
There are talks of human rights violations. But nobody raises the issue of the simple breaking of the law. Police officers, including a district police chief, were beaten by a mob while trying to contain street protesters. What should come first: Containing illegal protests or upholding human rights?
Tear gas was set off in the National Assembly’s main chamber. The opposition lawmaker who threw the canister bluntly said that what he really wanted to do was to blow up the National Assembly. His action was in response to the ruling party’s railroading through of the ratification of the free trade deal with the United States.
Opponents of the deal say his action was just. Does that mean the minority in the legislature has the license to commit acts of terrorism if their voice is disregarded? No one seems to know the answer to this question.
Judges are expressing their opinions through social networking services. They claim that, as citizens of a free country, they can express their opinions in any way they please. But judges are not ordinary citizens, as long as they sit on the bench. If not for their office, they would be free to say whatever they want through Twitter or on Facebook. Is freedom of expression more valuable than the political neutrality demanded of a sitting judge? We live in an age of serious vagueness on some very important and fundamental issues.
There is less conflict in value judgment in a stable society. A society should respect diverse values and individuality, of course. And conflict in values can arise because a society is in constant evolution. Democracy must surely respect and tolerate the values of a minority. Diversity must be acknowledged and respected.
But there must be some kind of prioritization of values important to the nation.
What confuses us is relativism. If you consider all values to be relative, there are no absolute answers. We cannot definitely say which is better: communism or democracy. Song Du-yul, a South Korean philosopher in exile in Germany, suggests a so-called immanent approach to North Korea. In his relative perspective, North Korea has its reasons to dominate its people and violate their human rights. By getting in North Korea’s shoes, there are few things that cannot be comprehended or accepted.
When seen from a relative viewpoint, everything is understandable and tolerable. But do values become universal just because we understand them? What should I believe in most of all? What values should our society pursue? Pragmatism is also paradoxical. What defines pragmatism is the situation at hand. But contradictions arise in pragmatism as different situations demand different actions, judgments and values. Fundamentalism, with its inherent rigidity, cannot keep up with changes; but pragmatism, with its inherent flexibility, can lose its way.
We have neglected value problems because we were too busy making a living. We have not taught our children what values to respect and abide by. Because we were busy trying to make money, we left value education in the hands of anonymous worker bees. Education and culture build thoughts. We have come to discount law and order because our education and culture have taken it for granted.
The Constitution and the law are the crystallizations of the values of a community. They become the basis for all actions by a country’s citizens. The law cannot be regarded in relative terms. Even a democracy cannot dominate the law. If the law does not reflect social values, it should be revised. But once a value becomes a law, it must be obeyed for the sake of sustaining a community.
Welfare is the big topic these days. The wealthy are commanded to fulfill their responsibility to society through donations. But the society we desire does not arrive just through sharing material goods.
A truly rich country is one where the values we believe in - such as individual freedom, responsibility, human rights, prosperity and justice - are upheld and handed down to future generations.
*The writer is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Moon Chang-keuk