[Viewpoint] Don’t underestimate the publicIn 1826, the 26th year of King Sunjo’s reign during the Joseon Dynasty, a poster was hung on the northern gate of the Cheongju fortress in Chungcheong. The bulletin criticized the royal court’s impotence and bureaucrats’ corruption, warning that peasant rebel leader Hong Gyeong-nae would strike the Hanyang palace. The writer, who was bold enough to expose his identity, was arrested and prosecuted. The Joseon court had punished defamation and libel with death, fearing that once written and propagated, what is false can spread as true and provoke the public.
Last week, a judge wrote on Twitter, “I hear the content of social networking services will be censored. I invite the Korea Communications Commission to mark my tweets.” He then quoted the Christmas carol parody song created by popular political satire Internet radio hosts: “You better watch out, You better not peck ... I’m telling you why. President Claus can get you. He’s making a list and checking the tweet. Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.”
In the Joseon Dynasty, it would be like a royal court justice writing up a letter of tirade to the king. In a popular television drama depicting King Sejong’s creation of Hangul, the king is shaken from his core beliefs when the aristocratic class forecasts chaos when the populace learns how to read and write, bearing ambitions to seek power and challenge the monarchy. He is at a loss of words on how to reply because he cannot predict what explosive power the populace can produce upon gaining wisdom after becoming literate.
Koreans traditionally have a penchant for good tales. In the 18th century, there were storytellers on the streets selling stories, reading books and singing folktales in popular tunes. To the religious missionaries who arrived in the hermit kingdom, Korea was a country of wild rumors. People on the streets spent time gossiping, and the talks were mostly false or exaggerated stories. A Russian diplomat who stayed in Joseon in the 1880s expressed awe at the Koreans’ ravenous appetite for stories. He recalled that Koreans were passionate talkers with abundant curiosity. “Koreans love to puff up their stories whenever they can. The tales sometimes evolve into entirely different stories later,” the diplomat said.
The love of tales together with IT technology turned Korea into a champion producer and consumer of mobile and online social networking services. A judge, a member of society’s elite, has come to ridicule the state and its executive. The political satire talk show program that targets the president draws an audience of 20 million. Tales breeding in cyberspace have gained popularity and public consensus, spilling out into the real world and pushing into state authority instead of into the pit of falsehood and irrationality.
Censorship and restraint were demanded. The governing power, although haggard and shriveled by relentless attacks from the SNS-wired masses, started to activate their censoring authority. What would Great King Sejong say to the ruling power’s cowardly counterattack with the weapon of censorship?
If the state comes down from its high horse and approaches the public with sincerity, the cascade of rumors and slander would naturally ebb. Koreans have a fondness for colorful tales, but conspiracy theories and defamatory tales feed the public when the governing elite is deaf to social needs and when the media succumb to sensationalism or one-sided logic. The frustrated populace in the past and in today’s world seeks out alternative sources for information and relief.
Korea is a user-friendly society with rich media sources to whet the public’s appetite. The restraining power is based on a condescending attitude that the populace is ignorant and needs to be guided and controlled. But the public should never be underestimated. From everyday life experiences, the masses have the innate ability to pick out whom to trust or not. They are, in fact, better than politicians in differentiating the real from false.
The public is thrilled by the political parody talk show “Naneun Ggomsuda,” or “I am a Petty-Minded Creep.” They catch and take pleasure at the light of truth and wisdom amid the outbursts of blasphemy. If the public seeks and receives relief and catharsis from the audacious mockery and attacks against the walls of public information, the media and political authority have failed disastrously.
The more rigid and insecure a governing power is, the more it fears reasoning and resorts to authoritative means. The Joseon nobility burned novels and miscellaneous writings, branding them as libel that threatened the social order. They also banned clowns and wandering performers. In today’s world, the four Webcasters of “Naneun Ggomsuda” as well as the judge ridiculing censorship would be considered libelous clowns.
The four bold clowns were invited to perform this week at Stanford University in the United States. They will expose what the mighty people in their country wanted to hide. SNS censorship underscores the authority’s fears.
If King Sejong were alive, he would have been confident enough to allow the people to speak their minds regardless of the risks and repercussions. If the public is given responsibility and authority, it will activate self-censoring power. A society that fears free expression is one lacking trust and confidence in itself.
*The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.
By Song Ho-keun