[Viewpoint] Where is the gray zone?Opinions in our society today must be either black or white. Any blurry ones are shoved aside. In a newspaper interview, novelist Yi Mun-yol criticized the media for breeding Ahn Cheol-soo, a software mogul and professor receiving strong support from liberals and young people to run in the next presidential election, with its hype over his chances in the race.
Yi was immediately bombarded with verbal attacks by Internet users from the liberal front. He may have been superfluous in his guesswork, but as a social intelligentsia, he was right to raise questions about Ahn. The opposition camp, which is equally fearful and envious of Ahn, also had been accusing Ahn for keeping a low profile despite the public spotlight.
Progressive Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon receives similar negativity from the conservative population. But many of his actions are commendable. After touring Seoul Station, he ordered heated shelters for homeless people camping out in the station in cardboard boxes. Unlike in past years, none of the homeless froze to death this winter thanks to Park.
The archive on democracy at Sungkonghoe University contains an interesting record involving Yi. In the 1992 legislative election, Yi was among the avid supporters of a far-left dissident party. He gave speeches to help the party’s candidates and also allowed his face to be used in the publications.
He was more candid than today’s popular political commentators from the literary circle, Gong Ji-young and Lee Oi-soo. He comes from the same hometown of ruling Saenuri Party Secretary General Lee Jae-oh, who once was a democracy movement activist.
The novelist recalled that his active participation in the dissident movement stemmed from shame over keeping silent during the military regime. The politician Lee, during his activist days hiding from the police, confessed that he borrowed money from a publisher and told him that his famous novelist friend would pay him back in writing. Yi, after learning of Lee’s debt, wrote up a short story overnight to pay the publisher. The two now walk different ways yet nevertheless share a common past.
When Yi received heavy chastising after he referred to progressive civilian activist groups as “Red Guards” in an opinion article in a newspaper in 2001, only three members of the literary world stood up for him. Press-shy Park Wan-suh agreed to be interviewed because, although she does not share the same thoughts as Yi, she could not tolerate his literary works being ridiculed and condemned.
In his book of essays, novelist Lee Chung-joon questioned, “Where does literature stand if a leading writer of our contemporary age is victimized?” Novelist Kim Hoon was also enraged after a couple of drinks. Their thoughts on politics may differ, but they have been literary companions during the same age.
The spread of dichotomy in our society has reached a dangerous level. One sensitive title and a few words can invite a wave of criticism. Once on the radar, a person can hardly walk out intact. Anyone who keeps a neutral stance is stigmatized as a parasite and attacked from both fronts as a cowardly fence-sitter.
The gray area shrinks when black-and-white theory dominates. One is pressured to take a side. But in a diversified society, there must be a greater gray area. Regardless of innate individual ideology or political preference, one should be able to applaud the Seoul mayor’s caring policy toward the homeless and hear out Yi’s question on Ahn’s identity without reservations.
Bisection peaked during the turbulent democratic movement year in 1986. Student activists self-immolated in extreme protest while law enforcement officers resorted to physical actions to quell street and campus protests. Park Hye-jeong, a literature student at elite Seoul National University, left a letter behind before she jumped into the Han River on May 21 that year. “I can no longer bear the sense of shame and indebtedness for my cowardice and fear against struggle. It is better to die in humiliation.” Do we want to repeat this tragedy today? People are equally free to have no opinion. But we have lived most of our lives keeping our real thoughts to ourselves. Diversity in opinions can help keep a balance between extremes and sustain a mature society.
Outspoken writer Lee Oi-soo was branded as a traitor by liberals for referring to a Saenuri Party candidate as a “person with spirit.” Our society is turning colorless. Fence-sitters should not be regarded as opportunistic and fluid, but as ones with neutral and open minds. There are many other directions and paths in life. It requires more courage to take the road not taken.
* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Chul-ho