Beware Rousseau’s confessions

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Beware Rousseau’s confessions

This year marked the 300 year birthday of great 18th-century Romanticism thinker and writer Jean Jacques Rousseau. French literature scholar Lee Yong-chul completed a translation of his autobiographical “Les Confessions” for the first time in Korean. It took Rousseau five years to finish the bulky two-volume, 1,000-page collection covering the 53 years of his life up to 1765. I, having reached the same age when Rousseau started on the autobiography, took up the book as a kind of self-exploration journey.

The Geneva-born philosopher is credited with having paved the way for the Enlightenment Age, civilian liberty movement and the French Revolution. His writing “The Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Right” provided the theoretical grounds for the French Revolution and American Revolution. But in “Les Confessions,” he portrayed himself as being contradictory, inexplicable and difficult. On the personal side, he was incomprehensible and definable, possessing both good and evil, nobility and vulgarity.

During young adulthood, Rousseau would take women to corners and expose himself to them. He recalled some turned their heads while others would giggle. Some others raised a fuss, accusing Rousseau of humiliating them. The great thinker was a little on the perverted side. Rousseau, famous for his inspirational writing on child-rearing and education, “Emile, or on Education,” however, sent all his illegitimate children to orphanages.

Despite the historical influence of his thinking, the man himself was full of contradictions. He opened his autobiography with the famous words: “I am not made like any of those I have seen; I venture to believe that I am not made like any of those who are in existence. If I am not better, at least I am different.”

He was an avid advocate for individuality and man’s unique and true nature. He declared “God made me and broke the mold.” He confessed that he started upon the enterprise of writing his own biography to “show my fellows a man as nature made him, and this man shall be myself.” He refused to be categorized and stigmatized. He was condemned, his books burned and banned, and violently criticized as a maverick and even dangerous for his atheist and anti-hierarchy views. He lamented, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they.”

It scares me to see how inclined and rash our society is to stigmatize others, draw lines, and condemn others for differing perspectives. We tend to place people either in the black-and-white category of Communist, pro-North Korea, conservative nut, pro-Japanese, antipatriotic, pro-America, anti-America, pro-chaebol and anti-chaebol, and refuse to change our minds about them. Defining a person under a single word and category is an insult to the uniqueness and individuality of a human being and ignorant violence against human nature.

A person can be bombarded with tirades to the extreme on the Internet and digital social networks with one slip of the tongue or thumb. An individual idea or opinion can expose the person to verbal attacks and legal scrutiny. No one - adult or child - is free from the assault and danger. Anyone can be bullied and alienated both in the virtual and the real world. The best advice would be to keep our mouths shut and eyes and ears closed.

The controversies dogging and disrupting the presidential campaign race - about the Northern Limit Line or the Jeongsu Scholarship Foundation - stem from such prevalent prejudices and stigmatization. They are used as excuses to label and drag down the aspiring presidential candidates as the avatar of former President Roh Moo-hyun or daughter of strongman Park Chung Hee. It is no more than madness to dig up the deceased and pin scarlet letters on their remains as a pro-North Korea or a pro-Japanese dictator for political gain.

To scorn others for bearing thoughts different than mine comes from an ignorance and arrogance that all human beings are different. Difference does not license discrimination. A society that does not respect differences is prone to the tyranny of the majority and the oppression of the minority. It becomes dichotomous.

It is lonely and painful to be the minority in any age and society. But history progresses for the better because there is someone with courage enough to question and challenge the generalized beliefs and common norms. The sun would still be circling the earth if the general belief was upheld. There cannot be development and progress if every human being thinks and acts the same.

Totalitarian societies like North Korea have been or inevitably will be doomed. A genuine social unity is possible with a balance of diverse ideas and opinions, not because it moves on singular order and form. We do not elect a president to quiet those who think differently from us. We vote to create a country where leaders can defend and fight for individual and different rights. We are not licensed to judge others. Let us not make ourselves slaves of language.

* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok
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