Watch your mouths, politicians

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Watch your mouths, politicians

The Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero was a great orator and lawyer, but he still went to Greece to study rhetoric after feeling his style of speech was limited. He studied under rhetorician Apollonius Molon, one of the greatest orators of the time, who was given the unusual honor for a foreigner to address the Roman Senate.

“Stick to the point, make them laugh, make them cry, and when you’ve won their sympathy, sit down quickly - for nothing dries more quickly than a tear,” Molon taught Cicero. After two seasons of studying with Molon, Cicero defined the basics of rhetoric, which are still remembered in Western society. He said that without oratory skills, knowledge remains powerless, but that oratory skills without knowledge are of no use.

In his book, “The Praise of Folly,” Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch Renaissance humanist, quoted Euripides - one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens.

“A wise man has two tongues: one to speak the truth with, the other for saying what he thinks fits the occasion,” he wrote. Based on the lessons from Molon and Euripides, politicians of our contemporary time fail to meet the very basics of rhetoric. Of the two tongues, they only use the one for saying what they think fits the occasion. They say nothing of the truth or the facts.

The Latin word oratio, which means oration, comes from “ratio,” which means reason and intelligence. But chasing the moment means simply going after instant popularity. To overwhelm one’s opponents by winning the public for the moment, our politicians use the most sensational and vulgar language. Their words spread quickly through the Internet and they fail to remember Molon’s lesson that nothing dries more quickly than a tear. They won’t sit down nor step off the stage. They just enjoy the instant fame of their words and eventually face a backlash.

If we displayed all the vulgar, crude and sometimes grotesque language of the politicians from both the ruling and opposition parties, it would definitely constitute a dazzling array of ignorance and lack of culture. Our politicians don’t know how to use satire and figurative speech when criticizing their opponents. They have no scruples about malicious slander or character attacks.

That is also the general standard of Koreans who didn’t have an opportunity to learn rhetoric or communication through education. Politicians have called the president an offspring of a gwitae - a harsh term that loosely translates as someone who shouldn’t have been born - in what amounts to a brazen verbal attack that insults the people who voted her in as president. Some politicians compared South Gyeongsang Governor Hong Joon-pyo to Adolf Hitler for his attempt to shut down the Jinju Medical Center, which is a classic example of their ignorance of history.

A lawmaker used unthinkably vulgar expressions to condemn the efforts of Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo to consolidate their presidential bid. Another said that the mouth of the president should be stitched up using an industrial sewing machine, not to mention a lawmaker who called a president’s policy toward Japan “idiotic diplomacy.” Some lawmakers who didn’t hesitate to make sexually abusive remarks in front of women still faced no disadvantages, while enjoying cheers from a small number of crazy fans. Politicians mistakenly believe that they still have something to gain politically through such bad publicity.

We can’t just sit back with our arms folded and deplore politicians’ language. So what should we do now? Politicians lack the ability to clean up their words and actions. So, the last bastion is civic society.

As politicians are tainting our language, the Society of Korean Linguistics should stop them. As the language our politicians are using is exerting a negative influence on the young generation, mothers’ associations around the nation should rise up. As politicians are frequently making sexually abusive comments and then insisting that they were just jokes, women’s groups - along with parents’ associations - must act. People must react sensitively to the vulgar comments that come from politicians.

Lamentably, promising first-term lawmakers are joining in to contribute to the stream of crude language. Veteran lawmakers are already soaked in the filthy water of Korean politics and their language is beyond correction. Political rookies should be different, but they are actually following suit.

Representative Hong Ick-pyo of the Democratic Party, who stirred up a wasteful controversy with his gwitae remark, must start an initiative to study the basics of rhetoric with other first-term lawmakers and launch a movement to clean up the language being used by politicians. And just like the great Athenian statesman Pericles, politicians must sincerely hope that none of their words go off track when they speak before the public. Korean politicians must earnestly regret that none of their speeches have been remembered as a great speech of our time.

* The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie
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