Allow me to contradict myselfOne of the most interesting protest slogans was one used by Parisian students in 1968: “We demand the right to contradict ourselves!”
In human society, we consider consistency a desirable thing in itself. People who change their minds, or act out of character, are deemed strange or untrustworthy. If you used to think X, but now think Y because of new information, people find that suspicious and want to know what your true motivation is. Life in the media is similar: If an important piece of news contradicts the ideology of a paper, the story will either be spun out of all recognition, or buried halfway down page 17.
One of my favorite writers, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, sometimes discusses this phenomenon. But the reason I’ve been thinking about it lately is a little more humble, and humbling. Since the age of around 18, I have been what might be referred to (in Korean) as a judang, or a drinker. Frankly, I am not too ashamed of this. Some of the greatest people in history have been noted drinkers, and furthermore, I would say that my experience of being a drinker has been almost completely positive. It brought me closer to people, and provided me with a lot of good times.
But as with many other judang, I have developed a fatty liver. In my case, it is apparently quite moderate, and nothing that a few months of clean living won’t fix. This news was relayed to me at my first ever complete health check, which was in itself quite an ordeal. I have now come to believe that the best evidence of the essential equality of all human beings - and the greatest cure for egotism - is found in the administration of an endoscopy.
Digression aside, I am now “contradicting” myself. Though just about everyone seems to have a fatty liver these days, I have made the choice to drastically reduce my alcohol consumption, exercise more, and change my diet until I am back to normal. This has provoked plenty of cries of “That’s not like you,” “Liar!” and “Yeah, you won’t last two minutes! Let’s go for some soju” from some of the people around me. Especially as I became an investor in a beer business earlier this year, people seem to find the idea of me taking a break from booze rather ridiculous.
It made me think, what is my identity? I seem to be identified as a drinker and lazy writer type. Some don’t want me to stop being that person. Those who drink are usually considered “fun,” so it disappoints people when you change, even for a while. The heavy drinking party animal stereotype is rather like the jolly fat man stereotype (the kind who can be seen on any TV comedy program), though; everyone wants such a person in their life, but they don’t necessarily want to be that person themselves.
Not drinking also makes you realize just how deeply ingrained alcohol is in the way we interact. If you aren’t going to drink with your friends, what are you going to do with them? And if not at the bar, where are you going to meet them? (The coffee shop? What’s wrong with you!) If you don’t drink, how are you going to do business, or make friends with people?
I’m not just talking about Korea. Sometimes Korean friends say, “I wish we had a drinking culture like Europe, where people just have a couple of beers and a chat, or some wine with their meal.” But there are two Europes. My Europe, Northern Europe, is full of Britons, Irish, Germans and Scandinavians, who aren’t like that at all. Certainly in my country, heavy drinking is socially advantageous. Among young Britons today, it is a badge of honor to get completely wasted, and not remember any of your exploits the next day.
But yes, Korea is quite like that too. And I do enjoy it. I love our beer, and will drink plenty of it again - though most likely without the second round of soju and who knows what else. Sometimes though, we need to find other ways to have fun, or at least, put our health before our apparent need to keep up our image as one of the gang, or head entertainer. And if you have friends or workmates who want to do just that, please allow them to “contradict” themselves.
* The author is a former Seoul correspondent for The Economist.
by Daniel Tudor