In praise of rituals

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In praise of rituals


Song Ho-keun

It wasn’t like this even during the 1997 financial crisis. As the culprits responsible for our near-national bankruptcy were absolutely evident, Koreans could focus their fury on certain people who plainly deserved scorn and punishment. In this crisis, however, the guilty are scattered throughout our society and it’s impossible to punish them all at the same time. Punishment is not the same thing as redemption. No matter what kind of punishment is given to the Chonghaejin Marine Company or to our corrupt safety inspectors, our guilt for letting those young souls perish in the sea will not be absolved. We have grieved the losses of innocent children but we know why the sea that covered them seems so dark. It holds our society’s guilty secrets.

Catastrophes always fall upon the weakest links of a society. The children weren’t from very well-off families. The overloaded ship they boarded set out on a dangerous voyage through bribes, negligence, corruption and collusion. A nation that should assure the safety of its innocents fell short. We also witnessed how agencies involved in the rescue operation succumbed to panic. The families of the lost victims are calling to their children from Paengmok Harbor. Some families chose to conceal themselves. A young mother attempted to kill herself. A father jumped into the sea. It may seem to them a disaster that was orchestrated by the government, companies and civilians of an incompetent and insensitive society. Funerals for the victims were held separately, but every one of us is a sinner and mourner in this national disgrace.

Therefore, we cannot say farewell to the victims without doing something about our society. Koreans traditionally take deaths more seriously than births. We should all offer apologies to the victims of this social disaster. The young souls should be consoled through a civil ceremony. We need to bring the bereaved together. A white paper on the disaster and a proposal for national reform should be prepared by citizens. We have been washed by the waters of sufferings and grief in the past month, and it is about time we cross the water. I propose a series of three ceremonies: an anthropological service, a sociological service and a political service over a three-month period.

Korean people have developed various memorial services for the wellbeing of departed souls. Funerals for those who meet untimely ends are especially sad. People comfort the souls and pray for them to rest in peace with sorrowful chanting. The Sewol victims’ families and all of us need such a ritual to send off the souls of the victims.

It would be appropriate for civic groups to hold a memorial service at Gwanghwamun Square in late May to pledge that we will never forget the victims. It is not just a primitive tribal custom to restore broken solidarity and overcome grief through an anthropological service. There is no room for ideology in this service.

A sociological ritual is an operation to investigate the causes of the disaster and problems in the rescue and to address collusion between the government and industry and negligence by authorities. Just as ideology has no place in the anthropological ritual, the government and public authorities are the objects of inspection in the sociological ritual. A group of outside professionals, media, religious leaders, academics, lawyers and labor groups should be in charge of investigating and punishing those responsible for the disaster. Because civic power was weak, bureaucrats became the main arbiters of the “happiness of the people,” and the citizens were placed at the mercy of the bureaucrats and their machinations. The absence of moral tension in civic society and the victims’ families march to the Blue House to make demands are the outcomes of a long-standing evil of a state-centered governing structure. If civil society does not perform its role of putting a check on power, another Sewol ferry disaster awaits us somewhere.

The place for the government’s role comes in the political ritual. The president said that she would prepare plans and apologize, still suggesting a reliance on government-centered responses. If the prime minister’s office or senior secretaries initiate reforms or a government committee is newly formed to address the issue, it will lead to the collapse of the Blue House. The president should help create a civilian task force and entrust it with the power to conduct an extensive and fair inspection and investigation. The bureaucrats should play only a supplementary role. Here again, the civic groups that perennially aim to overthrow the government or impeach the president should be excluded. The investigation and inspection report from the political ritual will provide the guidelines for a comprehensive reorganization that includes punishment, cleanup, disaster prevention and safety planning. The Lawyers for a Democratic Society have already proposed a 17-point reform plan. The government must make a decision to demonstrate the politics of tolerance to bring together the opinions of the people. We could consider it a temporary “civil assembly” of about 50 members. We could consider building a memorial tower in Jindo and designating April 16 as a memorial day for disaster victims.

Now, we need to hold ourselves together. Families still wait for their beloved children and the last communications from the victims are heartbreaking. But we need to control our grief and anger as we have so much work to do to become a truly safe country.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 13, Page 31

*The author is a sociology professor at Seoul National University.

By Song Ho-keun

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