Incredible incivility

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Incredible incivility

British Prime Minister Theresa May recently stated, “If you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” Considering the amount of time I’ve spent in different countries, I should probably just send my passport back right now.

But it’s worse for foreigners living in the U.K.: she is proposing to make firms draw up lists of the non-British citizens they hire, with the aim of shaming them into hiring more natives over newcomers. There will also be new restrictions placed on foreign students.

Before the Brexit vote, there was a consensus that we were an outward-looking, welcoming sort of country. Even though everyone knew that lots of Brits were privately against that, so-called cosmopolitan elites who ran business, politics and the media were able to make it look racist and backward to say it directly. Maybe that was unfair — but I’m glad they did it, because it kept a lid on certain kinds of nastiness.

Brexit doesn’t have to be inherently xenophobic, but for a lot of people, voting for it was a chance to express their latent xenophobia. And since then, those people have been emboldened. The toilet door has been opened, and the stink is wafting all through the house.

Regardless of the content of these policies, their timing is a signal that May has no intention of shutting that door. Racist incidents and antiforeigner sentiment have been on the rise, and I would expect things to get worse. Anti-Semitism from the hard left is rearing its head again, too, while the “cosmopolitan elite” center-left lies dying.

Foreigners are an easy target in any country. Just look at Donald Trump, who built his political career on it. Similar to the Brexit vote — but worse — Trump’s campaign made the “unthinkable” become sayable. A comically inflated alpha-male blowhard, he makes highly personal insults and bullies foreigners (especially Mexicans) as well as women, another group he probably sees as weak.

Sadly, this is exactly what made him the Republican candidate. There were enough people waiting for someone to come along and give them license to pick on the weak (whilst also bashing the establishment they suspected of helping the weak). The teacher who stopped you bullying that small boy who doesn’t quite fit in? He’s been replaced by one who eggs you on.

In both the U.S. and U.K., I strongly suspect the people who enjoy and support this new incivility themselves feel weak — though they don’t like to admit it. They are part of a majority under threat and also feel the pain of rising economic inequality. In a sense, they are also victims of something, and sadly, they are keenly aware of that fact.

At the time of writing, it appears Trump has gone too far with the misogyny, to the extent that it might lose him the election. Some of his support will love him all the more for it, though. These are the kind of “alt-right” types who throw around epithets like “cuckservative,” a portmanteau of “cuckold” and “conservative.” This word apparently refers to a moderate, polite “conservative” who doesn’t dare insult people (as Trump would) and is thus a mere self-loathing, sexually emasculated loser.

The sex and power dynamic referenced in the insult naturally relates to feminism as well. Men are having to get used to sharing some of their power, and there are those who hate that — particularly, one may surmise, those who have a hard time attracting women. Trump can be a hero to them with his swagger and semi-playboy, semi-abuser persona, which represents something they want to be but can’t. It’s no surprise that “cuckservative” is a stay-at-home keyboard warrior word.

Popular political culture is becoming lamentably obnoxious on both sides of the Atlantic, and the same is true, I think, of places as diverse as France, Hungary and the Philippines. Looking back over the past few years, I don’t think there’s been anything as awful in Korea coming from the very highest-ranked politicians. There is, however, shocking incivility toward the weak by certain types who would (falsely, I think) describe themselves as “conservative.”

Consider the goading of the relatives of the Sewol ferry victims by internet users mocking their dead children, and the tendency toward criticizing the families or protesting against them in Gwanghwamun with banners saying “Adieu, Sewol!” From an outsider’s perspective, it’s mind-blowing to see such things. Even if you disagreed with the families’ aims, surely you would think of what they had been through and leave them alone.

More recently, there has been the Baek Nam-gi case. What is going on when a civic group accuses Baek’s family of killing him? A National Assembly member also attacked the man’s daughter in a Facebook post. This is worse because of his position. It is the kind of thing that legitimizes the culture of incivility. We should be able to disagree about anything but do so in a way that keeps a lid on the nastiness that always lurks under society’s surface.

*The author is co-founder and chief curator of Radish Fiction and author of “Korea: The Impossible Country” and “North Korea Confidential.” Reach him on Twitter @danielrtudor

Daniel Tudor
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