Away from atopy, toward empathy

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Away from atopy, toward empathy

Yeom Jae-ho
The author is an emeritus professor and former president of Korea University.


Korean politics is suffering from a serious case of atopy. Due to its weakened immune system, it reacts sensitively to irritants, even small ones. Unable to beat the itch, it keeps scratching its scars until they bleed, to the point of developing a severe illness.

Korea’s political clock has virtually stopped over the past year, as both sides of the political aisle wrangle with each other over the scandals of former and sitting justice ministers Cho Kuk and Choo Mi-ae. Even as the nation faces the arrivals of the fourth industrial revolution and coronavirus pandemic, both the ruling and opposition parties have pushed aside crucial tasks of governing and doubled down on miscellaneous issues to drive the society toward a state of atopy.

Had the ministers sincerely apologized to the nation and conceded what they had done for their children was wrong, the country would not have gained another scar — and their scandals could have ended right there. What will our future historians say of the current political chaos, of politicians constantly bickering over what’s right and wrong about little details and threatening to take legal action against one another?

Salient discussions about statecraft are critically missing from today’s political scene as lawmakers lock horns. The entire nation is ailing from issues sparked by the coronavirus pandemic — supplementary budgets, government bonds, the closings of small businesses, youth unemployment, real estate, tax hikes, collectivism and business regulations — yet lawmakers are hell-bent on figuring out how the children of top government officials got internships or how one of them was granted sick leave during his military service.

A five-minute speech by Rep. Yun Hee-suk of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) in the National Assembly received public attention because it tackled core issues of our society, like the economy and people’s livelihoods. The public wants politicians to treat illnesses, and not just react to the small atopy itches.

Most people already know by now how Cho and Choo carried out foul play and why the Moon Jae-in administration and ruling Democratic party (DP) used excessive means to ban protests on Oct. 3, National Foundation Day. The PPP should move on from reacting to those itches and instead try to detect and cure our society’s serious illnesses.

Derived from ancient Greek, atopy means being in an “abnormal” condition, which seems to perfectly sum up today’s Korean politics. People often blame air pollution and fast food as the main reasons why atopy is so prevalent. Atopy can, according to some, be easily cured by escaping from industrial urban areas and living in more natural, eco-friendly settings.

Pollutants such as social media, cable TV and the internet are aggravating Korean politics’ atopy symptoms. Day after day, politicians attack one other via social media and personal YouTube channels, while using provocative language and emotional appeals. Media outlets churn out news articles on the pandemonium, making it harder for the public to refrain from scratching itself.

One way to break away from the politics of atopy is by building empathy. In his book “The Empathic Civilization” (2009), futurologist Jeremy Rifkin emphasized the importance of developing global empathy to help solve global problems.

It calls on citizens to step away from industrial society’s fierce competition, respect the order of the community and try to understand one another. Only when they refrain from egoist thinking and relate to others’ emotions can common problems be solved.

The Moon administration came to power promising to eradicate jeokpye (deep-rooted evils) through the candlelight vigils. But we are seeing new forms of jeokpye. Top officials who joined the pro-democracy movements of the 1980s are now restricting the freedom and democracy of their opponents to strengthen their own interests.

There’s nothing more dangerous than believing they are always right, while denouncing their opponents as enemies. Korea can only become an open society when each member acknowledges they can be wrong and try to listen to different voices.

Moon pledged to enhance reconciliation and communication in society. Yet division has only intensified. Preconceptions give rise to prejudice, which leads to self-righteousness and culminates in hypocrisy — but the chain will boomerang. Psychologist Gordon Allport wrote in his book, “The Nature of Prejudice” (1954), that if people are not aware of their prejudices, they are unable to feel shame.

Some now question the effectiveness of parliamentary confirmation hearings, in which lawmakers mercilessly attack even the smallest blunders in nominees’ lives to strike a fatal blow to their morality. If politicians hope to distance themselves from hypocrisy, they must act with dignity and treat others the same way they want to be treated. Such a mindset will be a prerequisite for heralding an era of empathy.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

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