Wanted: Democracy of the Mind
South Korean society hasn't shaken off its authoritarian streak
One day in 1992, state prosecutors walked into my home at 7 a.m. and arrested me without a warrant, which was legal in Korea. I had just published a novel, Happy Sara, about a female university student discovering the joys of sexual freedom before marriage. I was found guilty of writing obscene material and sent to prison for two months. In the book, I tried to say that women had an equal right to enjoy life, including sexual life. This irked the authorities because I was challenging the sanctity of virginity, which in this country applied only to women. Had the book been about, say, John instead of Sara, no one would have raised objections. The book is still banned.
Koreans have been crying out for freedom and democracy for decades. Many intellectuals fought to overthrow military dictatorship and demanded respect for human rights. They tried to suggest alternative political and social models based on assorted ideologies. But Korean society clings to antiquated perspectives. We are still caught up in the Confucian mentality of the 19th century Chosun dynasty, which favored uniformity, authoritarianism and a closed door to cultural influences from abroad. The resulting isolation retarded the country's modernization.
In a way, all Koreans are tainted with an authoritarian streak. Our basic mentality is still driven by rigid hierarchy, conformity and blind obedience to power. These values are so strong that even under a democratically elected government, it is hard to realize substantial change. This is a country where, as an airliner is about to crash, a junior pilot will hesitate to speak out to a senior pilot for fear of not showing respect.
Most of the Korean elite are afraid of freedom. They are terrified that things will spin out of control and they will lose clout. Bureaucrats are the major opponents of deregulation, which they know will cost them their perks and power. Authoritarian culture helps many ambitious bureaucrats advance their careers. They envelop themselves in titles to confirm their existence and power. They flatter their bosses and pledge blind loyalty, perpetuating the authoritarian culture that is opposed to the democratic system other Koreans are trying to build.
Patriarchy, another feature of authoritarianism, is nearly a religion in Korea. Officials suppress sexuality and over-emphasize their own impeccable moral superiority to justify their control over society. These rulers can make the nation commit moral terrorism against artists, who are a weak and easy target--and often a major challenge to the system. This is why it is difficult even for the younger generation to escape the yoke of authoritarianism. No matter how loudly they cry out for democracy and liberalism, cultural tradition smothers their voices.
When military dictatorship was blamed for all the evils of the authoritarian culture, it was easy to offer a remedy: get rid of the military dictatorship. But now that Koreans have democracy, we are unable to explain why authoritarian culture remains dominant. The ultimate solution is for Korean society to embrace pluralism and tolerate freedom of expression, including sexual expression. Yet the majority of the elite merely howl empty slogans like Let's recover our morality, when rampant corruption and immoral behavior are right under their noses.
What stands in the way of genuine democratization in Korea are ascetic, feudal values that hold non-conformity in contempt. A large number of Korean intellectuals refer to this mentality in embellished terms like Asian values and Confucian values. Whatever you call it, this attitude has bred a society deprived of freedom and pluralism and hampered in its move toward political modernization. Obsolete politicians insist on treating the public as though we are still living in an agrarian system, and they impose themselves on us as feudal lords. It is almost impossible for an average person to meet with his local member of parliament; it's like asking for an audience with a king. Public attitudes are not much better. Many Koreans are still parochial, refusing to consider the issues in an election campaign. Instead, they unconditionally support politicians from their hometown or region while irrationally hating anyone from outside their turf.
What Korea needs is not just a change in the political system but more openness and cultural modernization. The problem is less about structure than about mentality. Without tolerance of pluralism and freedom of expression, Korea's celebration of democracy will be premature.
Ma Kwang Soo, 49, is a novelist and a professor of Korean literature at Yonsei University in Seoul
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Time archives: Ma Kwangsoo and "Democracy of the Mind"
This post on the troubles faced by Chinese artist (and social critic) Ai Weiwei includes a link to an April 2000 piece in Time that is worth a read by itself. It is penned by Yonsei University literature professor Ma Kwangsoo, who was imprisoned in the mid-1990s under circumstances very similar to those faced today by Ai Weiwei: squeamish authorities overseeing a still socially conservative nation uncomfortable with expressions of sexuality have reacted in a way that is simultaneously heavy-handed and ham-fisted (and let's face it: if you had hams for hands, they would be heavy).