Shut the !&%# Up, Citizen, This Tinnitus is Democracy in Action

Today is (municipal) election day in Korea. For the last two months, the campaign law has been in effect, and this law, according to the Korea Times, forbids just about anything like politics:

Prohibited activities, beginning April 3, two months prior to the June 2 election, include conducting surveys with the names of certain parties and candidates, and political activities of incumbents that would affect the outcome of the elections.

Incumbents are also banned from promoting their party’s platforms, participating in events organized by their party except ceremonies for foundations, mergers and reorganization during the official campaign period.

It’s baffling that anything that might “affect the outcome of the elections” is banned, and this must, surely, be a poor translation or wording. I saw the candidates for the position of Mayor of Seoul on TV only a few weeks ago; I’m pretty sure it’d be illegal for me to post here what I thought of them — which ones seemed like Stepford Politicians ™ and which ones seemed a little more passable — but it’s also irrelevant… current events like a sunken submarine ship seem to have pushed things in one direction, and we can all guess which direction that is.

In any case, candidates have been involved in all kinds of activities that should affect the elections, such as blasting horrendous techno music and arranging for these sorts of displays of idiocy outside of subway stations all over Seoul:


Lately, I’ve been hearing more and more speeches delivered from loudspeakers outside subway stations. So loud it physically hurts one’s ears. I was walking with a former student of mine, this young guy, and I noted that all of the candidates making this loud noise were more of a nuisance than last time around, and that they would never get away with the loud, blasting music and speeches in Canada.

“But… but how do they campaign in Canada?” he asked, incredulous.

“Considerately,” I replied with a grin. I explained that they could distribute leaflets, go door to door, hold town meetings, appear in TV commercials and talk shows, have their signs posted all over the place, and all kinds of things. But in Canada, we have (and enforce) noise pollution laws and if political candidates violated them, people would call the police and have the noisy vans towed away and/or their operators fined.

“Wow,” he said. And no wonder: according to this article in the Korea Times, even Koreans, who are used to being subjected to an onslaught of random noise in parts of town, have been complaining about the noisiness of the current election campaign… not to mention the pointlessness of campaign jingles and dancers offered in place of in-depth policy information.

Meanwhile, the election law also seems hellbent on preventing people from getting any real sense of the candidates: using Twitter as part of a campaign prior to 180 days before the election is forbidden. It was, apparently, a restriction intended to prevent rich people from taking advantage of the long lead-in to distribute materials. In the age of Social Networking, distributing information is free. Time to join planet earth in the 21st century, guys. (For Japan too, apparently.)

As for the outcome? I’m not optimistic. The person I would rather not win — one of two candidates mentioned in this piece — seems likelier to win, mostly because old people vote more than young people and because everything has been skewed by the sinking of the Cheonan.

10 thoughts on “Shut the !&%# Up, Citizen, This Tinnitus is Democracy in Action

  1. Not that I’d want to do the research myself, but every election season I do ponder how such campaigning culture developed, its clear strong relationship to other aspects of Korean street theater(?) like the use of narrator models to promote the opening of new stores, and how and why both persist despite what seem to be clearly increasingly diminishing returns on the investment.

  2. (Added this in an edit, but I think the timer ran out(?) before I could finish it)

    Seriously, I really do wonder if Korean political parties even bother to conduct surveys to find out how effective all their loud campaigning and so on is? Apologies for the cliche, but given how personality rather than party-based politics is here then I suspect that this really is just thinking too much in long-term for most of them.

  3. James,

    Well, I’ve been thinking about this recently. I have noticed a trend in classes of late, where a student will assert something is true, like, “Korea is economically a developing nation” or “Koreans eat more vegetables and fruits than Westerners,” or “There is more variety of products in your average Korean grocery store than in an average American grocery store.”

    I always raise the question — either immediately, or in the Q&A for presentations — of whether this is actually true or not. The claimant consistently looks embarrassed and pauses, shuffles their notes (which don’t contain the answer) and either dodges the question (guys) or admits, “I don’t know” (a response more common among women).

    What I’m saying is, I think there’s a kind of thing about making claims that one has pulled out of thin air, or what one imagines to be true, without evidence or research.

    I’m talking about undergrads here, but they’re also undergrades who are fairly-to-very smart, and who have studied with me for a semester or two and seen me call people on such unsupported claims time and again. And they keep doing it.

    And I can count on the fingers of two hands how many students I’ve seen start questioning those kinds of assertions in the same way. They exist, but they’re the minority, and they’re doing it in a class where the teacher has, in a sense, officially sanctioned such behaviour… not out in the street. Back in social situations, people seem to glom back over into the polite, not-talk-so-deeply-about-things way of interacting as a rule… or find social interaction even more frustrating and unpleasant.

    I hardly imagine the political circles, where personality and authority seem to dominate, are being any more logical. It seems to me the assertion, “Louder is better,” would simply be made, and taken as fact.

    (Just as, very widely, “Longer work hours means more work done and harder working employees,” is taken as fact, despite the well-established evidence to the contrary. It’s not that people are presenting counterevidence: the response to the evidence is simply shrug and ignore. Well, seemingly in many companies.)

    It seems, on one level, to boil down to how well people estimate their own incompetency, and in fact, one major scientific study suggests, pretty solidly, it seems the more incompetent one is, the more one is likely to overestimate his how competency, and underestimate that of his betters. (Meanwhile, more competent people overestimate their own competency less, but overestimate the competency of incompetents more.)

    Peter Watts explores the political implications of that and other scientific findings about human nature in this post. I think it’s even more applicable in Korea, where arbitrary hierarchy (age) is thrown into the mix.

    I am at the point of openly laughing when anyone (usually someone young, ie. early 20s) asserts that being older means more experience and wisdom. I point out that I’ve met older people who are idiots, or got screwed up by their experience, or are lazy or immoral, or just refused to learn from many their experiences. And they always agree, but never quite let go of the notion, just the same.

    But it does suggest yet another handy way of reinforcing the overestimation of a certain segment of incompetents. And since people go into politics based on their own sense of their potential competency, and will dismiss the more-competent in ways that comfort their fellowless-competent citizens, it makes sense that politics would attrtact and be hospitable to many of the least competent people around. (See the Watts post for more on the implications of that.)

  4. Very interesting, especially the comments section on this one. It drives me nuts when students generalize about things they know nothing about, such as your example, “There is more variety of products in your average Korean grocery store than in an average American grocery store,” when they’ve never even been to the States. They seem to feel safe making these kinds of statements, so it must be acceptable, if not encouraged, in Korean. A way to make themselves feel good about everything to do with their country. Everything is better. But then that’s what they’re constantly being told, isn’t it?

  5. Yup. It’s also, I think, because of (a) the distorted perception they have of the West from media and from imports (Outback and McDonald’s seem to be thought decent representations of “American food”) and (b) the tendency to really just define American as “opposite” of Korean. (For example, how Westerners are totally individualistic because Koreans are totally into groups and group identity. Both are exaggerations, and when I talk about conformism and subcultures in Anglo society — what it takes to be a punk rocker or an SF fan — they are surprised, as if all Americans always ignore what their families or communities expect or demand of them… or all Koreans simply give in an obey.)

    Some Koreans I know think this monolithicizing, obey-obey thing has been worsened infinitely by not just the dictatorships but specifically by the economic development that happened during them. (The generation that pulled Korea up out of poverty is now overconfident of its ability to understand and do anything, and derisive of the younger generation who hasn’t gone through all that, who have lived sheltered, and “don’t know what the real world is like”. So these parents micromanage their kids lives.) That’s what I’ve heard from a few younger, critical-minded people, who are struggling with that in their own parents.

    Anyway, I think it’s not so much that people are necessarily encouraged to make unfounded assertions — because that seems to be human nature, mediocre people everywhere do it — as much as it is that the smartest people around have been conditioned to not voice their objections or point out that the assertion is unfounded (at least in person, face-to-face). There’s no debate culture, just the competition to see whose voice is loudest and whose image is most slick.

    By the way, the student who said that about American grocery stores had never been to the US, but had been to England. I don’t know if grocery stores in Liverpool are less diverse or not. I somewhat doubt it, but I don’t know. But I said, “If I make a claim about Korea based on China, does it make sense?” She could see how that didn’t, but England=America, somehow, she couldn’t see the error in thinking till it was pointed out to her.

  6. On Monday I posted this Video of the Loud Electioneers by my house. The volume was so loud that I could not watch tv in my apartment about 500 meters away from the speakers.

    If I’d been informed I would have voted, but I don’t really follow politics so skipped the polls this time around. – I’m on an F5 and did receive a packet, in the post, with info on where to vote and the various candidates.

  7. It’s baffling that anything that might “affect the outcome of the elections” is banned, and this must, surely, be a poor translation or wording. I saw the candidates for the position of Mayor of Seoul on TV only a few weeks ago

    I do wonder if, as you say, it’s a result of poor translation or leaving out extra information. The section you quote seems to focus on incumbents, so perhaps there are more detailed rules on how they can promote themselves in order to make it fair to the other candidates. (i.e., Prohibiting a situation such as authorizing the use of public spaces for their own free advertisement while denying the claims of opponents for similar opportunities.)

    Similar to Sean, I received a packet that included candidate information for the Uijeongbu elections. Mine is close to 2″ thick and I can see that the candidates focus on things like education, the GTX (a Gyeonggi-specific KTX), the VAL project (driverless metro system that the city is building), various beautification projects, the city’s army bases, and one that features a drawing of the late president Roh and the message (in English) “MB stop!”.

    I recently attended field day events at three local elementary schools and saw candidates doing a “meet and greet” at all three, as well as at a local soccer game. I think I only heard one ‘ad-truck’ in my area, and that was from a distance away!

    […] current events like a sunken submarine […]

    Just a small correction here, but the ship that sunk was a corvette (similar to a frigate) and not a submarine.

    And an edit to add that I had also thought of narration girls, as James points out in the first comment. They’re used to promote a product in markets, and I can see how each candidate is a ‘political product’ in the ‘election market’. I also commonly see them associated with new businesses, which could be another thread of connection?

  8. Paul,

    I do wonder if, as you say, it’s a result of poor translation or leaving out extra information. The section you quote seems to focus on incumbents, so perhaps there are more detailed rules on how they can promote themselves in order to make it fair to the other candidates. (i.e., Prohibiting a situation such as authorizing the use of public spaces for their own free advertisement while denying the claims of opponents for similar opportunities.)

    Maybe. I would think one could draw a line between rigging elections (which is a “bad” kind of “influencing the outcome”) and promoting one’s platform (which seems not so objectionable). All these questions about whether Twitter is the same as other things, or whether it should be usable for however many days before the election, are just silly.

    The beautification projects — including the so-called “Han River Renaissance”? (AKA let’s do 1970s modernism and pour concrete over everything!)

    I would like to see a GTX, but I don’t think it’s worth this fanatical fetishism of English English English that seems to dominate some visions of what Korean education should be doing.

    The greetings at the elementary schools: were the candidates talking to kids? parents? or teachers?

    I think I only heard one ‘ad-truck’ in my area, and that was from a distance away!

    Lucky you! In my area, I’ve heard more than a few — not just at the station, but even parked outside campus, but close enough to fill my office (in a building on the edge of campus) with noise.

    Thanks for the correction, not sure why I didn’t catch that myself after writing it.

    I’ve been thinking about the whole promotional system too. After all, when I complain about loud music blasting from storefronts, Koreans have often asked me something along the same lines: how else can they promote themselves to passersby?

    So maybe these ladies in the white gloves and baseball hats would be best referred to as narration ajummas?

  9. The whole “Cheonan” incident has been milked through and through. Most folks don’t care what happened or who did it, they’re just sick of the GNP’s latching onto the issue to skew the pre-election debates. The bit about “influencing the outcome of the election” is NOT a wrong translation. That’s the situation in Korea right now, sad but true.

    Anyways, fast-forwarding to 5 days after the elections, it seems everyone (LMB, the US, etc.) is now trying to “cool down” the Cheonan discourse, the LMB-controlled communications commission wants to “have a branch of Twitter located in Korea” (it’s easier to arrest people when they’re within your borders), and major internet portals like are suddenly mentioning the Cheonan’s involvement in a joint ROK-US naval exercise AT THE TIME IT WAS SUPPOSED TO HAVE SUNK.

    It’s like reading a crappily-written pulp porn novel over and over and over again. Nothing new, predictable, banal, and irritating. But nonetheless extremely easy to sell.

  10. ecue,

    Right, my impression was that it was milked, and that this hurt the GNP actually. But I also have the impression that a number of people in Korea were worried what LMB/2MB might do, and also a small proportion (but loud) were saying something had to be done in retaliation. We can guess who they voted for… but thank goodness they’re not a majority, let alone a force large enough to make hostilities break out.

    A branch of Twitter located in Korea? Jesus! They really just want local versions of everything so they can control all content. It’s as if they conceive of the Korean people as children.

    So, wait, the Cheonan was part of a naval exercise? I don’t get it. It wasn’t sunk at the time they claimed? Or they hadn’t disclosed the circumstances? I’m confused.

    Crappily-written pulp porn novel indeed. Most countries’ politics are depressing, but I find the Korean version is also decades out of date, thus predictable and not very titillating, even. (The same could be said of America’s, note: universal health care? No brainer. Tea parties? Good grief.)

    Ah well, there’s always 2012. Wonder who will start talking about the Mayan Calendar to drum up votes?

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