A Society Without Debate

UPDATE (25 Nov. 2011): So, I got some of my facts wrong. I first heard the news about the FTA vote verbally, in the form of a couple of rants about how it went down. When I read the article, the wording was such that it didn’t contradict what I’d been led to believe had happened. So read the following with a grain of salt, and see the comments — especially that by Charles — afterwards.

I’m going to leave the post as is, as a reminder to me to get the facts straight before I go off on my own rant. But as even Charles points out, the facts I got wrong don’t contradict my bigger observation on the lack of debate and reasoned discussion in Korean society. (In point of fact, the actual events seem to support my point even better than the version of events I’d been told, and posted about.)

Actually, it’s not just a lack of debate and discussion I’m thinking about now: it’s communication in general I find lacking. But I’ll get into that later.

ORIGINAL POST: I used to teach a course on debate and debating. I tended to focus on the importance of logical argumentation, and of supporting one’s thesis with evidence and sensible explanation, as opposed to the formalized “debate club” style of debate that was made available in other venues on campus.

I pretty much gave up on the course when my students, over several years, told me they loved it, but would never be able to apply it in real life. “This is Korea,” they told me, again and again, “… and around here, debates are won by whoever can shout the loudest, whoever is oldest, whoever has better connections.”

That’s especially true when your connections give you control of water cannons.

I wrote the other day on what it’s like to live in a society where logic and reasoned argumentation is simply held at a low value. I have to say, if you disagree, step onto a university campus for a bit. I challenge you to find more than a minority of Korean professors who are using approaches that require students to express an opinion about anything at all at the undergraduate level. The literature students in one of my classes characterized their experience as basically a series of translation and multiple-choice exams or fill-in-the-blanks; the multiple choice parts and the fill-in-the-blanks parts both hinge on how well a student can recall vocabulary from a source text. For example, using the poem in my last post:

I’m __________ you.
Are you going to let our _____________ life be run by Time Magazine?
I’m obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week.
Its cover stares at me every time I _________ past the corner candystore.
I read it in the ______________ of the Berkeley Public Library.
It’s always telling me about ___________. Businessmen are serious. Movie
producers are serious. Everybody’s serious but me.
It _________ to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again.

When I heard this, I said, “So, basically… middle school exams!” They laughed, but there was an edge of weariness in their laughter. I asked the obvious questions: “Do you feel you’re learning anything in that class? Do you feel you’re getting your money’s worth from that class? Have you thought about saying something to that professor? Or about quitting that course and taking something else next semester?”

Sure they had. Thought about it, that is. But…

The but is crucial. The but hinges on many things:

  • Are there alternatives?
  • What would the repercussions be for questioning this mode of teaching?
  • Is it worth it to extend one’s undergraduate studies by a semester — and take flack from family — in order to drop obviously worthless classes and take good classes in their place, later on?

But I think the biggest but is more deep-seated. I think the biggest but is the one that has been hammered into heads since childhood, and it is: Don’t rock the boat. Don’t start trouble.

The other day, the Korean Parliament passed the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement. Well, I should say, a part of the Korean Parliament passed it.

What happened was that the [more] conservative party called a party meeting. I think they claimed they’d be discussing the party budget or something. Predictably, the opposition mostly stayed home. And what was the result? The rightwingers “convened a snap parliamentary session to force the bill through.”

So, yeah, a part of the Korean Parliament passed it. There was a 151 to 7 vote. There are 295 seats in the Parliament.

That’s how it works in a society without debate. Might as well just anoint champions and have them fight on the battlefield… in fact, that might even be a fairer way to do it, since at least both sides would know when they need to show up in order to play a part in the deciding of the law.

Now, this was a major bill: a bill that will determine the shape of Korean trade for the foreseeable future. It will affect the lives of all Koreans. But the right wing felt that a proper vote with full representation of elected officials was not necessary for this future-shaping decision. Doors were blockaded, in the way little boys do when they don’t want others coming into their treehouse. Much has been made of how a leftist representative set off a tear gas cannister, but frankly, that seems like a far smaller idiocy.

Not that I think the left is the victims here. This is what happens when you are sleeping on the job. These people should have known this would happen sooner or later. They need to recognize that nobody in the government respects or takes seriously the idea of democracy, and act accordingly. (Only then will democracy be possible.)

And in the streets, where people protest the FTA, the water cannons spray. In the cold. Because expressing your opinion? The water cannons deliver a very clear message:

Hey citizen: go ____ yourself. Go fill out your ______ multiple-choice exam.

What I wish is that the American government would say, “No, no, we don’t want the deal that way. We want you to hold, a proper, dignified, grown-up vote, and then get back to us with the real results.” That might sound paternalistic, but when a government behaves like elementary schoolkids fighting over a treehouse, I don’t think it’s uncalled-for. The shame would do the Korean government an immense good… in the same way that children telling off their parents when they do something unacceptable does the parents good, even when it’s unpleasant for all concerned.

But of course, since this agreement serves US interests, they are not going to be adult about it either. Promoting democracy is one thing when it means taking over other countries. It’s another when it means accepting trade agreements arrived at by the shadiest of means, apparently.

By the way, I’m not convinced that the FTA would be a wholly bad thing. Korea has some of the most extreme trade barriers I’ve seen in the developed world, and many of them serve mostly to benefit Korean corporations and harm Korean consumers. But it’s when you get down to the conditions of the FTA that I feel nervous: from what I read a while back, copyright and patent law, for example, are very likely to end up being more draconian in Korea even than in the USA. I suspect the cost of food here might fall, though of course unemployment will rise since, Korea being Korea, we all know that things will benefit the biggest companies most, and the little guy as little as humanly possible.

In the end, I wonder whether the whole parliament will be allowed into the legislature to vote on whether to subsidize the lubricant people are going to need (and, hell, already need) in order to avoid, tearing, bleeding, and general discomfort. We all know they won’t spring for the rubbers (and probably will insist no rubbers are used), but the lube, at least?

4 thoughts on “A Society Without Debate

  1. Very well-written piece.

    As someone who’s basically happy that the FTA is finally ratified, I, too, had qualms with the way it happened – not because the opposition wasn’t present to vote but because the issue of trade is a political issue at all. As I wrote in a letter to the JoongAng today, if the issue of trade were removed from the political arena, individuals would be free to decide whether to trade internationally or to keep their commerce within the local community. When put to a political vote, however, we see brawls in the National Assembly and endless partisan bickering as politicians attempt to decide what is right for everyone.

    Yesterday’s shenanigans, then, is what we have to expect when we mix politics with every aspect of our lives.

    1. Thanks.

      Well, I think when we mix politics-as-done-by-clowns with every aspect of our lives, yeah, shenanigans are inescapable. But the thing is, every aspect of our lives is political, and I don’t see the circus in the Korean legislature as really solid evidence against government involvement in our lives. I’m sure we can travel your line of thought quite far along, if we like, and finally declare that government has absolutely no place in people’s lives. Frankly, I think government does have a place in many aspects of our lives… but government should be pressured to be more efficient, more helpful, more of everything.

      In a sense, I think if we really believe in capitalism and free market economics, maybe we should make government run that way too. Citizen A believes in a zero-services, every-man-for-himself-and-minimal-to-no-taxes, vanilla-Libertarian view. Citizen B believes in a social safety net, socialized health care, a public police force, and is willing to pay taxes for it. Then there’s Citizen C, who wants to live in a theocratic world where all the laws that govern his life are derived from some guy’s interpretation of some guy’s translation of the Bible, and abortion, premarital sex, and not believing in Jesus are illegal.

      Why these different approaches couldn’t coexist in some form is beyond me — it seems rather we’re just still stuck thinking of democracy as a kind of replacement for monarchy, delimited by time and by how much power and wealth accrue to the figurehead and court. Indeed, with one caveat, I think each of the political systems would be way more functional, since instead of politics being a periodic football game, the different systems would end up in direct competition with one another. You sign up to Polity A, you pay no taxes but also get no government services at all, and if you get mugged, tough luck. I think we’d find people would probably follow a progression radically different than they do now — moving from more liberal to more conservative as they age — because it’d be in their best interests to become part of Polity B before they’re desperate for health care, or unemployment insurance, or police to protect them from gangsters or nutters from Polity A and C. Finally, I think Polity C would have a serious gender imbalance, and likely also a serious brain drain.

      Anyway, that sounds like a better way of testing this all out. Can I see it happening? Not in this century, but… maybe when we’re rebuilding the world after things fall apart sometime…

  2. Gord! Long time no… anything. Sorry ’bout that. An email will be coming along shortly.

    I agree with your basic premise here–that Korean society lacks a framework for debate–but I think we need to get some facts straight about the recent FTA vote.

    “What happened was that the [more] conservative party called a party meeting. I think they claimed they’d be discussing the party budget or something. Predictably, the opposition mostly stayed home.”

    Not true. The opposition was there as well, they just abstained from the vote. This is even reported in the article you linked to: “Most of the opposition lawmakers, who were caught off-guard by the emergency meeting, abstained from voting and booed as the bill passed.” They were there and could have participated in the process if they had wanted.

    “But the right wing felt that a proper vote with full representation of elected officials was not necessary for this future-shaping decision. Doors were blockaded, in the way little boys do when they don’t want others coming into their treehouse.”

    The first sentence is based on the faulty assumption above. The second sentence is also not true–why blockade doors when everyone is already inside? In fact, the reason why the right engaged in subterfuge was so that the opposition wouldn’t be able to do just that in an attempt to stop them from voting, as they have done in the past. Now I’m not saying that both parties haven’t often engaged in door-blocking and other antics, but in this case it just isn’t true.

    I think it’s also worth noting that it was the Democratic Party that started the FTA ball rolling, back when Roh Mu-hyun stood up against spirited opposition and said that it was for the good of the country. The Democratic Party in and of itself is not entirely opposed to the idea of the FTA, but their weak position in the Assembly has caused them to join forces with the Democratic Labor Party–which *is* vehemently opposed to the FTA (it was a DLP assemblyman who set off the tear gas).

    Like I said above, I agree with your basic premise–it’s a fundamental problem in Korean society. I just thought it would be a good idea to be clear on some of the facts.

  3. Charles,

    Thanks. The article’s wording gave me the impression that only a few opposition members made it into the room, and they abstained; given the story I’d heard from a couple of people that day, this fit sensibly with the idea that the doors had been blocked. I wonder why that’s become part of the retellings I’ve heard?

    I find it amusing that even with clarifications of the events — I’ll add a note apologizing for getting facts wrong after I post this comment — it doesn’t much change my point. If the left did what the opposition usually does in the Korean legislature to block the vote — starting a brawl, screaming and pushing and acting like tools — then that certainly confirms the observation made about “A Society Without Debate” problem. Still, it’s bad to get the facts wrong.

    As for the DLP-alliance explaining the left’s opposition to the FTA, I dunno: I find when there’s partisan politics involved, the logical explanations like that sort of skip over a more fundamental and twisted cognitive process. If it were a Republican Administration that had bailed out the banks and passed on the debt to the citizenry, who are at the same time being screwed over by the banks, I imagine the Democrats would be all up in arms. But as it is, it’s the Democrats doing it. Partisan politics is like a football game, it presents a story with artificially only two sides, and both sides are necessarily kinda dumbed down.

    Final thought: the K-Dems abstaining kind of disturbs me in another way, similarly to how the whole school lunch referendum did: there was this whole, “Don’t show up, don’t vote, get Mayor Oh kicked out of office!” If you ask me, that feels like a calculated move; he took one for the team, in that there’s a whole meme that has arisen among young people now that NOT voting is also an important way of participating in democracy. (It was a question on the midterm I have on the day when the new mayor of Seoul was elected — an opinion essay on whether voting should be seen as the responsibility of every adult citizen, basically — and I was disturbed by how many essays suggested not voting is (approximately) “a right and a freedom, and goshdarn it, don’t talk about responsibility to me.” The fact that young people have been getting slowly more and more participatory in elections is probably scary to the right, and I find it unlikely that this newish meme (I’ve never run across it before, in earlier discussions) just sort of popped up on its own.

    Sigh. Thanks for the clarification on the facts of the vote. Now I’m even more disturbed.

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