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?