Friday, May 22, 2009

Your Korean Big Brother & You: Free Speech & False Courage

The Prosecutor's Office here, which has the kind of authoritarian power DAs and AGs across the United States salivate over, is looking to find ways to make any protest in a public space illegal that--no kidding--"might turn violent."  Basically, this means that any protest would be deemed illegal because the Prosecutor says it isn't a good protest.

***added at 2:24PM: Not many people have been smiling about the Prosecutor's Office seeking to harass and arrest peaceful protestors.  The Prosecutor's Office is looking for a means to be able to insist any protest can be illegal and the determination is to be made by the Office.  This isn't about violence.  If it were, there would be serious ramifications for several members of the police force in Seoul as a result of recent events.  This is about targeting activists and bullying them and/or arresting them.  Let me be clear, a violent protest in Korea is a protest where old people throw raw eggs and vegetable at cars and sometimes people.  Most protests are sit-down candlelight vigils, with singing and prepared speeches read over megaphones.  Moreover, we know how most nonviolent protests turn violent.  The police show up and harass people.  They have many tactics they use to provoke citizens to violent action.  And if those tactics fail, the police beat people with sticks.***

It's strange to live in a place that calls itself a Republic, a democratic republic, but has an elected government that permits such unethical use of power.  After all, a cornerstone for modern Democracy is the ability to peacefully assemble and freely speak.

In Korea, "peaceful assembly" is used against the assemblers.  Everything deemed inappropriate, read not in support of the government and corporate interests, is deemed not peaceful.  In addition, freely speaking is pitched against libel.  If an author publicly disagrees with a corporation on a web forum, for example, the corporation can file a dispute and for 30 days the posting would be suspended while the government, the corporation and you arbitrate about the validity of your claim.  The Korean government, and jawdroppingly many Korean citizens, will argue that this kind of arbitration protects free speech.

Such arbitration should not be considered free speech at any time nor for any reason.  Public criticism is the price of doing business and government.

It's simple.  We make claims.  Our claims, no matter how opinionated, have logic.  Something is explicit and implicit in each of them.  As well, whoever listens to our claims might find reason to, through inference, see things in our claims we did or did not intend.  By requiring real names to be used on blogs and Internet postings and by requiring arbitration about disputed claims, the Korean government proscribes inference from public discourse.  It's incredibly absurd. (I hesitate to write too much about politics on DagSeoul for a reason.  I'm not going to link to anything in this post.  Safe to say all news about protests, arrest of protestors, prosecution of bloggers, laws about blogging and posting online from mainstream news agencies in Korea will tell the story I have summarized whether the author or agency sympathizes with the laws/rules or not.)

In the United States and in much of Europe, free speech is an act.  We choose not to define speech acts because to regulate such acts might proscribe them and future acts, whatever they might be.  Such freedom permits and encourages active and aggressive exploration of the possibilities speech has to offer.  And much of our debate becomes centered on what speech acts are, not how to prohibit them.

In Korea, there is much handwringing about the difference between free speech and what we can call false courage.  Free speech is whatever is freely uttered in public that is proved to be correct.  False Courage, when applied to speech, is applied to anything the government says is not correct.  Or, that citizens find scary.  Certainly, I do not fully understand what Koreans who use it mean by false courage, but I understand what it means in the Western Tradition.  We might talk about false courage in an ethics course when we discuss the application of courage and the precision, accuracy, timeliness, what have you of its application.  The problem with associating false courage with free speech is that it punishes the person who is brave enough to step into the public discourse and speak his or her mind freely.

One thing we learn as teachers, even after only a few years of dedicated teaching, is that students who speak their minds make mistakes.  A good teacher has to come to terms with cultivating active learning in public spaces that permit mistakes.  A poor teacher in any department is inevitably a teacher who refuses to permit student mistakes.  Another way to put this:  the teachers who consistently punish mistakes by lowering grades or subtracting point are not good teachers.  Such teachers are good cops maybe, good purveyors of State Ideology maybe, but they never produce students who can critically think and write well.  Nor do they produce students who enjoy education.

Students who speak their minds will only speak their minds freely when they know they are permitted, at times encouraged, to make mistakes.  When we say that free speech that is mistaken, for whatever reason, is false courage--that to speak freely somebody must speak correctly, then we proscribe the freedom from speech.  It's really that simple.  And without free speech people do not speak, and people who do not speak do not learn.

And what is a public debate without the peanut gallery?  False Courage is a tool the ruling classes use to justify labeling any group or individual who disagrees with their minority conensus opinion as uninformed and stupid, a group or individual who should not be permitted to speak.

I often wonder why the Korean classroom is so silent.  Ask the students a question, they will not answer.  They will sit silently and await a cue that gives them permission to speak.  A teacher need not give them the answer, but the kids want a cue--they will often ask politely for a hint--about how they should answer.  That cue and the desire to receive it tears my heart in two.

What I miss about the American classroom is the noise.  Don't get me wrong, my classrooms here are noisy.  Adolescents are noisy.  The noise here is based in utter ennui.  My students--sophomores and juniors--get excited about playing bingo and winning prizes.  They are most definitely not excited about learning.  Their burden is learning because they are ranked as a result of their series of multiple choice tests into a line that will utterly determine their future.  The pain associated with this base ranking bleaches the joy from their educational journeys.  In many ways, the educational system infantilizes the Korean student.  And so the aging adolescents would rather play children's games and be rewarded with pieces of candy than be tasked to write three reasonable claims in English about what they think about something that affects their daily lives.

I grew up itching for an argument, I think, as many Americans do.  I couldn't wait to participate in adult discussion.  When I was younger I was always speaking up when I should remain quiet.  I was disobedient to the core.  Still am.  But I was encouraged to direct my energies in such a manner that permitted me to become the teacher I am today--a free thinker who wants to dedicate his life to service to his community.  The disobedient students here are pysically punished, forced to apologize for having a voice, and frightened with a future of poverty if they don't score high enough on their exams to go to a "top Korean university."

And you do know why this conversation turned from free speech to the classroom, too.  Because educational reform in Korea is the key to finding political leaders in the future who will truly transform the Korean government into the Democratic Government the people here have fought so hard for....I didn't write a post on DagSeoul commemorating the two important dates to Korea's struggle for democracy.  Now I have.  I love this country and am obsessed with its history.  I am learning why.  The longer I am here, I am figuring it out.

April 19
May 18

Important dates to remember.

So Free Speech is branded as False Courage here because it can be mistaken.  I think the point of free speech is that even when purposefully saying improper comments, we are free to do so and suffer the consequences.  After all, what does a Republic have to fear of such brazen incorrectness?  Oh wait, I know.  If people are permitted to speak without fear of punishment, they will undoubtedly speak about what troubles them most:  Oppression, Hunger, Poverty, Health, Mistreatment, etc.  All the things governments can't stand listening to.  The Korean Democracy suffers from what ails American Democracy:  both are intolerant of the poor, the working class, and minority interests.

And yes the education system here depresses the shit out of me.  In fact, I think many of the arguments I have had with my partner are based in my general sadness.  My disposition isn't quite right.  I am out of sorts.  But I love my students so much.  I care for them.  I wouldn't leave them.  And of course, I love my girlfriend.  And today I am remembering our trip to Gwangju and keeping in my heart all those who have lost their lives here fighting for their freedom.

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