After the OpenNet Initiative conference last Friday, there was a debate held at the Oxford Union, under the motion “This House believes that the Internet is the greatest force for Democratisation in the World”. Black tie preferred. I regret I had to leave early as I had to catch the last train back to Egham. It was still a fun experience watching the theatrical rituals in the beginning.
If you go to any online community of Korean students studying in the West, one of the problems often addressed on the bulletin board is that students are not very used to debate in the classroom. Like many other East Asian countries, we don’t seem to have a strong debate culture. Not to mention a former PM of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew’s argument that older people should have more votes than younger ones, the individual in Korean society is a profoundly social being, always placed in a certain position with respect to other people and granted his/her say in accordance with the given position. If I overly simplify it, in a (face-to-face) conversation of two, the participants can hardly afford an equal standing. One always has more say than the other – judged by age, title, experience, expertise, etc.
I love proverbs and try to live by them. However, one of the Korean proverbs that I am ambivalent about is: “If you stay quiet, you will at worst be ranked in the middle” (가만히 있으면 중간이나 가지). Not exactly the same thing as “Silence is golden”. It’s rather closer to Mark Twain’s famous quotation: “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt”. A levelling social attitude, the so-called ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’, is encouraged by this mentality. Don’t take a risk, don’t stand out, go with the flow. It’s almost funny to compare how my brain criticises this attitude for killing creativity and how my body finds it uncomfortable to participate in a heated debate. I must have been thoroughly programmed.
Silence helps occasionally though. A couple of weeks ago, I was at the station with Sri and Mr You waiting for the train to Waterloo and bumped into Anish unusually all dressed up. He said he was from work. We asked where he worked, and he said Capgemini. I found it strange as it was difficult for me to imagine a post for a PhD student in Information Security in the local cab company Gemini. I didn’t say anything, and boy, I am glad I didn’t. 😛
Back to a slightly more academic note. My research findings indicate that online debate in Korea is not simply about hiding behind anonymity (because the Internet is not exactly an anonymous environment anyway) but more to do with a hierarchical shift. A separate post – or even a paper 😉 – will follow.