Social Critic’s Lamentation
By Jon Huer
Korea Times Columnist
The first few columns that I have penned for this space in the Korea Times have received their share of darts and flowers from readers ― actually, more darts than flowers. The peculiar nature of the responses makes up enough material for a later column.
In the meantime, at this preliminary stage of my new career's baptism of fire, I think about my role as a ``social critic.'' The social critic is one who criticizes for the purpose of ``critiquing'' the object of his criticism. If the object of his criticism happens to be a society, his enterprise is called ``social criticism.''
Social criticism is one of the long-standing traditions among the thinking people. It is perhaps the most important and noblest part of studying society.
But the long-standing tradition of social criticism also goes against perhaps a longer-standing tradition in all of humanity in society: Nobody likes to be criticized, even if it is for his own good. Yet thinking people everywhere, in sociology, literature, theology, philosophy, art, consider the modern social critics as heir to the ancient prophets. They live to prophesy the truth.
Deep down in the critic's mind is the conviction that humanity in society needs improvement toward perfection. The way of improvement, according to the critic, is for humanity to become aware of its shortcomings. Shortcomings according to what standard? Shortcomings according to the society's own professed ideals.
What are Korea's professed ideals that it proclaims to the world and how does Korea fall short of its own professed ideals?
Korea lets the whole world know that it wants to be a ``first-rate'' nation and its soul will not rest until the day comes that it recognizes that Korea is indeed what it professes to be: A first-rate nation and people. But in too many fields of human endeavors Korea is far from being first-rate, and often not even second-rate.
Why does the critic do what he does? Does the critic hate what he criticizes? Is it why he criticizes it?
Quite to the contrary, in the case of Korean society, the critic holds Korea to its own professed idealism and devotes much of his thinking life to making sure that Korea is held true to itself. Why? Because critics love what they criticize!
The film critic criticizes film, the food critic food, the art critic artworks, all because they love the objects of their criticism. The film critic wants all the films he sees to be the very best that they are capable of becoming. The food critic and the art critic have a similar desire. They so love what they criticize that they risk much unpopularity in doing so.
Praise, antithetical to critique, is the buzzword today, a fashion begun by America's psychology school, now spreading to Korea's culture. Praise is a popular, cheap verbal drug for the psychologically needy and unloved. Praising oneself, especially, or one's country, is the easiest thing to do and is also the most useless exercise. The critic believes that praise should not be manufactured, as true praise is natural to achievement.
In the best of the prophetic tradition, the critic goes on with his lonely but well-meaning crusade to bring out the best in humanity, not to confirm, like the cynic, our worst fears about ourselves.
Then, how does the social critic go about doing his criticism?
His first weapon of choice is ``generalization,'' as opposed to ``particularization.'' The opponents of the critic tend to call on him for being too ``generalizing'' and, as an example, they tend to give a particular example contrary to the generalized conclusion.
For my part, it is this generalization that gets me in hot water with readers. But generalizing is the social critic's main business. No conversation, intellectual or otherwise, can ever take place unless a generalized statement is first offered. In fact, all statements are a form of generalization.
So, when the critic generalizes and says Koreans are emotional, someone will quickly oppose him and say, ``Not all Koreans are emotional, and I know a Korean who is not emotional.'' Opposing generalization with a particular exception is the oldest, and the most ineffective, practice among those who dislike all forms of generalization.
The critic's second weapon of choice is the Weapon of Irony.
What we generally call ``knowledge'' or ``wisdom'' or ``truth'' is mostly expressed in either irony or its conceptual cousin, contradiction. A simple person who believes everything he or she hears or sees only plays into the hands of those who control his or her sociological mind. A well-educated person can find ironic and contradictory phenomena in his own social world and, therefore, learns the ``truth.''
It is seldom that our social reality is exactly what it appears to be. Example: Credit Card vs. Freedom. We tend to think credit cards ``free'' us, but actually, they ``enslave'' us in so many ways. Another example: A man who happily checks out a bunch of DVDs for the weekend, ironically, must be the most ``unfulfilled'' person around. Why else would he need that much distraction? Such examples of irony make us think and affect our action.
The social critic tells us about the reality that we fail to recognize. My role as a Korea Times columnist is to do this to the best of my ability. So, readers, fire away!
Jon Huer received his Ph.D. in Sociology from UCLA in 1975 and is the author of a dozen books of social criticism.
The writer can be contacted at email@example.com.
``The opinions expressed and the observations described in these articles are strictly the writer's own and do not represent any official position of the University of Maryland University College or the USFK.''