Ahn’s imaginary campaign
There is a famous story in Korean history about Yi Seong-gye, the founding king of the Joseon Kingdom, and Ven. Muhak, his favorite Buddhist bonze (the Japanese name for a Buddhist priest). One day at a banquet, the king, feeling good from the festive mood and wine, challenged the venerable to a playful game of words. “Let’s insult each other and see who comes out ahead,” the king said. “I’ll go first.”
“Now that I look at you closely, you bear a strong resemblance to a pig!” the king guffawed, waiting for the comeback.
Ven. Muhak countered: “Your majesty looks like the Lord Buddha.”
“What kind of a comeback is that?” the king was disappointed. “This is only fun if you insult me back. How is telling me that I look like Buddha insulting?”
The priest pondered. “Well,” he explained. “To an enlightened person, everyone looks like a Buddha. But to a pig, everyone looks like a pig. People only see things in their own image.”
Although the story is hundreds of years old, the kernel of truth contained within is still relevant today ― people only see what they want to see. And what they want to see is directly influenced by who they are and what professional and cultural context they live in. This phenomenon can be characterized as confirmation bias, which is a tendency to interpret a motivation or situation that fits in one’s preconceptions.
This confirmation bias was in full display in the recent media’s frenzy over Ahn Chul-soo’s supposed dalliance over a possible run for Seoul mayor in the aftermath of the former mayor’s untimely political demise.
Ahn’s story is well known. He is the closest thing that Korea has to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. He is a self-made entrepreneur who gave up a career in medicine to begin a software company that developed anti-virus vaccines for the computer. His solutions soon gained and continued its market dominance in Korea while other indigenous software makers succumbed to the Microsoft world.
As a successful businessman, he is also unique in that he has always been identified with the downtrodden, rather than with the large conglomerates. Perhaps his company’s ability to outcompete the big boys that so dominate Korea’s economy and remain true to its unique independence imbued him with a certain brand power that has allowed him to transcend business and make him into a popular figure.
In fact, he is regularly placed in the top five of the most respected people in Korea in survey after survey. He is especially popular among the young, who probably sees in him a living example of someone who managed to escape from the suffocating school to conglomerate path to success that Korean society herds them into.
But, despite several public overtures from both conservative and liberals, Ahn has never shown any signs that he was interested in politics. But speculation is so much more fun than actual facts. As rumors are wont to begin, somewhere, somehow, someone let it slip that Ahn was considering a run for the vacant mayor’s seat.
When asked, Ahn replied that he hadn’t given it much thought, which was taken to mean that he has considered running. When Ahn commented that one could do a lot of good things as the Seoul’s mayor, this was a confirmation that he was definitely running.
Polls started feeding the frenzy. Most polls had Ahn leading other candidates by double margins. Ahn had close to 50 percent support that cut across party lines. He was leading a bona-fide sociopolitical “syndrome.” Feeling threatened, the ruling party asserted that Ahn would be “thoroughly vetted,” if he ran, a thinly veiled threat that his life would be turned upside down to find any dirt.
Of course, this all turned out to be untrue a few days later when Ahn officially announced that he wasn’t running for mayor and threw his support to lawyer and civil activist Park Won-soon. This didn’t stop the frenzy. The follow-up question was, “Are you running for the presidency next year, instead?”
Some people blamed Ahn for playing coy with the public about his true intentions. But his true intentions were already known to any casual observer of his record. He wasn’t going to run. He said so himself on several occasions. Then why did the press and the political establishment insist that he was running? Confirmation bias.
Their cognitive world was so limited by what they knew that they projected their world view onto everything. Ahn had to be running because he was popular, and the Seoul mayor’s post was open. How could anyone think otherwise?
As Ven. Muhak noted, everyone looks like a pig to a pig. To a politician, everything looks like political maneuvering; it will always be our party against their party; my faction against your faction; and my one-liner against your one-liner. Which is fine, but where does that leave the nation and the people? Out in the cold.
Jason Lim is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant in organizational leadership, culture, and change management. He has been writing for The Korea Times since 2006. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Facebook.com/jasonlim2000.