[Kim Seong-kon] Lament of a naive humanist

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Jul 29, 2014 - 20:34
  • Updated : Jul 29, 2014 - 20:34
What is it that makes us human? What are the decisive differences between men and machines, or humans and animals? When someone is arrested for manufacturing unsanitary or hazardous food, he comes up with an excuse: “I had to make a living, didn’t I?” But in making that living, he could have killed so many people. It surely makes him a mass-murdering monster and a subhuman creature! He just does not know it.

Two recent North American television series, “Being Human” and “Almost Human,” nicely delve into the theme “What is it that makes us human?” In “Being Human,” a werewolf, a vampire and a ghost try to cohabitate, dealing with various issues of everyday human life. Oftentimes, they are more human than humankind, caring about others and building everlasting friendships despite fundamental differences. On the contrary, humans kill each other because of blind hatred, political ideologies or religious creeds. Animal predators kill only when they need food, whereas humans kill for fun or out of hatred. If so, it is not going too far to say that men are more innately bestial than beasts.

“Almost Human” is a science-fiction police drama in which a human cop and his android partner team up to deal with crimes in each episode while posing a question: “Who is more human, man or machine?” In this drama, Dorian, the android, frequently exhibits more humaneness and nobility than his fellow flesh-and-blood police officers. In contrast, humans are often much more cruel and cold-blooded than the android.

In order to be truly human, we need to stop blindly pursuing money, and ponder instead what we have lost while seeking material success. Indeed, we have lost so many valuable things in life while chasing money and technological advancement, things such as humanity, decency and integrity. Some time ago, I went to a meeting where a professor of business administration gave a talk on culture. He began his talk with a rather succinct announcement: “Culture is money.” It is true that, for example, many people make a fortune from pop culture these days, and yet somehow the phrase sounded like it was disparaging and even desecrating “culture.” Perhaps it would have made sense if he had said, “Pop culture brings money.”

Actually, the term “culture” means much more than pop culture. Regrettably, many people tend to think of culture as something that can be represented by Psy, Girls’ Generation or Dae Jang Geum. Other people seem to think of “culture” merely as something that is relevant to movies, tourism or media. However, culture incorporates much more than that. As the phrase “a cultured man” implies, culture also refers to civility, gentility and nobility. If someone seriously lacks decorum, decency and courtesy, therefore, he cannot be a cultured man. That is why we need to take humanities courses in college.

Recently, the Korean government dispatched a group of assessors, who are mostly professors of business administration, to my institution for its annual evaluation. After scrutinizing the submitted documents, one of them asked me, “We have noticed that the institution has accomplished remarkable progress lately. Would you say it was made possible because of your outstanding leadership? Or do you think another person could have done it, too, if he had been in your place?” I thought self-boasting answers like “I was the only person who could do it” would make me look like a childish, arrogant elementary school kid in front of my senior staff. So I replied humbly as any scholar of the humanities would do: “I would say another person could have accomplished it as well, if only he was competent.” But my modesty was not appreciated. “That’s the wrong answer!” The chief assessor told me immediately. “You should have said you were the only one who could do it.”

Perhaps the appraiser gave me a poor grade. Still, I believed I provided the right answer. In the eyes of the professors of business or public administration, I must have looked like a naive humanist. And yet, many of our society’s problems would be solved by discarding such self-righteous attitudes as “I am the only person who can do it” or “I am always right and you are always wrong.”

In the 1970s, when South Korea was still underdeveloped and destitute, the Korean people called the people of richer countries “economic animals” in half-envy and with some derision. Now, as the people of an affluent society, Koreans should be careful in order not to be called “economic animals” by foreigners. We should not be slaves of money or perceive everything in terms of money. At the same time, we should know that in the world there are things more precious than money or that cannot be bought with money. 

We urgently need to restore our long lost humanity and decency. As Bartleby in Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” grieves, I might as well lament too: “Oh, humanity! Oh, nobility! Where have you gone?” 

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. ― Ed.