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Korea’s tradition of propriety: Godsend for network age

In this age the complex relations developing between individuals outside of the workplace or the family, whether those that develop through online communications within organizations, or those found in social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, are having a profound impact on our society. Connections between people from vastly different backgrounds, who serve at different levels within organizations, can subtly, or bluntly, influence policy.

Almost all actions within social networks are legal, but the practice can be profoundly damaging because of the temptation to circumvent proper process and to exchange informally information that is sensitive or blatantly untrue. Media distortions and slanders of individuals can be used to influence the course of events, often subverting entirely the due process of law. These developments are unprecedented, and we do not have any real blueprint for responding to them either legally or institutionally. Law, as we conceive of it, does not cover perception and innuendo. Slander is a legal offence, but it must be proven in a court and is subject to a heavy burden of proof. Most of the inconsiderate and hurtful actions via blog postings and Twitter messages are beyond the reach of the law.

There is a pressing need to develop a viable system of governance for the network society, a system for moral behavior build from a set of proper rules of conduct, rather than punitive legal sanctions. Korea’s rich intellectual tradition offers a perfect solution to this modern day dilemma.

In the 17th and 18th century Koreans developed complex rules for propriety in daily life and in governance, which served as a means of peacefully and effectively resolving conflicts between individuals in both families and institutions. Building on precedents from ancient China and Korea, Korean scholars developed a unique form of scholarship known as “yehak,” or “propriety studies,” that parses and analyzes the language exchanges and actions taken by in terms of their implications for familial and social harmony and prescribed models for non-confrontational and respectful behavior to resolve institutional conflicts.

The rules for proper behavior codified in Korea form the most important field pre-modern Korean scholarship. The appropriate behavior of individuals in any number of complex social environments was carefully analyzed and classified for easy reference. Propriety suggested how individuals could behave in moral manner within the family, local society, the government and the nation without resorting to penal solutions.

Of course some aspects of propriety studies are relevant to the current age: for example rules for how to serve food to one’s mother-in-law or offer sacrifices to ancestors. But such rules can be updated for the current age quite effectively. Certainly the promotion of smooth relations through respectful behavior has great relevance to our network age.

Although propriety works much like constitutional law in setting guiding rules for behavior, it deals deftly with such sensitive issues as loss of face, political parties, family relations and the use and abuse of proper titles that have become so important, but are beyond the confines of law. Propriety studies focuses on how people interact with each other: the spaces that must be maintained between people in order to promote harmony.

By contrast, constitutions and legal codes require lawyers who try to ascertain whether actions overstep set boundaries that then require punishments. Legal systems are limited in terms of what they can achieve in an increasingly fluid internet-based society. Propriety can serve as a very effective means of governance, and its rules can be extended from the human to the avatar and the proto-human cyborg easily because propriety is not concerned with who is human, but rather what is appropriate.

By Emanuel Pastreich

Emanuel Pastreich is a professor at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. ― Ed.