[Column] Meritocracy’s tyrannical rule in Korea

Posted on : 2021-12-11 10:58 KST Modified on : 2021-12-11 10:58 KST
Kim Nu-ri
Kim Nu-ri
By Kim Nu-ri, professor of German literature at Chung-Ang University

South Korea is in the midst of a civil war. Our day-to-day life is like a battle.

In no other country in the world are the conflicts among social groups so severe. In areas such as the wealth divide, ideology, political parties, religion, generations, gender differences and academic background, South Korea has been named as suffering from the direst conflict and discrimination.

Some truly shocking findings emerged from a survey of 23,000 adults in 28 countries that was jointly conducted earlier this year by the Policy Institute at King’s College London and Ipsos, an internationally renowned polling organization.

Out of 12 “culture war” indicators measuring conflict among social groups, South Korea ranked No. 1 for no fewer than seven. It was named as suffering from far and away the most severe conflict of anywhere in the world.

South Korea is a country in the throes of a cultural war, a country suffering a day-to-day civil war, a country with the worst conflict around. Surprising enough, however, there’s one ideology that everyone seems to agree on: meritocracy.

When it comes to meritocracy, everybody is on board — left and right, conservative and progressive, rich and poor, young and old, female and male, elite and ordinary. As inwardly divided as the Republic of Korea is, meritocracy is the one uniting ideology that binds it together.

The idea that people are compensated for their individual capabilities and efforts with wealth and power is a fiction, but an enchanting one.

Somewhere along the way, more and more people began seriously questioning meritocracy. One leading figure in this movement is Michael Sandel, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard University.

As seen in the title of a recent book of his, Sandel decries the “tyranny of merit.” His claim is that meritocracy is what has left American society in the barbarous state it now finds itself in.

In his analysis, a deep divide has taken shape in US society as a result of the perceived arrogance of the select few elite “winners” of the meritocratic society, and the sense of humiliation felt by the majority of ordinary people.

In America’s meritocratic society, he observes, what lesser-educated white workers feel is less class hatred and more a larger sense of anger and mortification. “Trumpism” was the eruption of this.

The tyranny of merit has also been laying waste to the dignity of hard work. In a meritocratic society, the people who do the tougher jobs are not recognized for their social value, but treated as objects of contempt and mockery.

Sandel also offers a shocking analysis of “deaths of despair.” Investigating the reasons behind the ongoing decline in US life expectancies, he finds a rise in deaths attributable to feelings of despair.

He raises a number of questions. Why, when faced with social inequality without precedent in history, do the weaker members of society succumb to drugs and suicide rather than resisting? Why do they punish themselves, rather than battle against their unjust society? Isn’t this what has made the US into what it is today — a society suffering from the worst inequality in its history?

Sandel’s analysis is chilling. He concludes that it is the tyranny of the meritocracy that is destroying the common good, the dignity of hard work, and human lives.

How then, should we assess South Korean society? If anything, Sandel’s analysis fits South Korea even better than it does the US.

Whether it is about our having the fiercest culture war anywhere in the world, about ours being a society where the dignity of hard work is not respected either in physical terms (the world’s highest rate of deaths from industrial accidents) or in social ones (contempt for difficult jobs), or about our having recorded the world’s highest suicide rate for decades running — all of these phenomena show South Korea to be even more hellish a meritocracy than the US. It is no wonder that “Squid Game,” a TV series showing the most extreme form of unfettered competition and winner-takes-all logic, came out of South Korea.

The economist Jeong Tae-in has described South Korean society as the most unequal in the history of capitalism. “In the old days, this much inequality would have led to a revolution,” he has remarked.

After reading Sandel’s book, I gained some sense of why there isn’t any revolution in South Korea: the ideology of meritocracy prevents it from happening. When faced with inequality and injustice, South Koreans don’t rage or resist — they quietly kill themselves.

So ingrained are we with the teachings of the meritocratic ideology that we attribute our misfortunes not to society’s structures, but to our own inability. And, thus, we punish ourselves.

That’s why there has been no revolution in South Korea, the country with the world’s worst inequality. It’s also why South Korea has the most suicides.

The 2022 presidential election is shaping into a feast for the meritocrats. Everyone speaks of “fairness,” but nobody discusses inequality. We neither treat the wounds that meritocracy has inflicted, nor do we warn of the catastrophe that meritocracy is poised to bring.

Who will put an end to the tyranny of merit?

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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