Tuesday, June 14, 2016

My Response to Se-Woong Koo's "South Korea's Misogyny"

Late last month, I wrote a post called "I am part of the problem and I want to talk about it," where I talked about the Gangnam murder case and the level of misogyny that exists in Korea.

It was the most personal thing that I had ever written on this blog. I don't usually write my personal feelings, but the reason I wrote that was because I felt angry, but more importantly, I felt helpless. The amount of hate, ridicule, and marginalization (and sometimes straight up violence) that women face in their lives is not something that I am entirely familiar with, but something that I want to get to know better so that I will no longer be part of the problem that women face; and hopefully, become a part of the solution. I said that I wanted to be a part of the conversation, and this is my way of continuing it.

But we have to identify what the problem is, and also what it isn't. And no matter how I look at it, misogyny seems like the product of a social problem. And I use the word "social" to encompass culture, religion, and tradition. You'll notice that there is one category that is missing in my definition of "social problem" -- legal.

It goes without saying that there are certainly laws that are unfair to women. I think one of the best examples of laws being unfair to women are child support laws. In many instances after a divorce, the woman almost always takes custody of the child(ren), but most women are awarded an inadequate amount of child support, if they are awarded any child support at all.

So there are certainly laws that put women at a disadvantage. But the reason why I did not add legal in my definition of "social problems" is because it is my opinion that the law itself is not the source of misogyny. That is because laws are but a reflection of a society's shared morals. In other words, what I am saying is that in my opinion, misogyny is a social problem, which at times is reflected in a country's laws, but is not necessarily a problem caused by the law.

This is why misogyny is so incredibly pervasive and just as hard to combat. During that time when so many Korean women were sharing their thoughts and feelings about the Gangnam murder case and sharing their stories about being objectified and victimized in various Naver blogs and Facebook posts, I found far too many men leaving behind distasteful comments. One commenter said that women couldn't complain about sexism because Korean women are not forced to serve in the military. I know that I'm no Mr. Perfect either, but I can't imagine how self-absorbed someone has to be to be unable to fathom that someone else could actually be a victim.

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Whenever I read any of those comments, I just wanted to grab them all by their collars and slap some sense into their thick skulls. (Aren't we all a bunch of keyboard warriors when we are behind our computer screens?) But even if I could, that wouldn't solve the problem.

Perhaps I am wrong, and if I am, I'd be only too happy to be corrected, but as I said, I see misogyny as a social problem, which is a culmination of culture, tradition, and religion. These elements are the very fabric of society and a society's fundamental building blocks cannot and do not change overnight, at least not if it is done in the least bloody manner possible (the alternative that I am referring to is, of course, violent revolutions). Getting a society to change is tiring, tedious, frustrating, and painful work; but I think it is uncontroversial to say that it is less tiring, tedious, frustrating, and painful than violent social upheavals.

So although I recognize that this will be a long and thankless journey, and even though I will most likely be little more than just another tiny voice in a sea of people who wish to strive for social improvements, I still wish to be part of the conversation if for no other reason than the fact that I don't wish to feel ashamed every time I look into the mirror wondering why I didn't do more to help.

It was at this point that I read Se-Woong Koo's column in The New York Times - South Korea's Misogyny. I am not unfamiliar with Mr. Koo's work. I have read a few of them and more often than not, I have strongly disagreed with some of the things that he has said (see here and here). And I found myself once again disagreeing with Mr. Koo's proposed solution -- passing Korea's stalled anti-discrimination laws.

I started my blog back in 2013 and the stalled anti-discrimination bill was the second thing that I had ever written about. For those who are more familiar with my economic and political views, I am sure that it will come as no surprise to you that I was (regretfully) happy that the bill did not pass. If you would like to read what I had written about it then and understand why I added "regretfully" in parenthesis, you can read it here.

Another thing that I found lacking in Mr. Koo's column was his lack of explanation of some his points. In all fairness, he was writing an op-ed for The New York Times, which, unlike his blog, has a word limit. So I don't hold that against him too much. However, I would be remiss if I did not take a swipe at his throwaway comment about Korean women getting paid only two-thirds of how much men get paid considering the fact that he seems to completely neglect the fact that that is actually a median wage gap. You can read more about what I had to say on the subject of the gender wage gap here.

Also his statement about how "an anti-discrimination bill would help reduce discrimination, create legal protections and compensation, and, hopefully, reduce misogyny" is rather unconvincing.

I recognize that neither of my positions regarding the anti-discrimination bill and the gender wage gap is particularly popular, but I stand by every word that I said in those blog posts.

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Now of course, I agree with Mr. Koo about everything else, particularly his diagnosis of Korean society. I remember when I was a child, I was shocked when my grandmother told me that she didn't know how to read. She was part of that generation when people thought that girls didn't need any kind of education whatsoever. I also learned later on that my grandmother had put on makeup only once in her life, which she washed off promptly, because my grandfather barked at her for doing so because "it made her look like a whore."

I say this without any exaggeration that when my grandmother was younger, the only two places that she "belonged" were in the kitchen and the bedroom. Obviously Korean society has progressed since my grandmother's day but, as Mr. Koo said, those changes have "come too late for her, but it’s not too late to give respect to South Korean women of new generations."

So, to repeat, although I agree with Mr. Koo's diagnosis, it is my opinion that Mr. Koo's proposed solutions leave much to be desired.

As I said before, I want to be part of the conversation and I want to be part of the solution. Misogyny is real and there have been far too many victims. As Mr. Koo himself also said, there is no easy solution. What's unfortunate is that as soon as he said that, he offered an easy solution, which is no solution at all. In fact, it could be downright counterproductive.

I think the way forward is going to be long, exhausting, and just completely unpleasant. But I think that is the only way forward that will bring about real lasting change that everyone can be proud of; and that using the law to try to fix a deeper social problem is like telling a cancer patient to use a band-aid.

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I don't know if you've taken the time to read my previous posts about the anti-discrimination bill or the gender wage gap. The one about the gender wage gap is admittedly rather TL;DR. Anyway, my approach to economics, the law, and politics in general have been affected by liberal economics (just so there is no confusion, I do mean classical liberalism). And no one has to tell me that a lot of people do not subscribe to that school of thought.

So if you are one of those people who think that Mr. Koo has a point, hell, if you are Se-Woong Koo and you'd like to take the time to respond, and think that passing the anti-discrimination bill would somehow help reduce discrimination and misogyny, I am all ears.