“Toward a politics of habit” (JoongAng Daily, August 11, 2014)

“Toward a politics of habit”

JoongAng Daily

August 11, 2014

Emanuel Pastreich

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The sinking of the Sewol Ferry has created immense pressure for change within the political system of Korea. Yet what we see are unrealistic efforts to respond to systemic problems through sweeping reorganization of the government at the highest levels. Many suspect this effort is intended only to reassure citizens that some change is happening.

But the harsh truth is that although quick responses may be temporarily satisfying, neither a shake-up at the highest levels in government, nor proposals for new bureaucracies, nor prison terms for a handful of people involved directly in the tragedy will prevent another one.

The problem is one of culture, not policy. Opaque transactions among greedy business people and self-serving government officials reflect a corrupt culture at all levels of society. So extreme is this corruption that the safety of our children is compromised, and distrust of government is spreading.

No policy, and no single politician, can solve this problem. Part of the responsibility lies with us. As the saying goes, “we don’t want leaders, we want magicians.” A leader is not someone who we elect and then expect to solve our problems for us over a period of a few years. A leader is not simply someone we can toss out if he does not do what we expect him to do. A leader is someone we support and who embodies the ideals for which we strive. A leader can help us coordinate our efforts, but the leader cannot do the heavy lifting. We must do that ourselves.

We must move beyond this mentality of expecting some miracle at the highest level of policy and recognize that real change will not come as long as we merely vote for some politician.

We must move beyond a politics of policy in which we naively assume that some bill with a sexy title will transform the world.

What we need is a politics of habits. Culture cannot be changed through policies, but it can be transformed slowly by altering habits. Rather than delude ourselves that after each crisis we can just hurriedly pass a law and then go back to business as usual, we need to see that problems are generated by our daily actions.

If we become more transparent in our behavior toward those around us, if we show respect for those who clean our offices and cook our food, if we keep our promises and uphold our responsibilities within the organizations in which we work, those habits can transform our society more effectively than any policy.

If dominant habits are positive, even those who are selfish will be pressured to behave in a decent manner. If the habits of ordinary people are healthy, the positive feedback will assure that government can regain its former vitality and that even systems that are flawed will function because people believe in them.

But in Korea today, politicians deliver different speeches to different audiences. They live a double life in which they pretend to be humble servants of the people on TV, then get in their limousines to be whisked off to exclusive meetings with the rich and powerful. Now the politician is talking to parents about the need for educational reform, but a few hours later he is talking to an elite group about real estate speculation and sending his children abroad to study.

This problem can only be addressed if we have people who are uncompromising in their habits. If we have politicians who insist on only using public transportation, politicians who refuse to make deals that overtly benefit themselves and their families, if we have politicians who talk about the needs of ordinary people whether they are making speeches or meeting with CEOs, then we will start to see real change.

Oddly, the politics of habits, the strategy of transforming the world through daily practices, is not new, but rather an old tradition in Korea. The Joseon Dynasty managed to maintain peace for 500 years and create some of the most impressive institutions because it embraced a politics of habit.

This Confucian approach to governance is embodied by a famous phrase from the work “Doctrine of the Mean”: “The gentleman is cautious even when he is completely alone.”

The key to healthy politics is a constant awareness of what is proper and appropriate for the whole of society. That means that we do not radically shift our ideas about what is proper depending on the context. The best leader is someone who has made these positive habits so much a part of his life that he practices them even when entirely alone.

We can do the most to transform society not by advocating some flashy policy, but rather by holding ourselves to high standards in our daily habits. It requires a certain bravery to refuse various benefits that come with positions of authority. That bravery only comes with adherence to unwavering habits.

The teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, one of the greatest politicians in recent history, are of great value. Gandhi argued we must become in our habits the change that we want to see in the world. If we want a more equal society, we must first treat those around us with great equality. If we want transparent government, we must be brutally transparent in every aspect of our daily lives.

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