Who Will Decide?

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In the late 1960s I lived for a year in Korea. In Asian countries, protocol and social graces are of utmost importance. Failure to pay attention to some minute detail can have disastrous social consequences. A classic example of this is what happened when I was in a public building in Seoul, Korea.

I sat on a bench with my friend Jung Dae Wung. I was quite relaxed, and, in typical American fashion, I crossed my legs with the ankle of one leg resting on the thigh of the other, the bottom of my shoe visible to everyone to my left. My friend and I were conversing, when I noticed that several people seemed a bit agitated, and kept looking in our direction.

My Korean friend caught sight of the agitation and annoyed glances, then realized what was happening. He quickly told me to uncross my legs, and to put both feet on the floor. Not understanding why, but sensing the urgency in his voice, I complied. He politely bowed from his seated position, in the direction of the other people, offering some explanation in Korean. I did not understand Korean at that time, but I imagine that he told them that I was American and just did not know any better. Turning to me, my friend explained that showing the bottom of your shoe to someone is tantamount to calling him a dog or worse. It is highly offensive.

Upon hearing this I was quite embarrassed, and turned as red as my brown skin would allow. Needless to say, I never did that again.

The point of that example is to bring up a question: If the Koreans and the Americans lived together in a multicultural society, who would have to give up what? Is it wrong to cross one’s legs? Is it wrong to react to the bottom of someone’s shoe being pointed at you? Whose culture is right? Whose culture is wrong? And the chilling question is this: Who is going to decide?

And by whose wisdom? The founders of America did not think uniformity of opinion was necessary. Are we greater than they? Laws compelling men to buy from, or sell to, or hire particular individuals would have been an appalling intrusion, not just into their personal freedoms, but they would have viewed them as an assault on the very rights of conscience they had waged a revolution to secure. To them each man’s moral ability and freedom to discriminate between right and wrong, between what is acceptable to their conscience and what is an offense to it, were sacred rights. No one’s exercise of his rights could deny another person the free exercise of his rights. But the politicians of today create “rights” to housing, employment, education, health care, etc., that others must provide, even against their will and conscience. This cannot happen without fostering a seething hostility just beneath the surface of the polite society, ready to explode when the pressure becomes too great.

When several different cultures are brought together through legislation, there are thousands of deep cultural differences just waiting to cause offense and hostility. Political correctness must, of necessity, become the rule. But who is going to give up crossing his leg, and who is going to give up being offended? In such an atmosphere, there is no genuine peace or love, and the only way to keep the lid on the boiling cauldron is more legislation. This is the looming specter of Colossus.

~John