POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 1 May 2014, Thursday
Humility versus humiliation
Last Sunday, South Korea Prime Minister Chung Hong-won offered his resignation over their government’s slow reaction to the Sewol ferry disaster that has so far claimed 188 lives and left 114 missing.
The accident that occurred off South Korea’s southwestern coast is the country’s biggest disaster in recent history.
What makes it most poignant and heartbreaking is that most of the passengers were teenagers – high school students on a field trip – their lives full of promise cut short by loopholes in safety measures, lax regulatory procedures, and inefficient response.
Chung apologized for “problems that existed before the accident” and “the many problems that arose during the first response and the subsequent rescue operation,” where the “government took inadequate measures and disappointed the public.”
As prime minister, Chung is the second-highest ranking public official. His resignation was accepted by President Park Geun-hye, who however asked Chung to remain at his post until after the completion of the rescue operations.
Chung’s resignation may be interpreted as an act of humility, a virtue in most belief and philosophical systems. In this context, it is the lowering of one’s pride and the effacement of ego to take accountability for one’s failures.
However, there is a difference between humility and humiliation.
Was Chung’s offer of resignation entirely a personal gesture? It might only be an act expected of someone occupying the post of prime minister and part of his unspoken obligations.
According to Choe Sang-Hun, writing in the New York Times, in South Korea, executive power is in the hands of the president. The position of prime minister is “largely ceremonial,” and that official is “sometimes fired when the government needs to soothe public anger after a major scandal or policy failure.”
In that case, then, Chung’s resignation may not have been so much an act of humility as one of humiliation, where he took the role of scapegoat to save face for the government.
To assume humility is a personal decision, made as part of one’s character development or spiritual journey; it connotes positive personal change.
Humiliation, on the other hand, imposes humility on another person, belittles, demeans, and embarrasses.
Many Filipino netizens saw Chung’s gesture as an act of humility. They unfavorably compared local lawmakers whose names have been connected to the pork barrel plunder and other scandals not only related to corruption but also to arrogance and impropriety, yet who remain in office despite public clamor for them to step down.
However, anyone accused is innocent until proven guilty. Our society is founded on democratic principles, where due process is observed in the pursuit of justice and fairness; otherwise, it would be a tyranny.
But resignation from office, the offer to do so, or at the least an apology, even for an act one did not directly commit or perform but that one is responsible for because of the chain of command, shows sensitivity to public opinion.
Filipinos refer to this sensitivity as hiya – ‘a sense of propriety’ – akin to delicadeza, which shares a similar meaning, with nuances of integrity and keeping up a good name or reputation. To call someone ‘walanghiya’ is a dire insult, because it implies that the person has no sense of shame, no feeling as to what is right and proper.
Elected officials occupy their positions not by merit for their qualifications or accomplishments but only for the reason that they were chosen by the people to serve. Clinging in to a post in the face of public denouncement is ignominious behavior – nakakahiya.
In Chung’s case, whether he offered to resign out of a personal sense of accountability or to fulfill a societal role is moot in the face of his call for South Koreans to unite to cope with the situation, rather than divide and find fault.
“This is not the time for blaming each other but for finishing the rescue operation and dealing with the accident,” said Chung.
In calling out our own officials, we do not seek to humiliate them, because that would be mean and counterproductive, serving no positive purpose.
Rather, we ask them to have the humility to search their souls and determine if they can
no longer serve with credibility. We ask them to be accountable for their actions and responsible for their decisions, and to hold their staff to the same high standards.
We ask them to be like Chung, who chose to be publicly embarrassed rather than continue in his post with the shadow of regret and failure hanging over his head.