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[Justin Fendos] Emergence of #MeToo tribalism in politics

US partisan politics and the South Korean #MeToo movement shouldn’t have much in common. But if Koreans aren’t careful, the two are in danger of becoming similar, devoured by the pitfalls of tribalism. In many ways, the #MeToo discourse in Korea is in danger of devolving into a contest of whether you are against men or against women, with little ground in between.

The dangers of bipolarization have been on full display in the US for a few decades now. In the recent midterm election, urban America essentially voted against President Trump and his beliefs while rural America voted in support of him and his desire to protect Americans from “foreign dangers.” Identity politics, white supremacy and grievances against globalization have mixed together a potent cocktail fortifying Trump’s base. And herein lies the danger for Korea: Emerging tribal identities may rewrite the political landscape into one bitterly divided.

In the late 1950s, 72 percent of Americans said they didn’t care about the political affiliation of their child’s future spouse. This was a time when the shared identity of being American was more important than political identity: Democrat or Republican, you were still an American first. Today, a majority of Americans, around 60 percent, say they would prefer the spouse of their child to have a shared political identity, meaning that Democrat parents now prefer to have Democrat in-laws while Republican parents prefer Republican ones.

This seismic shift in beliefs has rearranged the fabric of American identity, bringing about two political tribes at stark odds with one another, often accompanied by little interest in compromise and minimal efforts to understand each other. The rhetoric in both camps is often tragically similar: “You are either with us or against us.” Imagine having to deal with that over New Year’s dinner.

In many ways, Korea’s #MeToo debate is also in danger of unraveling in this way. A casual look at online commentary clearly shows the public conversation is slowly being dominated by two extremes. On the one hand are growing voices, almost entirely female, vilifying men and their historically privileged positions in Korean society. On the other hand are the predominantly male voices defending the traditional order, attacking women’s values and integrity while accusing them of being “ungratefully” sheltered and protected by the very men they chastise.

This stark polarization creates a toxic environment where the real issues are lost in the haze of animosity. When such strife prevails, Koreans are in danger of forgetting that they share a common identity as human beings with mothers, sisters, daughters and (for men) wives, who all deserve certain basic protections against sexual abuse and misconduct.

It is this point that is in danger of being obscured: #MeToo is not a debate about whether men or women are better, or which gender should enjoy more privileges. It is, at base, a debate about providing fundamental protections for women across contexts, whether it be in the workplace, school or household. When the dialogue collapses into gender-based affronts, even the opportunities to compromise can be lost.

In the long run, I view the current #MeToo debate as a forerunner of how Korean political discourse will continue to change in the future. For a very long time and until recently, regional allegiances to political parties were the driving force in Korean politics. 

As these allegiances continue to fade, identity and personal belief will become increasingly influential. Aligning one’s preferences to a specific political platform will become more of a priority as various social issues come to the forefront: issues such as funding for social programs, benefits for minorities and immigration. For the moment, the economy still dominates discourse but it remains important not to underestimate the power of those who will provoke tribal instincts for personal gain, rallying people to the extremes and dividing the country.

By Justin Fendos

Justin Fendos is a professor at Dongseo University in Busan and the associate director of the Tan School at Fudan University in Shanghai. -- Ed.