Jealousy is a universal phenomenon. For example, a star player in a sports team can easily become an object of jealousy for other players. So, too, can a famous movie star whose popularity is sensational or one who has received an important award at an international film festival. Likewise, a celebrity writer whose book becomes a bestseller or a scholar who achieves international acclaim can evoke jealousy among colleagues, even when his fame makes his whole country glitter.
Such a phenomenon can be found in Korea as well. A good example is the recent attempt to shoot down director Bong Joon-ho with a false #MeToo claim, just as he became a worldwide celebrity by receiving the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes International Film Festival for his film “Parasite.” Instead of giving praise and congratulations for his accomplishment, some people would rather find faults to disparage his achievement.
Another example is the malicious accusation of plagiarism that seriously damaged the reputation of a prominent Korean writer who received a much-coveted international literary prize for her critically-acclaimed bestselling novel. If she had not won the prize or become an internationally famous writer, her reputation may not have survived intact.
Some Koreans’ overtly harsh criticism of the translation of “The Vegetarian,” too, is another good example. Of course, there are some errors and mistakes in the translation, but they can easily be corrected in the second edition. Yet, some people doggedly and brutally attacked the translation through a word-for-word comparison of the source language with the target language. If the translation had not won the prestigious Man Booker International Prize, few people would have cared so much about the strict accuracy of the translation.
When someone becomes outstanding in his career, he is prone to slander from fault-finding people who try to belittle his accomplishments. There is a saying in Korea that if you become famous, you need to pay the celebrity tax. That means if you are successful, you must put up with accusations and slander from jealous people. Or you need to sooth their jealousy by treating them to wine and fine cuisine. There is another saying in Korea: “When your cousin buys real estate, your stomach turns.” That is to say, when someone, even if he is close to you, becomes rich or successful, you cannot stomach it.
Historians say that during the Joseon era, when a man passed the national exam called Gwago for high-ranking government officials, he was obliged to invite the whole village to a series of banquets so they could wine and dine for several weeks until he finally went bankrupt. Otherwise, his success would not be tolerated or forgiven by the jealous people. Then the man had to extort people after becoming a local magistrate in order to compensate the money he spent to entertain his neighbors and villagers. That indicates that collective jealousy in a community can create serious social problems.
In his intriguing article, “Individual Jealousy, Communal Jealousy,” Choi In-chul, a professor of psychology at Seoul National University, pinpoints the problems of collective jealousy. He writes: “Problems arise when a community en masse reacts with jealousy to a small number of distinguished, accomplished men, sugarcoating their resentment with a grand cause like ‘harmony’ and the ‘unity.’ Such a tendency eventually causes harm and can even ruin the community in the end.” According to professor Choi, many eminent people leave their community because of the jealousy and hostility of their colleagues.
Professor Choi argues that such a phenomenon is prevalent in a society that values harmony and community spirit rather than individual accomplishments and also in a society that wants equal distribution of the accomplishments of others. In such a society, mediocre people suppress and ostracize a few geniuses in the name of the community and communalism. If someone is different from others or breaks the equilibrium of a community, he will not be tolerated. The problem is that such a community or country inevitably becomes stagnant and stale, unable to move forward.
Choi contends that an exceptionally smart and able person is often punished by his or her society because the person makes others look foolish and stupid. Indeed, that is an unpardonable sin in Korea because such a highly competent person ruins the harmony of a society where everybody is supposed to be equal. Nevertheless, we should not emphasize the importance of unity and equilibrium too much.
As he agrees, perhaps personal jealousy is inevitable and only natural. However, collective, communal jealousy is dangerous. Professor Choi concludes that oftentimes collective jealousy disguises itself as harmony and unity of a community in order to justify the persecution of a few truly outstanding persons. But we should acknowledge that those few competent people who may be different from us, can contribute to making our country outstanding in the international community. We should not belittle or criticize them in the name of harmony, unity, or the community.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine. -- Ed.