When I joined the faculty of Seoul National University in the early 1980s, clashes between teargassing riot police and teargassed radical students were rampant on campus. To strengthen solidarity against the dictatorial regime, student leaders began to organize the so-called Daedongje, which means, “Togetherness Festivals” or “Accompaniment Ceremonies.” At Daedongje, there was no place for individual identity: Only the group mentality prevailed. At that time, I warned of the dangers of “crowd psychology” that ignored individuality in the name of unity and solidarity. Yet, they would not heed my admonition at all.
Traditionally, “group mentality” or “crowd psychology” has been prevalent in Korean society. The problem with this tendency is that it could easily degenerate into a “mob psychology” or “mob democracy,” which would eventually help build a totalitarian society where people do not tolerate different opinions. Under the circumstances, everyone becomes part of a group or a faction, losing his or her individual identity. Then, political activists can easily manipulate the people for political gain. Naturally, Korean student leaders in the 1980s preferred a “people’s democracy” to a liberal democracy that allowed individuality. Wikipedia writes, “People’s democracy was a theoretical concept within Marxism-Leninism.”
In such a society, people have to give up their individual identity and rationality. Swept by “crowd psychology,” people easily become emotional, angry, and hostile to others who do not join them or who, they think, are their political foes. If you Google “crowd psychology,” you can indeed find descriptions that highlight its problematic tendencies” “As part of a group, people can lose their sense of individual identity. Being part of a group can lead to heightened emotional states, be that excitement, anger, hostility.”
Psychologists argue that humans need to belong because they have to compete with other groups. This suggests that humans, when alone, are weak and vulnerable. Historically, Korea always had to compete with or guard herself against hostile neighboring countries. Even inside of Korea, people have to compete with other people, other groups, and other factions. Thus, it is understandable that the Korean people exhibit group mentality.
However, if group mentality or crowd psychology is pervasive in society, people will lose individuality and become emotional, exhibiting hostility toward others who do not belong to their group. For example, if you do not join in the nationwide anti-Japan or anti-America campaigns, you will be condemned immediately as a national traitor. If you do not support the candlelit demonstrations or the Korean soccer team, you will also be doomed to be an outcast, as well.
Psychologists call such a phenomenon “hive psychology,” a word derived from a bee’s hive. Bees indiscriminately and ruthlessly attack any intruders or outsiders, accepting the hive dwellers only. Scientists also use the term, “swarm intelligence,” which supersedes individual intelligence in a society of group mentality. Even though the “swarm intelligence” is mistaken, you can do nothing, no matter how intelligent you are.
Living in Korea, I have always resisted group mentality or crowd psychology that suppresses individuality. Even as a child, I wanted to be alone, instead of joining the noisy crowd. When I entered elementary school, our first grade homeroom teacher asked us a series of questions. Each time, he asked, “Does anyone know the answer?” All of my fellow first graders raised their hands eagerly and shouted, “Me! Me! Me!” When this would happen, I would remain silent. I knew all the answers already, and yet I did not raise my hand because I did not want to be part of the crowd who shouted in unison.
Since I was the only one who did not raise a hand, my maternal grandmother, who accompanied me to the entrance ceremony, got impatient because she knew that I knew the answers. Finally, she rushed to me and whispered, poking my elbow, “For God’s sake, raise your hand!” I forgot about the incident, but later she told me that I muttered cynically, “You raise your hand if you like, Grandma.”
When I was in the fourth grade, I was the top student in my class. Thus, my teacher sent me to a popular KBS radio quiz show, thinking that I could make my school famous by answering all the questions. That was his fatal mistake. When I saw all the students from various schools were raising hands, yelling, “Me! Me! Me!” I decided to be aloof again, even though I knew all the answers. Consequently, I failed my teacher who must have thought that the MC of the quiz show had not given me any opportunity. The truth was that I never raised my hand. I thought that joining the crowd was silly and childish.
The two incidents were merely a feeble gesture of my resistance to the crowd psychology of our society. We should not let group mentality override our individual identity. Instead of hiding behind the masses, we should come out and demand individuality and diversity. Our society, too, should tolerate those who have different opinions.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.