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Seniority System Gone Bad

On March 6th, a list of 28 items was posted on Facebook. The list was a testimony of violence, an accusation of inhumane practices committed by the school’s cheering squad, Asadal. It was finally revealed that generations of hubaes1 were being abused without any reason. Hongik students were furious by the fact that this unreasonable oppression was “still” happening in 2018. And yes, this case definitely does not seem new. We’ve seen many cases of the so-called “military discipline culture2”. News about seonbaes3 beating their hubaes, or a freshman attempting suicide after a college gathering, or a tragic death due to forced drinking can be heard every year. Similar incidents happen repeatedly, and every group involved shares a common trait—the “Seniority System”

“Seniority System” is the idea of a person or a group taking precedence over others because the former is either older, or has occupied a position longer than another. As you might guess, the seniority system itself is not the direct cause of unreasonable oppression. However, under this system control is often granted to seonbaes and unfortunately, this control is frequently abused by violence against hubaes.

Why is it so easy to find this seniority system in Korean universities, and why does it seem to always go the bad way?

Many point out that the military has a lot to do with this. This is quite obvious when you know the word “military discipline culture”. Korea is one of the few countries that requires every man to serve in the military for a fixed period of time. The military is a nationally authorized force organization, which exists to support national interests and the security of citizens. Due to its distinct characteristics, order and discipline are essential within the organization. However, spending 2 years of early adulthood under the organization affects the soldiers largely, and since half the population go through this drastic experience, it is only natural for such discipline to seep into the whole society. We can easily see groups that have unnecessarily strict rules, harsh punishments, and tacit4 pressure to obey the seonbae’s command without any doubt, just like in the military.

The long-standing authoritarianism5 in Korea is also responsible. According to Max Weber, a classic sociologist, authority6 can be found in three types. The traditional, the charismatic, and the rational-legal. I found that authoritarianism in Korea often conforms to the traditional authority of Weber’s theory. Traditional authority is a power justified through respect for the long-established cultural patterns of generations. Easily stated, people tend to comply with tradition. Rational thinking is often excluded, and inhumane customs are continuously held because “that’s just the way it is”. This authoritarianism has been a huge part of human society since the start of civilization, and some even say that “human history is a process of escaping from authoritarianism.” Since traditional authoritarianism is so wide spread in all of society, it is obvious that university communities are affected by this also. This is what has kept the spoiled seniority system to “still” go on.

It is quite funny when you observe these aspects from afar. Just how in the world can forcefully gathering hubaes at minus 18 degrees outdoors help to make good performances? Just how can taking tests about names and positions of seonbaes who’ve graduated 20 years ago result in a better performance? (These ridiculous acts really did happen in Asadal) However, I realized that things are much more complicated. The military culture, peer pressure, authoritarianism and such complexly interact, allowing the deteriorated7 seniority system to continue. Simply punishing the perpetrators won’t solve the problem. This problem did not happen just because someone was pure evil. Rather, it is a structural problem that should be approached as a social phenomenon, which means that any of us could’ve been the perpetrator or the victim without even realizing it.

We should always keep in mind that we are fighting a faceless monster that lives inside of us. Admitting our own ugliness might be hard, but naming the faceless and acknowledging our weakness is the first step of healing.

1. hubae: a person in the same field who began later than oneself.

2. military discipline culture: a term commonly used in Korea, refers to unjust harassment against subordinates for the purpose of obtaining unfair advantage or to force them to action.

3. seonbae: a person in the same field who precedes oneself in rank, age, or academic background.

4. tacit: understood without being expressed directly.

5. authoritarianism: the attitude of exerting authority or obeying authority.

6. authority: the power to control or demand obedience from others.

7. deteriorate: to become worse

Lee Giwon  jlee1402@naver.com

<저작권자 © 홍익대영자신문사, 무단 전재 및 재배포 금지>

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