We criticize intuitively every day. That slow driver in the fast lane, the waiter who obviously does not want to be here, the comedian who is just not funny anymore.
Even the nicest person criticizes subliminally. When an important message suddenly lags on KakaoTalk, the blame quickly heads to those faceless technicians at Kakao (although they probably already prepared a fix, an apology and a debugging upgrade within five minutes).
People criticize for several reasons: usually because we feel undervalued, or sometimes to negate the capability of a rival, or just to defend (or broadcast) our own ego. Some say the bigger the ego the bigger the critic you are.
Some psychologists suggest critical people are those who have been raised in judgmental households. Children turn criticism (often received as rejection) into self-criticism in order to lessen the pain. According to Steven Stosny in his “Anger in the Age of Entitlement,” these children later begin to identify with the “aggressor,” emulating the more powerful criticizer. And because of that, as hard as the critical people are on others, most are at least equally hard on themselves, he says.
That is perhaps why creating a work environment pitting workers against their colleagues often fails to improve results, as staff members eventually end up trying to protect their own worth by devaluing (criticizing) rivals.
In a more general sense, the online era has made everyone a cynical critic in their own right.
People have finally been given an avenue to express their views and swing relentlessly at everything that has, or seems to have, made life harder. The “discerning” role hogged pompously by critics and journalists has now been liberated.
The latest target to waltz onto the chopping block is former presidential spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom. He resigned last week, just a day after critics blasted him for his highly speculative real estate deal.
In short, he purchased a mixed-use residential and commercial building for 2.5 billion won ($2.19 million) in a redevelopment zone in Seoul last year, just as his administration has been clamping down on speculative, or potentially speculative, real estate investors with stronger tax measures.
Media immediately called him out for making a speculative investment himself, purchasing a highly promising commercial building with lofty debt equal to nearly half the price.
Allegations soon followed of him having benefited from his status -- from the way he learned of the property on sale to taking out the 1 billion won in loans from a bank branch at which an acquaintance happened to be working.
The real estate deal, in headlines, surely appeared to be a gamble on inside knowledge, particularly as a month after Kim’s personal transaction, the very same area was designated a speculative zone.
Kim, however, seemed bitter even as he stepped down.
Factually, he may have every right, considering all the criticism against him is circumstantial.
He never owned a property throughout his 29-year career and this was his first real estate purchase. The debt he took out, even after applying the reinforced loan-to-value ratio of 40 percent for Seoul, seems legitimate. Even with the debt-to-income restriction that prevents an individual from taking out excessive loans compared to their income, the loan might not exceed the rules, depending on the period of time he would take to pay it off. In fact, if he registers as a rental business operator, he could have borrowed even more. All in all, he made a very good investment.
Clearly, he felt he was wrongfully accused.
In his resignation message, texted to reporters who cover Cheong Wa Dae, Kim seemed determined to “leave in style,” although what he did had the completely opposite effect.
Explaining he had not known of the deal initiated by his wife until it was too late (which is, again, plausible) did little to mitigate the fact that he ended up scraping up all the money he could -- including the deposit he had saved by living in an official residence -- to secure the deal.
Saying he had never owned a home in his life did not resonate with people who have never laid hands on anything like the 1.4 billion won he had saved up.
Adding that the purchase was to secure his source of income post-Cheong Wa Dae infuriated struggling middle-income earners generalized as potential speculators by the government’s anti-speculative measures.
Joking that he would treat the press to a meal if the price of the building in question escalates only emphasized that he was not taking the criticism seriously.
He, like many defamed high-profile figures, seemed to overlook that his position was naturally subject to greater criticism because he had greater access to leadership and remedies of the state, as defined in the Ace Electoral Knowledge Network, an online repository of electoral knowledge launched by international organizations including the UN agencies.
Kim, in fact, seemed out to discredit his critics, which has been widely perceived as this administration’s main problem, even among its own supporters.
Built on a platform of criticism -- against dictatorship, against capitalistic monopoly and against the corrupt former government -- the Moon Jae-in administration has been trumpeting its wholesomeness.
But along the way, many key figures have failed to keep up with the expectations that go with such an image, revealing how similar they are to those whom they have criticized.
The liberal administration has also been selective in facing criticism by being quick to change or even scrap policies based on popularity while downplaying harsher criticism toward their ironically anti-progressive shortcomings.
It seems to be downhill all the way from here as the opposition parties squeal at the golden opportunity to pull down the ruling camp’s monopoly on righteousness.
They will most likely derogate any position by the administration as classic “naeronambul” (for me it’s romance, for you it’s cheating) -- a phrase used to describe a hypocrite. It will be only a matter of time before they forget how it even began.
Determined to protect their own egos, administration officials will likely counter with their own criticism of the usual enemies, leaving the nation fraught with negativity, at least until the next election.
Criticism gone astray loses its essence in purpose, giving the counterpart a reason to return fire and criticize the criticism -- an endemic cycle that goes nowhere.
But criticism used correctly has the power to bring about positive changes.
In a place where no one is blameless and everyone can criticize, it is more important than ever to treat the right to criticism with knowledge and focus.
As Abraham Lincoln said, “He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.”
Lee Joo-hee is the business desk editor of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.