Thursday, May 20, 2010

Anonymous off the Internet, but not on it

The "Immoral Girl" phenomenon has been all over the Korean Internet this week. I haven't found anything about it in English, but it boils down to a university student swearing and berating a middle-aged woman.

According to the article, on May 13, a female student at nearby Kyung Hee University in east-end Seoul went to a bathroom. Finding it to be dirty, she yelled at the woman and used a curse word (roughly equivalent to the English "bullhsit"). Unlike other cases of the overprivileged treating others as less than human, this time the woman's daughter posted about the incident on a message board, giving details about the time and the place.

The daughter went on to write (based largely on what I can translate): "yes, my mother, my loving mother, is a clean at Kyung Hee University.... The woman who taught me about love, the person I love more than anyone else in the world, when she comes home and tells me, I'm going to cry... Is that student an orphan?

In my opinion, much of the significance in the story comes from the fact that the student was younger and the woman was older. Speaking rudely to an elder person is unconscionable here and, combined with the obviously inhuman way in which the student spoke to the worker, it's easy to see why the story is as popular as it is.

Where the story takes the sort of turn that's common to Korea (and also China) is that there's a drive underway to find the student responsible. Despite an audio recording and ostensibly a witness or a few, no one has been able to track her down. Students have apologized on her behalf and the university has a public relations problem on its hands.

Korean Internet vigilantes, to use Wikipedia's term, have driven people to suicide here, celebrities included. Having seen how those working in the service industry can be dehumanized by others, I don't feel all that bad if this girl were to be identified and publicly shamed in the way she shamed the janitor. There obviously are limits, ones that might yet be crossed if this girl is identified, especially considering that it's easy to identify the wrong girl. Still, if the lesson for a long time has been that what you do on the Internet is public, it should be equally true that what you do in public is also public. Why exactly there is a recording of the events that transpired in a public bathroom is beyond me, however.

One qualm I have with this entire episode is that, to a Western mindset, the student erred in treating someone as less than equal. In the Korean mindset, the student gave absolutely no respect, much less the respect called for, when dealing with someone's mother. I have my doubts that the outrage would be this strong had the roles been reversed, and this was an older person, particularly a man, berating a younger person, particularly a female.

Just last week I saw a bus driver reduce a female passenger to tears because her fare card wasn't working. It's not to say that South Korea gives old men a license to harass young women, but the dog-bites-man element of the story would be lacking in this scenario, for better or for worse. Just as outrage is directed at young people behaving foolishly, so too should outrage be directed at middle-aged men behaving badly.

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