Saturday, May 10, 2014

culture of safety and care

Much of the Sewol-disaster talk these days revolves around the notion that Korea needs to reckon with, and eliminate, its culture of cronyism and corruption, and it needs to develop a culture of safety and care: safety, because safety features so obviously aren't in place in so many aspects of daily existence; care, because as the accusation goes, Korea as a society seems not to evince much care for human life in general. While I take issue with one or more of these insights, I do think they're worth discussing.

There's a personal angle for me: my current hip problem has brought to stark relief the fact that Korea is not a handicap-friendly country. Granted, I was well aware of this state of affairs even before my hip started bothering me, but what was, previously, a distant piece of trivia to shrug at has now become an obstacle to human flourishing. St. Thomas Aquinas Hall, where I teach most of my classes, has no elevator, nor does it have a handicap-accessible ramp. (Strangely, the nearby cafeteria does, so a cripple can feed himself, but he can't expect to teach.) Many buildings on my campus, in fact, have no elevators, and it's not just my campus: the Hanyang University ERICA campus, in Ansan (the city most affected by the Sewol tragedy), also has buildings with no elevators, including ERICA's Practical English Education Center, where I went for what I had hoped would be an interview.

Come to think of it, my relatives' small apartment building in Karak-dong, in the southeast part of Seoul, also has no elevator. That building, owned by my mother's cousin and his wife, has only a set of stairs running up and down its interior. I used to live there for a brief spell, and I remember, one time, that the guy who brought me the used refrigerator I had bought had no choice but to put the fridge on his back and haul that thing up the stairs, all the way to my rooftop apartment on the fifth floor.

Cripples and the mentally ill are generally marginalized in South Korea, a culture that cleaves to conformism and shies away from difference and individuality. South Korea's image of itself doesn't include a warm embrace of diversity; you rarely see ads that feature a group of people with at least one wheelchair-bound person.* One notable exception to this ambient handicap-unfriendliness is Seoul's excellent subway system, which does a decent job, overall, of providing elevators, sliding staircase conveyors, wheelchair ramps, and wheelchair niches (inside the subway cars) for handicapped use (older subway lines could probably use some updating). Aside from that, though, a handicapped person is on his own. The best he can hope for is to find himself in a modern building with wheelchair-friendly facilities.

It boggles the mind to ponder how much it would cost for South Korea to revamp all of its old buildings, from the creakiest hovel on up, such that every single one could be handicap-accessible (and fire-escapable). Moving back to the Sewol tragedy, it's hard to imagine the cost of upgrading all safety features on every form of public transportation, plus the cost of safety training for the staffers who man and maintain such transportation, plus the cost of passing that training along to certain sectors of the traveling public (e.g., ferry passengers, who really should be schooled in emergency procedures in much the same way that airline passengers must undergo the standard safety lecture). All of this implies a major overhaul of a very visible aspect of everyday Korean life.

But deeper than the above measures is the issue of mindset: can Koreans, as a people, retrain themselves to put safety foremost in their minds? As much as I despise America's often-frivolous culture of litigation, there's something to the idea that companies will perform better if they're afraid of being sued. Korean culture isn't nearly as litigious as American culture is, but perhaps that's one way in which the peninsula should change. It's people who keep other people in line, after all.

Litigiousness (which can be viewed as a repudiation of fatalism—the "oh, well, there's nothing to be done" attitude) is only one way in which the society could change, and a minor one at that. There are more effective methods for reorienting the public's priorities. Going back to the Seoul subway system as an example: quite often, while I'm watching the monitors inside the subway cars, I'll see a safety video come on. The vid explains the procedure for opening the subway doors in an emergency; it also goes over the procedures for using a fire extinguisher and putting on a gas mask to prevent smoke inhalation. Such videos appear with no fanfare, but it's important to observe that they appear regularly and repeatedly—the hallmarks of inculcation in progress. That's how you create a culture of safety, a bit at a time. You keep hammering the message—gentle hammering, mind you—into the public's consciousness until it sinks in and becomes an assumed reality.

Korean society, like Japanese society, is growing steadily older, which means the demographic pressure will soon force Koreans to reckon with disability—mental instability, handicap, and so on—without being able to marginalize or ignore it. A culture of safety and care will likely have to emerge as a response to the needs of the old and infirm, and it may be that Koreans will see that that mindset can apply to more than just the old: a culture of safety and care would embrace high-school-aged ferry passengers, too.

*To be fair, this could also be true in America, where we still have our own awkwardness issues regarding the handicapped, the mentally ill, and the otherwise marginal.



John said...

Yikes! There is definite room for improvement, but advocating litigiousness surely can't be the answer. Although I admit I have often thought that American lawyers would have a field day here. Every bar in Itaewon is on the second or third floor and drunks routinely take the fast way down the stairs.

To the broader issues you raise, I'm not sure it's a lack of regulation that's the problem rather it's the lack of enforcement. Good luck with eliminating the cronyism and corruption that allowed a seriously overloaded ferry to set sail to begin with. Even the good ol' USA is losing ground in this regard.

I have noticed most of the sidewalks these days have the lowered curbs at crosswalks and such. Not sure if that is for the handicapped or to allow easier access to the sidewalk for motorbikes. I have seen more and more people in those electric wheelchairs though. I often wonder where they are going since hardly any buildings are accessible. If I recall when the U.S. passed disability access law it was for all new construction/major renovation. That would be a good start here I suppose, otherwise you'd have to tear down the entire city and start over.

I'm not sure how you go about changing the mindset of the people. I see young kids on scooters with their parents without helmets, kids in cars without proper child seats/restraints and I shake my head in despair. On the other hand, when I was a kid our family vehicle was a pickup truck and me and the bros all rode in the back and no one thought anything of it at the time. People can be educated. I really dislike the trend to nannystatism, but maybe there is a middle ground. Frankly, I was astounded when the Korean government came down so hard on smoking in public places, but the establishments I visit all seem to be complying.

Maybe safety and individual freedom cannot co-exist. As CSNY sang long ago: Find the cost of freedom/buried in the ground/mother earth will swallow you/lay your body down.

Kevin Kim said...

Thanks for the comment, John.

re: litigiousness

It wasn't a serious thought—more like a musing, really. But I do think that the culture of litigation does much to make people (and businesses) warier. You don't want to be the owner of the chicken company that puts out tainted chicken. If someone dies because of your chicken, you know you're going to catch hell. That's motivation to put out a decent product. (See my post here.)

re: more regulation vs. more enforcement

I don't think I actually addressed this issue in my post, but you're right that it's an important one. As debates go, this one should be of special interest to Americans, who constantly go back and forth on the regulation/deregulation/enforcement question.

Korea's left-leaning media have been pounding President Park about deregulation that she enacted early on in her term. This ties into the larger narrative that the Korean left is weaving, in which Park and her government are ultimately responsible for the Sewol disaster. Voices are getting louder and uglier... in the end, I expect she'll survive the political crisis (and perhaps become stronger for it), but it's going to get pretty bad before she sees a light at the end of this particular tunnel.

I think the Korean government does share some measure of blame for what happened in the immediate aftermath of the disaster (why a rescue operation has turned into a mere recovery/salvage), but the proximate cause of the passengers' deaths isn't the government, and the public should have stayed focused on that fact.

re: lowered curbs and electric wheelchairs

Yes, I've noticed both, too, in Korea. But I have yet to see an electric wheelchair driven by an incredibly obese person, as I'd normally see in America.

re: changing the people's mindset

I'd say: baby steps. Keep showing those safety vids and quietly developing a culture of safety-consciousness. The main thing for Koreans would be to learn from previous mistakes. Analyze disasters, highlight the network of contributing factors, then do what you can to avoid those factors through improvement of the system (hardware + rules + procedures + education about all three) or whatever.

re: safety/security vs. freedom

The biggie. At some point you have to allow people to make their own mistakes, but the libertarian view says, essentially, that you have the right to make your own mistakes as long as your mistakes don't infringe on my life. That's not a bad guiding principle in determining what, where, and how much to regulate.

So a boat captain can't just do as he pleases: he's got other people's lives in his hands, so he should be bound by strict regulations and clear procedures, and the procedures themselves need to reflect a kind of "moral architecture," i.e., the regulations have an ethical purpose: to maximize enjoyment and to preserve lives.

By the same token, ferry passengers' behavior should be regulated such that each passenger may exercise freedom, but only up to the point that his/her freedom encroaches on someone else's. This would cover noisy, unruly, unsanitary behavior, as well as proper conduct during an emergency so as to maximize chances of survival.

But yeah, there's going to be a trade-off: more safety/security normally means less freedom, and vice versa.