Tuesday, June 17, 2014

the backslide into risky behavior: how quickly we forget

Robert Koehler of The Marmot's Hole links, on Twitter, to a Joongang Daily article titled "Safety vigilance is fading already."

It’s been two months since the Sewol ferry sunk in waters off Jindo, South Jeolla, claiming the lives of nearly 300 victims. But Koreans have already returned to their slipshod ways, forgetting the bitter lesson that negligence of safety can lead to tragedy.


When the Seokyung Island ferry departed from Busan for Jeju Island on Wednesday, monitors throughout the ferry showed a video demonstrating the use of life jackets. But the video’s volume was turned down and the 800 passengers ignored it.

“Please watch the video that shows how to wear life jackets on the TVs,” a crew member announced on the loudspeakers.

But the video had already finished.

“I didn’t even know they were showing us how to wear life jackets,” a 68-year-old passenger, Kim Bok-ja, told a JoongAng Ilbo reporter. “What do they want us to do when we can’t even hear such an important safety warning?”

When reporters from the JoongAng Ilbo boarded domestic ferries a month ago and again last Wednesday, the ferries seemed to be slipping back into their old, careless ways.

The ferries did improve on identifying passengers and tying down cargo, but other measures to keep passengers safe in case of emergency, such as safety education, didn’t appear to be sufficient. Passengers also expressed their concerns.

“I looked around the ferry just to make sure, but life rafts were rusted here and there,” said passenger Kim Jin-su, 68. “I am not sure whether they will work in emergency situations.”

The situation wasn’t any better Wednesday on the Sunflower ferry carrying hundreds of passengers from Pohang to Ulleung Island.

Life jacket cabinets had garbage in them and many of the jackets were covered with dust.

Some of the passengers shrugged off the rules, too. A man was smoking in the ferry’s restroom, where smoking is prohibited, and some others were sleeping right by emergency exits. Three of the Sunflower’s six emergency exits were blocked by sleeping passengers.

“Smoking and blocking those exits are directly related to passengers’ lives, but some passengers are not following our instructions,” said the ferry’s navigator, Kim Gi-dong. “Operator and crew of ferries must do their best for safety, but passengers also should heighten their awareness.”

The sloppy tendency to ignore or circumvent rules is unfortunately widespread in Korea, where concepts like rule of law are, at best, vague and distant. I see this behavior up close every time I'm on an airplane filled with Koreans: the captain tells us not to leave our seats until the plane has come to a complete stop, but passengers ignore this and stand up to retrieve their bags while the plane is still in motion (is this of a piece with what I had written in my previous post regarding students and their compulsion to check their cell phones despite being forbidden to do so?).

I'd love to know more about what it is, in Korean psychology, that makes Koreans feel they can permit themselves to ignore rules of public conduct. Some observers chalk this up to a kind of endemic selfishness, but I'm not so sure: I've seen too many acts of selflessness in Korea to condemn an entire culture in such a facile and dismissive manner. One friend of mine ventures that Koreans generally lack a sense of civic duty: instead of taking seriously the idea that "we're all fellows, in this together," Koreans think tribally, i.e., in terms of circles of loyalty—nuclear family first, then close relatives, then friends, and so on. By the time one reaches the circle of "people I don't know," any loyalty or sense of civic obligation has long since drained away, which makes Koreans care little for the welfare and well-being of strangers.*

Why this is the case is an exploration in itself. At a guess, tribal thinking is a perfectly natural and pancultural approach to social bonding: evolutionary psychology confirms the wisdom of "birds of a feather," and the current HBD (human biodiversity) movement has been insistent that there is greater social cohesion and harmony when there is less cultural and racial diversity. A kingdom, empire, or nation, in the modern sense, is a vast and complex geographic and cultural entity, but thousands of years ago, the tribe (or clan) would have been the clearest notional extension of the concept of family. Is it any surprise that even modern cultures possess tribalistic inclinations? Also, in Korea, as I've argued elsewhere, the mountainous territory would have encouraged local loyalties as well: with people clustered in valley communities, there would have been little or no curiosity about what went on in the next valley over—a phenomenon one also sees in modern Switzerland, itself an extremely mountainous country. Swiss cantons have clearly defined self-conceptions; the citizens of those cantons are fiercely loyal to their particular patch of ground and way of life. Korean provinces are much like those cantons in overall demeanor and alignment.

This second theory—concentric circles of progressively fading loyalty as opposed to the first theory about endemic selfishness—strikes me as worth pursuing because it's rooted in Korean history. Societies evolve in unique ways; the jostling interplay of values shakes out differently from culture to culture, with different cultures prioritizing different values, and it might make sense to think of Korean public behavior in a historical context. One could, for example, link Koreans' willful ignoring of rules to a long-standing distrust of authority that dates back centuries, back to the time when the peasants made fun of the yangban, i.e., the nobles. Such distrust certainly helps explain why modern Koreans feel free to argue at length with (or even to bribe) police officers who have pulled them over. It also makes sense of Korea's robust culture of protest, which pits everyday citizens against the brute-force power of the state.**

So it may be that, when Koreans sloppily ignore the rules, there's an element of protest in the action. This protest may not be conscious; perhaps such rule-ignoring started off as a kind of explicit rebellion, then softened until it attained the status of a "custom" or a "cultural tendency"—a free-floating meme. The young mother in the airplane who blithely stands up in defiance of the captain's advisory about remaining seated might not be consciously protesting or rebelling against anything at all, but perhaps the roots of her actions can be found in Korea's history of defiance.

All of the above speculation is meant to be just that: mere speculation—the unrefined thoughts of a non-expert. There are other angles of approach to this issue; Korean misbehavior in public (well, it's misbehavior from a Westerner's point of view) could have dozens or hundreds of alternative explanations. But the problem itself is interesting and warrants cogitation. Meanwhile, I agree with the Joongang article's basic point, which is to warn that Koreans are already backsliding when it comes to safety-consciousness.

A character in one of my favorite novels says, "It is the duty of the living to make meaningful the sacrifices of the dead." It may well be that the 300 deaths from the Sewol disaster shouldn't be considered sacrifices, per se, since those terrified students and adults didn't meet their fate willingly, or with any thought to dying for the greater good. Still, there is a sense in which those deaths do amount to a sacrifice of sorts, one that ought to teach society a lesson about the preciousness of life. The memory of the lost is profaned, dishonored, when the people who should learn a moral lesson prove heedless. The dead are truly gone only when they fade from memory. We ignore their voices at our peril.

*This notion of fading loyalty changes, of course, when nationalism is at issue. That's when Koreans circle the wagons and bring forth their one-race danil-minjok mythology.

**In the comments, my buddy Charles notes that peasants who mocked the nobility were not unique to Korea. True, but this doesn't make the phenomenon somehow un- or non-Korean. If someone says "Koreans are a passionate people," and someone else counters, "But the Italians are passionate, too," that's not an actual rebuttal to the original claim about Koreans, for it's possible for both Italians and Koreans to be passionate.



Charles said...

The clan-think explanation makes sense, but I'm not sure about your specific examples.

"One could, for example, link Koreans' willful ignoring of rules to a long-standing distrust of authority that dates back centuries, back to the time when the peasants made fun of the yangban, i.e., the nobles."

But is this is uniquely Korean phenomenon? Although I can't offer across-the-board proof, there are many other cultures today that have a strong sense of law and civic duty that also have a history of distrust of authority. In fact, I think you would be hard pressed to find a strongly stratified society in which the upper classes were not the brunt of lower-class jokes?

"Such distrust certainly helps explain why modern Koreans feel free to argue at length with (or even to bribe) police officers who have pulled them over."

Alternatively: Korea spent a third of the previous century under Japanese colonial rule, and after liberation spent time under a military junta. During much of this time the police were reviled, so when democracy finally took root Korean society made sure that the police were effectively neutered. Sure, they have a certain amount of power, but not nearly as much as, say, police in the US. But the police in the US were never a universally oppressive force.

"It also makes sense of Korea's robust culture of protest, which pits everyday citizens against the brute-force power of the state."

Again, I think it makes more sense to trace this phenomenon to more recent Korean history.

Just thought I'd add some more "thoughts of a non-expert" to the mix.

Kevin Kim said...

I don't think I'd intended the peasant/yangban example to illustrate clan-think. Did it come off that way? If so, I should rewrite that paragraph, or at least create a better, clearer transition.

re: Japanese colonial rule & more recent examples

Far from being alternatives, these examples might be considered as further evidence solidifying a case. I'd take them alongside, not instead of, the illustrations I gave.

My quick take, anyway.

Kevin Kim said...


In rereading my paragraph beginning "This second theory...," I think I'm guilty of making an awful transition. I knew what I wanted to say, but things got mangled in that paragraph, so I'll rewrite it later to clarify.

John from Daejeon said...

The "Koreans" in this case definitely need to be qualified as South Koreans. Those poor souls to the North can't afford to circumvent or ignore any of the jackass running the show's (and his elite cronies') fracking rules. Hell, even his poorly equipped North Korean weather forecasters had better get with the program or end up in either a gulag or dead.

daeguowl said...

I wonder if they're too self-absorbed to pay attention. For instance, I recently attended a performance of the musical Greece and when we entered the theatre, we were clearly informed by the usher that no photography was permitted. That did not prevent a significant minority of people from getting out their cameras and taking photos of the stage. The ushers were kept busy going around and reminding people not to take photos. Did they not hear the warning, or did they just not care?

On the other hand, Koreans do have admirable bouts of good behaviour in groups. I am reminded of their propensity to clear up after themselves at sporting events and other mass gatherings; hardly indicative of endemic selfishness!

Charles said...


Ah, I see. Yes, I think I was confused by the transition.