The West’s Confucian Confusion: How More Confucianism Might Have Saved the Sewol

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Whenever a tragedy strikes Korea, many Western observers can’t resist the urge to attribute it to Korean culture. This tendency owes much to Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers, in which Gladwell attempted to pin a fatal 1997 Korean Air crash in Guam on Korea’s Confucian-inspired practice of showing deference to one’s seniors. Since Outliers, Confucianism is the prime suspect in just about every Korean disaster short of an earthquake, so when the Sewol ferry sank in waters off Jindo on April 16th, taking with it over 300 young Korean souls, I braced for the wave of western cultural critique.

I wasn’t disappointed. Writing for the South China Morning Post, Andrew Salmon wondered whether the accident was made worse by Confucianism. Salmon noted that in the initial minutes of the accident, the captain ordered passengers to stay where they were, and most of them obeyed “even as the ship listed steeply and water flooded in.” Based on this observation he asks whether the high death toll “was a symptom of a hierarchical culture in which young people are taught to obey authority figures without question.”

Ralph de la Cruz of The Dallas Morning News was more blunt, calling it “death by obedience,” and opining that the tragedy was so terrible because in Asian cultures “compliance is de rigueur.”  He then provides the inevitable comparison of the young Korean victims to American teens, whom he contends “would have been finding any and every way to get off that ferry,” presumably because they are taught to “think rather than simply obey.”

There’s some irony in de la Cruz’s analysis, as his home state of Texas has recently seen measles outbreaks for the first time in years, precisely because many Texans “think” that the vaccine is linked to autism, despite overwhelming evidence that it isn’t. If you’ve been keeping score in Texas, your card should read: Obedience – 1, Thinking – 0.

There are also a few assumptions at work here, not the least of which is that rational and effective emergency management is the inevitable result when hundreds of scared teenagers ignore orders in dangerous situations and start “thinking” –whatever that means. Another assumption is that it should have been obvious to the students that by staying put they were endangering themselves, and that when it did become clear they needed to get out, that they were physically able to do so. Jakob Dorof’s April 21st piece on vice.com makes a strong case that by the time it was apparent that the students needed to get out, it was already difficult or impossible for many to escape.

The stricken ship, listing hard to port.

As Dorof’s piece and subsequent survivor testimony should be making clear by now, to believe that the passengers’ hierarchical culture overrode their more basic animal instinct for self-preservation requires one to accept a series of increasingly dubious suppositions: that from the initial minutes of the predicament it should have been immediately obvious to a large group of 18-year-olds, nearly all of whom have never been on a large ferry before, to not only determine that a listing ship was absolutely going to sink, but to be so certain of it that he or she would feel emboldened to ignore a series of direct orders from the captain, and then, assuming the angle of the ship still made movement possible (which, by most accounts, it did not), to climb to a higher deck and jump down several meters into a frigid and turbulent sea, at least some of them without a lifejacket and before any rescue ships had arrived.

Viewed from this perspective, their compliance with the captain’s order to stay where they were in the early minutes of the unfolding calamity doesn’t seem to require a patently irrational preference for social hierarchy but simply a combination of confusion, immobility, and common sense.

A free-thinking Black Friday shopper struggles to pursue her own rational self-interest.

Salmon also states that the students who survived were those who ignored the orders and “took personal initiative”, much like de la Cruz’s idealized American teens would have done, but this assertion now appears to contradict much of the evidence that has emerged from survivors who were plucked from inside the ship by rescuers who shattered windows to reach them. At any rate, the implication is clear: Koreans would be better served in an emergency by having hundreds of free-thinking adolescents ignore the orders of authority figures and independently make prompt assessments of chaotic situations, and then to pursue the course of action that each person had decided was best for him- or herself.

Why doesn’t that strike me as a recipe for effective disaster management?

Because it’s ludicrous. It’s at moments like these, when a disaster occurs and the tendency to panic is greatest, that obedience is most essential, which brings me to one of my biggest beefs with Confucian Theories of Korean Disasters: to these critics, Confucianism is nothing more than a mindless system of deference to one’s superiors, who may or may not be worthy of the public trust. Confucianism demands obedience, they point out, so those at the bottom “blindly” follow those at the top, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

The most misunderstood 6th century Chinese philosopher of all time.

What these critics never bother to understand or to point out is that Confucianism is not a one-way street that merely demands unconditional deference to one’s seniors; it is a system of reciprocal duties that just as clearly describes the obligations of parent to child, teacher to pupil, ruler to subject, and by extension, of captain to crew and passengers. In a well-oiled Confucian system then, obedience is never blind; it is always underwritten by a social contract that obliges leaders to be virtuous and to carry out their duty with the best interests of their subordinates in view at all times.

At its core, Confucianism is relentlessly meritocratic, and seeks to ensure that leaders are chosen for their superior virtues, not their seniority, their money, or connections. In other words, those at the top of the Confucian social pile don’t enjoy their positions for nothing – they must be deserving of the public trust, and the same responsibility flows right down the pecking order. Just as the emperor occupies his station by possessing virtue, so is he obliged to promote people below him according to their fitness to lead.

Does that sound like an accurate description of Captain Lee Joon-seok and his crew? To be fair, there is a lot we still don’t know at this stage of the investigations, and stories of the heroic actions of some crew members are also beginning to come out. At the very least, we may note that the captain and crew members who fled the ship, by saving their own lives first while hundreds of their charges waited aboard the doomed vessel, did not discharge their duties in accordance with these fundamental Confucian precepts. Where was the concern for the lives of the passengers? Where was their virtue? And was Lee’s decision to put an inexperienced 3rd mate at the helm in unfamiliar waters in any way characteristic of the Confucian injunction to promote subordinates according to their merit?

Captain Lee Joon-seok

If Confucian deference turns out, in retrospect, to have been misplaced, who will deserve blame, those who held up their end of the social contract, or those who didn’t? Why do none of the peanut-gallery Confucianism experts ever say, “Ah! The ferry captain clearly failed in his Confucian duty! If only he had been more Confucian this disaster might have been avoided.”

If there’s any one question pertaining to the connection between Korean culture and tragedy that is worth asking, it’s this: Why is there a recurring temptation to see Koreans as hapless victims of a defective national culture, rather than as victims of a merely human tendency to occasionally fall short of living up to what are otherwise sound ideals?


Early indications are that this is precisely how many older Koreans are viewing the tragedy – as a failure of officialdom and its shocking lack of protocol or concern – a key point that a recent L.A. Times article managed to miss:

          The botched rescue also has cast a harsh light on a Confucian culture in which young people are taught to respect the older generation.

          “I feel embarrassed as a Korean. We failed our children,” said Kim Seun-tae, a 50-year-old minister whose son attends Danwon High School,…

          The minister said he was struck by video from survivors’ cellphones that showed the mostly 16- and 17-year-old students sitting dutifully in their seats. “They were good, well-behaved kids. They followed instructions,” Kim said. “Everybody is in a state of shock and depression. We can’t look each other in the eye or speak.” [emphasis mine]

You may wonder, as I did, what exactly Kim believed his failure to be when he said, “we failed our children,” or why the parents “can’t look each other in the eye,” but the Times reporter doesn’t ask Kim to elaborate and appears content to reach for the default narrative and suggest that the parents were blaming themselves for teaching their children to “respect the older generation.”

But is that really what Korea’s elders are now beating themselves up about? That’s not the impression one gets from this Joongang Ilbo story, which deals more explicitly with the reasons parents and concerned citizens “blamed themselves for letting down their own young.”:

 “Students are in the cold sea because of irresponsible and unethical adults,” read a message on a web page dedicated to the tragic accident. “I feel ashamed for being an adult in this country and also for not being able to do anything for them.”

Another message read, “Children just listened to what the adults were saying but could not escape. I feel terrible that I’m one of the older generation that made this ugly world.

Total strangers are accepting joint, generational responsibility for a world so poorly and cynically run that the Sewol ferry did not seem to have had a proper safety examination and the  passengers were not given any safety lessons in advance of the tragedy.

 “Adults escaped first, leaving the children in the sinking ship,” said a 46-year-old office worker. “I assume greedy adults who didn’t bother to fulfill their duties caused the accident. When other big accidents occurred in the past, I was surprised but didn’t feel guilty about it. However, I feel terribly sorry for the students this time because I’m old enough to have contributed to this terrible world.” [emphasis mine]

 

A relative of a Sewol victim smacks a government official.

The people quoted in the article all strike a common chord: the problem, as they see it, is that they failed by teaching their kids to have faith in authority without fulfilling their end of the deal and ensuring that the authority figures were deserving of their children’s trust. “A big part of Confucianism – respecting older generations – has gotten shook up,” says professor Cha Seong-hyeon of Chonnam National University in the Joongang Ilbo piece, and he identifies the challenge ahead to be to “try to regain the inter-generational trust.”

As hard as it will be to regain that lost trust, something tells me that it will be even harder to persuade Western critics that sometimes a little more Confucius may be just what Korea needs.

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