Saturday, February 23, 2013

Is Korea Just Playing Catch-up With Morals and Manners?

The title of this post may sound a little insulting as no one likes to be called out as being behind the times with anything whether it be fashion, technology, efficiency, and especially morality and manners.  This subject just keeps on coming up, though, and some comparisons of current Korean culture with how my own country was about 50 years ago cannot go unnoticed.

Issues such as animal rights, divorce, single-parent families, women's equality, racism, workers rights, and corporal punishment all seem to be at a similar stage in evolution and discourse to what they were in the West when my father was a teenager.

Another reason for this subject coming to mind is my continuing marathon of reading Steven Pinker's epic book 'The Better Angels of Our Nature', which tracks a lot of the changes Western society has gone through to become more peaceful, moral, and civilized over time (shocking, I know, but the evidence does seem to show we live in the most peaceful time in history).  He gives so many examples of practices we no longer think about doing that still occur in Korea.  Because of many of our ways of reducing violence in society we also have the side-effect from it of political correctness, again something I do not experience so starkly in Korea.

Pinker goes into so much detail in his book on the reasons violence has declined (it is over 1000 pages long!), so I can't do it justice in a blog post, but it is mostly down to a gradual 'Civilizing Process' that has occurred over time, of which a number of things have contributed to; wealth, democracy, distribution of literature and ideas, secular humanism, and trade being some of the major factors.

It is noticeable that most of these major influences on the civilizing process have had a great deal more time in existence in the West and - much to the annoyance of many Koreans - in Japan.

Comparing Japan and Korea is an interesting exercise because of their similarities in culture compared to the massive difference to the West.  Japan's civilizing process has clearly had a longer time to develop due to their history as a strong power in the region and a stable society and it shows in their behaviour and manners and in their crime statistics.

Comparing crime statistics between countries is fraught with difficulty, however, as there are many variables involved, not least the efficiency and the ways in which individual countries report crime, but there are also a range of other complicated factors.  Korea has a pretty low crime rate to its credit but there does feel like the country has some issues with civility, manners, and morals in certain areas.  (Note: The comparison in crime statistics over time, however, can be reliable as crime rates within the same countries and cultures can be analysed with much greater confidence and accuracy)

It also sometimes feels as if the Korean government and Korean intellectuals know all too well that the Korean populace is still catching up on many moral issues and this is the reason for some of the laws Korea has that are not followed and the concealing of certain aspects of their everyday culture to foreign eyes.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, abortion and the trade in dog meat are against the law but are still practiced without much effort to cover it up.  No action is ever taken by the government to prosecute wrong-doers, so people continue (I should add here that I do not think those having abortions are doing wrong, merely that it is against the law in Korea in most cases).

Despite this, one gets the feeling that in the Korean government they are concerned with how some of their cultural practices are viewed overseas.  I think this started with the law banning abortions in 1953, which must have a great deal to do with American presence and influence at the time as the culture does not seem to be at all against abortion generally.  This law is dated and needs to change.  It has continued with the laws making dog meat illegal.  There is only one reason that this law exists in my opinion, and that is to show people from other countries that they do not condone the practice.  And practically, because the dog meat law is not properly enforced, it is undoubtedly making the welfare of dogs suffer as a result.

Controversial issues regarding dog meat have never been far away when Korea has hosted important events.  During the 1988 Seoul Olympics the government actually encouraged the public not to consume dog meat for fear of bad publicity.  The problem also reared its ugly head again in the 2002 world cup.

Traffic laws are also regularly flouted without any fear of punishment, apart from the speed cameras on highways.  Drink driving appears to be a major problem in Korea - the number of occasions I have seen or heard about people doing it is extremely worrying - and talking to people on the phone while driving can problem be witnessed by anyone to steps outside at this very moment and looks at a even a few people driving on the roads.  (By the way, apparently you can make a buck or two in Korea if you take a picture of someone in the act of driving while talking on the phone or smoking.  Take a picture of someone doing this along with their car registration number, send it to the police and you can claim a cash reward)

An orderly driving environment is a good and easy place to start in figuring out just how civilized somewhere really is.  Go to the mad house driving environments of India, Indonesia, and some other less developed nations and it is easy to see.  Despite having a strong economy, one can see the lack of civility in much of the population of India.  Korea is an example of a country with the most amazing infrastructure but because of Korea's relatively short time as a stable, wealthy society, their driving betrays the true nature of a country still catching up on manners and morals.

Korean people cannot be blamed for this.  Western culture has developed it manners and morals through a constant developing process over centuries of stable countries and a steady flow of new ideas.  We have made the mistakes and learnt from them, are still learning from them and many of our issues with political correctness have to do with an over-reaction to things that have happened in the past.

From Pinker's massive book it is clear that he attributes the freedom of expression of new ideas and the publication of books, both non-fiction and fiction, as being one of the central reasons for the decline of violence and the civilizing process.  He describes that stories enable people to put themselves in the position of the characters (indeed this is what you do when you read a book or watch a movie) and empathize with them, increasing the amount of empathy you have with real individuals in similar situations.  Enlightenment philosophers penned their ideas on morality and their ideas seeped through the social classes and changed the attitudes of the entire Western world in a relatively short period of time.

Countries and cultures that restrict the free flow of ideas have also restricted their progress in these regards.  The Islamic world is an example of this.  The fact of the matter is that Spain translates more books into Spanish each year than the whole Islamic world has into Arabic since the ninth century.  Korea also used to have a very isolationist philosophy (and was called the 'Hermit Kingdom' because of it), although these days, with the amount of books that students read, they must be making up for lost time.

This blog sounds like a bit of a downer on Korea, but I would like to switch perspectives.  In many ways it is extraordinary to think that Korea is as civilized as it is, how many countries with such a short time in the sun can boast of such low crime rates and a decent society with low rates of poverty.  It is only because of the impressive nature of Korea's infrastructure, its modernity, its economy, its efficiency, and its general sophistication that we become upset about some of their manners, odd opinions, and those regular face to palm moments.

Get mugged in Central America, asked for a bribe by police in Indonesia (so they don't arrest you), see unhygienic food preparation in India, or experience general bad manners and staring in a third world country and it is to be expected.  We are annoyed, shocked, sick, or upset by it, but we don't tend to have a go at the culture at large or hold them too accountable for it, we understand it and excuse it to some extent.  This is not what happens in Korea, where Westerners really have a moan about the culture and the manners (myself included).

Korea's outward persona of a super-modern, rich, and technologically sophisticated society makes us think that they are as developed in all areas as those in the West.  This is not the case and it would be impossible to be so considering their history.  Korea does have a marvelous opportunity, however, and that is to grow in their moral understanding, learn from our mistakes through literature and the media, and build a sounder moral basis for their society that is free from the political correctness that is plaguing Western discourse at this moment in time.  Judging by the amount of books my students are reading, if Pinker is correct in his theories, this may only be a matter of a short period of time.

'The Better Angels of Our Nature' by Steven Pinker (Paperback)


  1. Would there be any other country he has had such an accelerated path from colony to 3rd world to 1st world in such a short time frame?

    1. Nope, I can't think of one. This is part of the reason I find the country so interesting and infuriating at the same time.

  2. Gosh this post really reminded me of the most unpleasant times I had there! I find the manners of the general population to be rather appalling. I've been shoved/pushed out of the way at supermarkets just cause some Korean wanted to look at some stuff on the shelf that I was looking for things too! And I'm not gonna comment on the subway situation especially on the crowded green/orange lines. terrible! There doesn't seem to be an existence of personal space - I have had people bump into me on the streets when there have been eons of space for them to walk on!

    Besides the crazy driving (I almost went nuts at the number of cars/motorcycles that will plough onto pedestrian lanes where there are people walking...), I do think your point about the amount of books the general population reads is a very important one. And I don't mean just students, but the general population. Where I'm from, the general comments are that people in my country dont read alot, hence the lack of opinions/ideas and the self-centredness of people in my country. But AT LEAST, I still do see people reading paperbacks, novels on their kindles etc when I travel on the subway..however in Korea - whilst I was in seoul for 2-3 weeks - I did not see a SINGLE person reading on the train. Save for this very elderly professor-looking man and 2 students who seemed to be studying for their exams.

    I found this lack of intellectual interest to be very surprising but very telling. Alot of Koreans - the young ones in particular are just thumbing through their smartphones on the trains usually, or sleeping, or staring in space or God forbid, staring at their own faces in some kind of mirror. I feel that this general disinterest in books etc ties in with the general superficiality of their culture, and also why I find the ones I've met, quite lacking in intellectual depth.

    Again, nice post!

    1. I will concede that the books tend to be read by mainly students who are forced to do so by parents in the name of education. However, it does seem to do some good as the most enlightened Koreans tend to be young people. I think most of the bad manners and odd thinking is present in the older population and it is gradually getting better as the younger generation come through. I wrote on another site about the generation gap in Korea, I will have to link some of the articles from that site soon.