Monday, May 5, 2014

Is Everyone Deeply Moved by the Sewol Tragedy?

I have been contemplating the possibility that I am one seriously heartless bastard lately. This may surprise some of the people who know me best because I think they would say I am a really nice guy, not short of an opinion or two and a bit argumentative, but nice nonetheless.

So why have I been thinking this?  Well this is going to sound horrible, but I really don't have a huge emotional response to the Sewol tragedy.  However, I am interested in it for sure, it is a fascinating story of calamitous errors, negligence, and corruption, and there is an interesting debate about the causes, the culture, the government, and all that.

Don't get me wrong, when I see a report I get a little sad and angry because I teach high schoolers in Korea and they are a great bunch of kids and I am a human being with a soul (no, really I am a human being, the soul bit is a just a figure of speech as I don't actually believe in all that stuff, but you know what I mean).  But after I have finished reading an article or watching a report on the Sewol disaster, I emotionally switch-off very quickly.  If I am being honest with myself, I think this means that I really don't care that much.  What I do care about, though, is the potential for something to happen to me or someone I love in Korea because of a safety concern, as Korea is not the safest of places when it comes to having avoidable accidents.  This is, however, slightly mitigated by low crime; I am far more likely to find myself with a bottle smashed over my head for no reason in my own country, for example, so I lose little sleep worrying about a disastrous tomorrow.

I lose even less sleep thinking about those poor passengers on the Sewol, but judging by what I have read, everyone else appears to be deeply moved:

From the Wall Street Journal:  Children's Day Becomes a Day of Grief

From CNN: Ferry Disaster's Toll on Korean Psyche

I just don't feel this way and maybe I married a heartless Korean woman, but she is hardly at the point of despair either, in fact most I have met, Korean or not, as this tragedy has played itself out over the last few weeks have not seemed that upset either.  Maybe they are good at hiding it or I'm terrible at seeing it, but with the people I know well, they must be damn good actors.  I simply am not observing this deep sense of sadness, guilt and mourning that other observers say they are experiencing here.  Maybe there is a greater intensity occurring in Ansan and the surrounds of Seoul, where most of the writing has come from and where most of the passengers that died came from.  But I know one thing for sure, not all expats, not all Koreans, and certainly not everyone worldwide has been "deeply affected by the Sewol tragedy".

So, I hate to say it, but I am left with the feeling of scepticism that what is being written by many is an accurate expression of their true emotions, or the country's as a whole, and not just a popular exaggeration. I get the same feeling with news broadcasters, that they are saying what they think they should say rather than genuinely feeling it.

This sounds unfair, I don't know what is going on in their heads.  In my head, I read with scepticism and the feeling it is a bit sickly sweet and OTT.  It is surely my problem, not theirs, what's wrong with me?  Why don't I feel the same sense of sadness?  I am sure what they wrote is genuine and from the heart, but I can't help but feel the world is awash with people who say they care, but really don't.

I don't think I am in the minority of people who are - when you think about it - a bit heartless.  With so much suffering in the world not only occurring, but being beamed on to our computers and TV screens, it would be impossible to run our daily lives without regularly going into fits of depression if we cared so much about it all.

It could all be down to evolution.  Altruism has more than likely evolved in an environment of small groups of, often related, kin.  We have evolved to care about the suffering of others right in front of our eyes and to those we are closely related to.  Fortunately, the urge regularly fires-up for strangers and even animals when we see them suffering pain or distress, but it still usually needs to be happening right in front of us for us to take notice. Is this why I feel something when I watch a news report about a tragic event, but then it subsides quickly when I switch off (the old 'out of sight, out of mind' tendency)?  In a classic argument by Peter Singer (The Shallow Pond Problem), he highlights this misfiring of empathy and morality with a simple thought experiment (skip to 2 minutes in for the argument):

Another favourite writer of mine, Sam Harris, has written about this failure of compassion as well, but also highlights another concerning misfiring of our instinct for compassion, empathy and caring, and that is that it tends to go down with the more people we see or know are suffering (see 'Genocide Neglect', Slovic 2007). This partly explains the success charities have with adoption programs, where instead of giving money to help 1 million people in Africa affected by malaria, we sponsor one child instead.  Of course in reality, your money goes to help many people, but by appealing to just one, the charity is more successful in making people donate.  Harris explains this 'moral illusion' in the video below at 58mins 30 secs:

So it appears that I am not unique.  In a way, I am envious of the bloggers and writers I linked to above if they really do genuinely feel that way and show it.  Because as much as I know I should feel a great deal more empathy for the passengers and the families of the Sewol tragedy than I did, say, when my in-laws tied a puppy Jindo dog named Noah up outside in the cold (that I took care of for a while, read this post), I don't.  I can logically understand that I am wrong here and that I have warped priorities, but I don't feel emotion for the passengers with anywhere near the same force as I did for that dog, not even close.

I know this lack of emotion in me for such tragedies in the lives of others is a real problem in the world. Without the emotion, people will fail to act in meaningful ways to stop mass suffering, and sure enough, people do just that, I do just that.

I do see a pattern occurring in the world of the internet at the moment.  When you work in Korea, you have a lot of time, often at work while desk-warming, to browse around the internet and writing this blog encourages me to do this even more.  What I see is heaps of moral outrage, emotion-filled messages of support for those in need, and internet campaigns to improve the lives of others and fight injustice in the world.  But too much of it seems empty and pointless at the end of the day; lots of words, no action, and the moral outrage and outpourings of emotion never last long on one subject, we just move onto the next story to get our emotional fix and we are saturated by examples of injustice and sad stories.  I think it is problematic because it creates the illusion that something is being done and the illusion that you are helping, when in reality, nothing is being done and you yourself are doing nothing as well.  While the internet has a strength in raising awareness of issues, its weakness is definitely in what I describe above.

I am troubled by my lack of compassion, not just about the Sewol disaster, but all manner of problems in the world and the fact that until writing this sentence I hadn't really even given a moments thought to the fact that undoubtedly significantly more lives were lost on the roads in Korea this year.  Why care about that any less? Perhaps it is impossible to care about everything, or perhaps my heart is not capacious enough, maybe I am indeed truly heartless.

Note:  Due to criticism that I might be insinuating disingenuous shows of emotion by fellow bloggers I have removed quotes from them out of good taste.  It was never my intention to question their motives and I apologise to those I did quote if it came across that way.


  1. in my case, some disasters affect me, some do not.

    I think people react differently to every each incident and disaster. I HAVE empathy but I think I feel something only when the disaster or incident has something to do with me.

    Boston bombing...not my neighbor...nothing I can do.... I didn't feel anything.
    New york 9.11..., not my neighbor either, but I was terrified by the gravity of the incident. It was first world wide class disaster since 21th century.
    Sewol...My folks, My country, maybe that's why I felt so sad,

    I think you can't feel much sadness because there's nothing much you can do, you're gonna leave this country soon(your wife too), so...not much bond that tie you to this incident?

    I don't judge, I think I understand you. Though I'm sure if you'd agree with me.

    1. Last sentence corrected 'though I'm NOT sure if you agree with me'

    2. grammar nazi...

    3. I thank you for understanding what I wrote and not taking offence.

      For me, I wasn't even that deeply affected by tragedies in my own country (I'm thinking 7/7 terrorist bombings in London, Lee Rigby's brutal murder on the street by Islamist). I was shocked and morally outraged by both, but not that sad. I mean, I was sad when watching the news, just like in the Sewol disaster, but it did not last and it wasn't something that stayed in my thinking and troubled me. That honestly bothers me, but I think I understand why that is and there are some theories behind it to do with evolutionary psychology. It is apparent to me though there are many people who are deeply affected by tragedies and sometimes ones that aren't that close to home, but also many that are not. I think it is worth being honest about this fact and the consequences of it.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. I think we definitely live in a world where feeling triumphs over reason and debate. As you have exclaimed before being emotive is the trump card in today's world; its the best way to silence debate.

    People pick and choose what and where they take offence and the kind of phony moral outrage we often see (especially from the left) can be found in even the most trivial of stories.

    1. Yes, I think it should be obvious that the intention of this post was to question our indifference to the suffering of others and I did this through mainly being critical of myself. I have a feeling, however, that many will just skip right over that and become outraged and I will be accused of saying everyone is a faker or people shouldn't be upset. I am actually making the opposite point that people should be deeply upset, but some including myself aren't, and on top of that much of the time many of us have much more petty, selfish concerns.

      In a perfect world of course this is wrong, we should pay much greater attention to and invest much more emotional energy into the suffering of others, but we don't live in a perfect world and the reality is different. I think it is important to address this and to make people think about what they are feeling and then you might actually get more compassion in the world. By saying that everyone is deeply moved by this tragedy and not facing the reality, it creates a comfortable, cozy illusion that could result in complacency in the future.

  3. This is an amazing and well thought out post. It is so fantastic that I am just lost for words to describe just how fantastic and well thought out and even it is. It is just...fantastic!

    1. You're not funny, you're clearly not intelligent, why do you bother coming on here??

  4. no, it is not just you, I am not moved by this to the slightest, and I am usually a nice guy too.

  5. Thanks for your post. I'm still thinking about this and the questions raised here - it's a very wide subject. I'll let you know if I come up with anything. ( Now i'm going to watch the Sam Harris video.)
    All the best

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