Thursday, August 14, 2014

Confucianism Doesn't Explain Everything, but it can Explain Quite a lot

Since the Sewol disaster and some rather simplistic reporting of Confucianism being in the reason for so many student deaths, using the C-word has become a bit of a no-no in writing about South Korea.  If you do dare to use it, you risk immediately discrediting everything you write.  "Did he say Confucianism?"  "He must know nothing about Korea, what a fool."

As I wrote at the time, the explanation that it was Confucian values that made those students follow orders and stay below was far too basic.  For a start, many didn't listen and escaped, and in a situation you are not sure about - and rarely are most people experts on ferry safety - you perhaps should defer to those in charge with the supposed experience and expertise.  Not only that, it was insulting, laying the blame on the students for their own deaths, when it was clear they were let down by a grossly negligent ferry company and an incompetent crew.

Turning to Confucianism to explain things was a mistake in this case (for the students, I could see a more complex argument for the company and the crew, but I would more broadly say that Korean, 'respect culture', rather than traditional Confucianism could've been a factor) but let's be honest, Confucianism is a driver of many of the behaviours we see around us on a day to day basis in Korea.  In many cases, common practices have become a slightly altered form of Confucian tradition, but modern culture in Korea still has a Confucian base.  It seems stupid to have to say this, as it is so obvious, but I do think some people might need to be told this brute fact.

Some popular news articles and some in the Korean blogosphere have managed to make using the C-word as an explanation a bit of a taboo.  Actually, I think I agree with the two articles I have linked to and many others on the subject, and I also agree that many people used Confucianism too freely, but it is amazing how things swing to the ends of two extremes and the reactions to such articles have not caused balance.  It has gone from being the one-stop solution to every query about things that happen in Korea, to being ridiculed whenever it is used, even if it is extremely relevant.

I have noticed the ridiculing of those that mention Confucianism a lot in the past few months, but it came to my attention this week when an old post I wrote for Asiapundits on the treatment of women in Korea was shared again by one of the editors and received some attention and comments.  In that article, I used Confucianism to partly explain the culture of patriarchy that still exists in Korea.  If you read that post, you will see it only formed a small part of what I wrote, but sure enough, it was picked up upon and received the usual treatment:

1. "It might further behoove you to read about why these cultural traditions exist rather than throwing it under the gauge blanket of confusion ism." (her spelling, not mine by the way)
2. "But Confucianism is such a handy word. Every time I can’t understand Korea, I just use it and pretend I do."

These kind of comments have increasingly become the norm.  But in respect to the treatment of women in Korea, surely it is impossible to say that Confucianism is not involved, it is a huge part of the system of hierarchy we see today, both with young and old and men and women.  In a rather long article, I actually only wrote a few lines about it and I'm not really sure how you can argue against it:

"To do away with nearly two thousand years of Confucian tradition (and about 700 hundred of strong cultural influence through the Joseon Dynasty) is what the women of Korea are up against, so perhaps it is no surprise they are still struggling to make an impact on society for better treatment.  In Confucian thought a virtuous woman is meant to uphold the ‘Three subordinations’: be subordinate to her father before marriage, to her husband after marriage, and her son after her husband dies.  Men can remarry and have mistresses, but women must always remain faithful even after their husbands’ death.  With this is mind it is easy to see why men are still thought of in higher regard."

Most cultures all around the world are still in some state of patriarchy.  I would argue that Western culture is almost completely rid of it now (although I'm sure many would disagree, but that's an argument for another time).  But I don't think it is a stretch to say each of these cultures has had to, or is still battling out of, the old traditions that were enforced by a religion or cultural philosophy.  Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, etc.  Which hasn't tried to subjugate and control women?  They all have their particular ways about doing it, however, and some are worse and harder to escape and fight your way out of than others. Islam is undoubtedly the most oppressive of the bunch in this regard and has easy to identify consequences of its patriarchal philosophy.  The results of Confucian tradition in Korea are not so brutal on women, but they still have a significant affect and the form of patriarchy present in Korea has the obvious stamp of Confucianism about it and the culture as a whole persists in holding women back because of it.  Not solely because of it, mind, but to deny it is a factor is strange to say the least.  My suspicion is that it's down to political correctness.

Political correctness is not always a bad thing, it is good we aren't all going around saying bad words to people and jumping to overly-simple conclusions, and it has raised consciousness about certain issues.  But it regularly goes too far and prevents honest dialogue and that is something I have had to really fight with on this blog.

Reflecting on my time blogging, with just one week left in Korea, I have to say that I have been quite amazed by the aggressive, vitriolic, and ridiculing nature of the responses I have got to my blogs over the last two years or so.  Some people write entire repetitive essays of hate against me on my comments section or on their own sites. In the beginning, it was upsetting, I won't lie, especially as I thought I wasn't really being that controversial or anywhere near hateful.  Nowadays though, it is just time-consuming to deal with.  A new life dawns in Australia and I just don't have the time or inclination to deal with those who say white is black and always misconstrue what I write to be some of the most vile evil know to man, indicative of some of the worst elements in modern society and harking back to the days of Hitler (really, no exaggeration, it's what some people think).  The fact I am a White man also seems to be a real problem for many people (even some White men).  How dare a White man give his perspective on Korea.  What a danger to world my meager little blog must be.

It seems that even with a lightly-read, tiny blog on South Korea, you can't escape the abuse, just by having different opinions to the progressive crowd.  From day one, I have had to fight the assumption that you just can't make and share your own judgements about other cultures and you can't compare other cultures (if what you are saying is in any way negative in nature). Although I should say you can, but Western culture - and in particular American culture - must always come out on the losing side, then it's fine.

Confucianism might be becoming another word us White guys can't use anymore in writing or talking about South Korea, it feels like it is now off the table for discussion.  Keep this in mind the next time you ask a Korean person about why they behave in such different ways to us Westerners, because in my experience Confucianism is as much a 'go to' in their explanations of their own behaviour as it is for us. Why?  Because it really is relevant in explaining Korea, there's no escaping it and people other than Koreans themselves can use it (including White guys), it's just not always relevant in every situation.  So somewhere between 'always relevant' and 'never relevant', I think there might be some middle-ground we can occupy.  How about treating every claim of Confucian involvement in different circumstances on its own merit and arguing the particulars of each case?  Now there's an idea.