Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Accidents Just Keep on Coming

A couple of weeks ago I wasted my time arguing a point on TheKorean's blog comment's section regarding accidents in Korea.  My point was that we are under no obligation to judge the reason for accidents occurring in different places equally.  Some countries are more likely to have accidents because of their culture than others and I think culture plays a huge role in the many of the accidents we see in Korea, both major and minor.

However, one would think that if certain aspects of a culture did cause more regular accidents, this would show-up in a greater number of accidents generally recorded and witnessed, the frequency should be greater.  I was challenged by a fellow commenter on TheKorean's blog to show that this is the case.

Keeping a record of the number of accidents that occur in different countries must be tricky, especially as some overly-bureaucratic countries, (like mine) will record almost anything as an accident.  I have my doubts that all minor accidents are reported at work - or anywhere else - in Korea.  One thing that would be recorded fairly reliably would be the deaths from accidents, and Korea in fact does have the highest accidental death rate among major developed countries (source NYTimes):

"In South Korea, more than 31,000 people, including 3,000 students, die every year in accidents, accounting for 12.8 percent of the country’s total annual deaths, the highest rate among major developed nations. 
Those episodes include everything from car accidents to fires"

According to Asia News Weekly, Korea also has a 6 fold greater number of workplace fatalities than Australia also, though having only having half the population as Korea, that is still alarmingly high.

One can't also help but notice the alarmingly high number of high-profile accidents and safety issues since the Sewol disaster, at a time when one would think people would be extra careful.

Asiana Jet Ignores Safety Warning

Fire in Bus Terminal

Fire in Hospital

Fire in Homeplus Supermarket

Subway Crash

Subway Fire

Lebanese Ambassador Dies in Car Crash

There were other incidents involving a building collapse (not the North Korea one) and a bus crash that I can't find the links for.  On top of this, now 2 divers have died recovering bodies from the Sewol.  The fire in the hospital, on the subway, and in the supermarket even occurred on the same day.

Of course it could be that people are looking for accidents more now after the Sewol disaster, but there hasn't seemed to be any trouble in finding them.

Fire seems to be a recurring theme in many accidents and as a teacher, and having heard other teacher's experiences in Korea, what goes on in schools makes me concerned.  I am not convinced with my school's fire drill procedure and many other teachers I have spoken to agree with me and say the situation is similar in their schools. I remember fire drills in England being somewhat different.

In England, sometimes the fire bell went off by accident, and when it did we followed the same routine; we evacuated and lined-up in our year classes on the school field.  Our teachers then checked to make sure no one was left behind.

Worryingly, in my school, everyone knows when we are having a fire drill, and when it occurs everyone goes outside.  They get into their classes, but no one checks to see if everyone is present.  Even worse when we have an unexpected fire alarm, everyone stays sitting in class and looks confused until, after a few minutes, the alarm is switched-off.  If there were a real fire, it would be an incredible stroke of luck if it happened when scheduled, more likely it would arrive unexpectedly and all that time waiting to be told that, "no, this is serious this time", could result in lost lives.

All this tends to back up what much of us see here on a day to day basis on the roads and elsewhere and one must come to the conclusion that Korea has a culture of unsafe practices and bad safety habits.  I think it is all too convenient to blame a few bad eggs and the government, but the problem goes deeper than that. The root cause of it all is something worth debating over; in my own opinion there are a combination of factors:

1. A speedy economic rise from poverty to opulence has given the country the appearance of being highly developed, but in reality they are behind in many aspects.

2. Rigid hierarchies and respect culture make clear communication in times of crisis more difficult.

3. Rigid hierarchies make disobeying unsafe orders more difficult (I want to make it super-clear that I do not think this played a part in the students staying below deck in the Sewol disaster, but I think it has played a role in other high profile accidents).

4. Korea simply has not had enough time to evolve good safety habits because of their speed of development.

5. Too many Koreans have a disregard for people outside their family or familiar others, and this causes a lack of care and consideration for people they don't know.

6. The enforcement of laws is weak in Korea, which encourages many to bend rules and regulations because they know they can get away with it.

7. The desire to gets things done quickly (to save time and money) overrides concern for, or blinkers many to the well-being of others.

8. Sometimes a lack of individual thinking and responsibility makes questioning unsafe practices or orders of superiors difficult.

I am positive that what I am saying is not news to many learned Korean people who realise there are problems to be solved.  How to make the necessary changes is a different matter, however.

I'm afraid it now almost seems silly to make the case that the everyday habits and practices of Korean people (I would define this as an aspect of their culture) are playing a part in their propensity to get into accidents, because it is seems so obvious.  All these accidents and deaths aren't always just random events that happen from time to time in any country, they are not solely down to one or two evil people, and they are not the sole responsibility of the government to sort out.  A nationwide consciousness raising effort is needed that the government need to encourage and all Koreans need to accept.  These accidents are not something the government alone can cure, the culture of safety across the whole country has to change and there is much work to be done.

Saturday, May 17, 2014


Firstly, I know the title of this piece is crap, but I guess that is part of the point.  Perhaps there is actually a real word for this, but I don't know it, so I made one up.


"The propensity for people to jump to the conclusion that prejudice is the motivation behind other people's thoughts, words, and actions." 

I bring this up mainly because of all the talk of culture being involved in the recent Sewol disaster and allegations of "Culturalism" (again) against those who propagate the idea that Korean culture might have played a role.

There are other reasons, however, and they link to the foreigner experience in Korea.  I do believe that many people who come to Korea to work end up spending much more time on the internet than they would back home for a variety of reasons.  I think that this makes people come into contact with many popular causes that sweep around the web on social media.  I notice a few involving prejudice that make daily appearances on my Twitter and Facebook feeds:

  1. Discrimination against women
  2. Gay marriage
  3. Celebrities saying naughty racist remarks, racist TV programmes, and music videos
  4. Immigration 
  5. "Culturalism" (Korea only)

The first 4 seem to be part of a liberal crusade at the moment and stories involving them are everywhere.  Let me first start by saying that I have many beliefs you might say were liberal.  I would be, pro-choice, anti-gun, for gay marriage, anti-death penalty, pro stem cell research, pro-euthanasia, and in the "Climate Change is real" corner.  I do also have a few classically libertarian and conservative views as well, however.

In all 5 of the listed above I see a great wave of "Discriminationism" going on.  Let's use some classic examples:

1. The disparity in pay between men and women is because of prejudice against women.  People who don't agree are sexist (most right leaning politicians fall into this bracket).

I would argue that there are a number of reasons for the difference between the pay of men and women, the least relevant is unfair discrimination.  The fact is that men and women make vastly different choices in life and prioritise different things, women tend to:
  • Choose different lines of work
  • Have babies (therefore take breaks from work to bring up children)
  • Work less hours in full-time positions
  • Choose less dangerous professions
  • Want more flexible working hours (tend to choose flexibility over high pay)
  • Do more part-time work
  • Are less inclined to travel long distances or relocate for work
  • Are less inclined to ask for pay rises than men
Instead of addressing these well-known points, most just ignore them and bang the drum of prejudice. They jump to the conclusion that Western society is still inherently sexist and people who don't see any unfair discrimination in pay are sexist too.  There is very little sensible debate between opposing sides.
2.  People who are against gay marriage are homophobic.

I actually think gay people should be allowed to marry if they so desire, why not, right? What harm can it do?  I don't accept the arguments from the other side, but that doesn't mean I think they are all motivated by prejudice.  Some are, sure, but to jump to conclusions, like Will Self does in the video below is wrong. Peter Hitchens thinks this is a form of Liberal bigotry, I think he is right to point out what Will Self is doing is wrong, but this doesn't mean that I am on his side in the gay marriage debate (and I think the accusation of bigotry in return might be unhelpful).  I respect his right to a different opinion and would not make accusations of homophobia.

3.  Hypersensitivity is all the rage in popular culture

No doubt there are examples of racist celebrities, racist TV shows, and music videos and those that produce them should get their comeuppance, but the search for racism is going too far, to the point where every TV show has to show racial diversity, any music video that depicts another culture is using them or making fun of them, and any off-the-cuff remark by any celebrity is evidence that they are bigots.  But jumping to conclusions about celebrities is fascinating news for a celebrity-obsessed culture as we are, and we love to see the rich and famous humiliated or shown as flawed individuals.
4.  A world without borders is a happier place, those who disagree.... well, you get the idea

I would love the world to be border-less, as an avid traveler it would be a dream come true.  However, at this moment in time it is not at all desirable.  The fact is, cultures clash. I know this better than most being married into a different one.  Some differences are irreconcilable for many people and this causes conflict. Multicultural nations can absorb people from other cultures, but it does take time.  Too much immigration, too fast, is a recipe for disaster and I think the open borders policy of the EU at the moment is causing too much friction in Europe, with right-wing parties starting to pop-up all over the place.

5.  "Culturalism" 

I have been purposely brief with the first 4 on my list to pay more attention to something more relevant to Korea.  Let me first say that I am sure some people have their prejudices towards other cultures and I am sure they jump to conclusions sometimes. However, I do not think that, a) There is an obvious pattern of culturalism in the Western media or in Western people generally, especially for explaining disasters, and b) that when wrong conclusions are drawn sometimes that this implies prejudice.  A couple of points below to illustrate what I mean:


  • I believe people were wrong to conclude that Korean students were too obedient because of respect hierarchies or Confucianism, and that's why they stayed below deck, leading to their deaths. However, I can understand how someone with experience of Korean culture might think it.  It was an over-reach, though, as I am not sure it applied very well to that situation.  Wrong conclusion, yes, but was it because of simple ignorance, filling in time on 24-hour news or columns in newspaper or was it true prejudice?  When a Korean-American news reporter (Kyung Lah) thought Korean culture was a factor, I have difficulty thinking it was prejudice in her case. Generally, I think it was just a bad argument, but not the result of prejudice. Perhaps there were some reports where prejudice was a factor, but I think they were the exceptions rather than the norm. 

I see a hypocrisy in the whole culturalism argument.  Those who advocate this idea place incredibly high demands of proof before we can even question whether culture was even partly involved in a disaster.  Yet they require no proof whatsoever to assert that when people do question cultural involvement they do so as a result of a prejudice.

No only this, but surely there is a cultural accusation going on here, and that is the West regularly shows a prejudice in explaining disasters in Asia.  If the statement said, the West regularly gets things wrong explaining disasters in Asia, then I'd have no problem with it.  However, many go further than this (like TheKorean), they claim to know the mind and the motivation of writers like Malcolm Gladwell, journalists, and just ordinary people with an opinion.

If it was a simple matter of "you are wrong, I am right, and here's why", there would be little to worry about and we could have a good debate about it.  But it is worse than that, instead one side is saying, "I am right, you are wrong and the reason you're wrong is that you are prejudiced against Asian cultures."  Unfortunately, it is only then a short step away from accusations of racism as well and then moral superiority over the opponent is truly asserted and debate can be silenced, as funnily enough, people don't much enjoy being accused of racism, especially when they know they are not.  People that oppose modern-day liberal viewpoints are most at risk of being labeled racist and instead of debating with liberals, this fear drives them to watch sometimes radically right-wing radio and TV programmes in large numbers.  This could actually have the effect of turning people who genuinely have a point worth arguing about on some issues into an actual racist or inflame or create real prejudice.

This is extremely problematic, encouraging a whole lot of emotion and push-back from the other side.  Just like in the other debates I have mentioned, as soon as a prejudice is accused of good, unbiased people (not everyone will fit this category, but many are) merely with a differing opinion, you create a real "us against them" tussle.

The accusation of prejudice is something that must be much more carefully made or tension and resentment will be the result when it is made unfairly.  Black people having to drink from different water fountains to White people is clear-cut prejudice.  Explaining poor communication in a cockpit by invoking Korean respect culture is not an example of clear-cut prejudice as there are reasons to believe this could be the case. Argue the conclusion is wrong if you like, but keep the accusations of prejudice out of it.

Culture is not race, gender or sexual orientation, it is learned behaviour, not innate. Different cultures can be prone to different problems through certain aspects of their culture.  Respect hierarchies could affect clear communication and safety and attitudes to safety among Korean people could make dangers more likely. Attitudes towards food in many Western countries could make obesity and ill-health more likely.  Cultures are not equal, therefore the prevalence of explanations regarding ill-health and Western food culture will happen more often and disasters will be explained more often by using Korean attitudes to safety and the interaction with their elders and superiors.  We are not obligated to explain negative connotations of cultural attitudes equally between all cultures in all situations.

Unfortunately, I do think there is a real concerted effort going on in liberal circles to silence arguments, not with good points, reason, and evidence, but with slurs on the opposition and appeals to emotion.  There is a way of thinking going around at the moment that if you don't subscribe to, you are a fit target for abuse and are always on the defensive.  You are guilty until proven innocent of prejudice, and to prove this innocence you have to absorb a series of barbed verbal and/or written abuse (I know this better than most on this blog).  I think most just give up the discussion because of fear or social ostracism.  What a sad state of affairs for good, honest, reasoned debate and the search for truth.  Sure, name and shame those that are truly bigots, racists, sexists, homophobes, etc.  But people should start by making sound arguments first and benefit of the doubt should be given.  Innocent until proven guilty, remember.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Safety in Korea: Forming Good Habits

I was recently invited onto a panel discussion on tbs eFM Primetime - an English speaking radio station in Seoul - to talk about safety in Korea.  I was originally invited to give my point of view about South Korean cultural involvement in the Sewol tragedy, but couldn't do it, so they invited me to the next relevant debate instead.

Because I live about as far from Seoul as you can be in Korea, I was not able to appear in person in the studio, which was a pity, but I gave some points in a short telephone interview.  You can listen to the whole program by searching here (on Wednesday May 7th) and I found the perspective of the two university professors in the studio quite interesting.

I won't go into the whole discussion, for this post I will only focus on one aspect of the debate.  During the discussion on the radio, both myself and one of the professors in the studio came up with an interesting point about getting into good habits regarding safety.

I actually think Koreans are being a bit hard on themselves and the other professor in the discussion made some quite scathing comments about Koreans being uncivilised, uncaring, even describing them as animals for such things as not forming orderly queues.  Many articles have also been written in the Korean media about how they as a society care too much about money and getting things done quickly and don't care about people enough. Perhaps there is some truth to this, it's possible the country as a whole has become too obsessed with success and economic development and it was certainly a factor in the poor safety practices at my wife's hospital when she worked in Korea.  But I think a general lack of safety awareness and a poor understanding of risk are the greater culprits.

The situation on the roads is a perfect example of this.  In my experience, lots of people cross the road without looking both ways, sometimes not even looking at all or with their heads buried in their smart phones. Inside cars, I have had the experience of siting in the back of a car with a Korean mother driving with her son of 12 years old in the passenger seat and who was wearing no seat belt and have friends who recall similar experiences.  I also get regular lifts to play squash with a man who has a young daughter (4 years old) who sits with no seat belt on in the back seat while he drives at ridiculous speeds, weaving in and out of traffic, while texting and calling people on his phone.  I shut my eyes and pray for the best.

I should say something in these circumstances, and I would in my own country in the same situations (I doubt whether it would ever happen though), but if I did (especially in my clumsy Korean) I would be worried that it would come across as me insinuating that they don't care for their children or that they are bad parents. Just like the person who tells the mother of a screaming baby on a long-haul flight to keep him/her quiet, you are never the good guy in such situations.  Perhaps I should say something anyway, it might save their lives one day.

Yet, from what I know of this mother and of my friend who I play squash with, they would do anything for their children.  I am sure they would throw themselves in front of a bus or run into a burning building to save them.  I see them dote on them and I simply can't believe that they don't care enough.  And the people with their heads in their smart phones as they cross the road; what monetary gain or time-saving are they getting out of doing it?  And don't they care about their own lives?

It leads me to think that probably the main issue here is ignorance of risk and safety and that this state of being leads easily into ignoring it for profit and time saving.  I think this is cultural as I see it everywhere. People's everyday habits and actions are just not attuned to common dangers.  Most of these good habitual practices can be taught and drummed into people of a very young age and it can start as soon as children can walk and talk, pick up chopsticks or a knife and fork, or learn about respecting their elders in speech.

Crossing the road is a classic example of this.  Much of the time, I can find myself walking around in something of a day dream, my senses aren't heightened to danger all the time, even when I am crossing the road (although I do make more of a conscious effort in Korea).  But by force of habit, when I hit the edge of a pavement, I look both ways.  The funny thing is that it took about a year of living in Korea to look the correct way at the correct time when crossing the road, because in England the traffic comes from the opposite direction.  I found myself being more careful because my brain was so confused.  You'd think it would be simple, just look the opposite way when you should, but so ingrained the behaviour was, it took almost a year of crossing streets day in day out to get over it.

Whilst I think England has much better habits when it comes to safety, I have increasingly felt that the country has gone too far in its concern for it.  Masses of red tape need to be dealt with even relating to the most minor risks imaginable.  Health and safety has become something that people really detest and it causes a significant reduction in civil liberties and personal responsibility due to the laws and other obstacles you have to overcome to do almost anything at all.  It also opens people up for being liable for other's injuries and too many people seek compensation when they don't deserve it.  One of the things I enjoy about Korea is that I feel freer living here.  I hope it is not inevitable that, in time, improving health and safety will turn into an unhealthy obsession with it, like in England.  Why oh why can we not meet in the middle between the two cultures, on this and many other issues?

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.