Saturday, April 26, 2014

Sewol Ferry, Safety Awareness and Citing Culture: A Rundown

You have heard, no doubt, about the Korean Sewol Ferry disaster still in progress off Korea's southwest coast. The death toll keeps climbing, and the window for living survivors closed days ago. Part of the families', and public anger is due to the fact much of the pivotal first hours were wasted by slow or disorganized responses. The rescue and salvage reports are one heartbreak after another.

Prayers and heartfelt condolences to the families, and to everybody touched by loss in this tragedy.

Some links for reading:
This Chosun Ilbo article lists  the many things that went wrong.
And this Joongang editorial gives a pretty good glimpse of how emotionally distraught the public mood is, and how Koreans have been excoriating their own society because of this tragedy.
That the (normally tight-lipped) president herself has laid a judgment on the crew that bailed out too early, calling their desertion of duty "like an act of murder" (the Guardian didn't like that) gives you a sense of just how hot public emotion is running regarding this.
The tragedy has even impacted the Korean economy.
The official main cause of the capsize has now been announced.
Andrew Salmon's latest piece for Forbes, discussing first world hardware/infrastructure vs. not-yet-first-world software/norms and practices, and his first piece, about Korean leadership, has a great closing paragraph. His piece in South China Morning Post, where he was the first to mention a culture of obedience, not so much.

For more of my own views, a podcast I'm involved in just covered the issue.

There were some heroes. But not enough.

Prayers and heartfelt condolences to the families, and to everybody touched by loss in this tragedy.

Unlike previous events like the Daegu subway fire or the Namdaemun Arson, this one doesn't begin with an unwell person planning an act of malice. This is the convergence of an aggregation of small human errors that, each one on its own, could have been untangled, but with an unhappy convergence, the knot just got too big. One too many corners cut. One too many excuses made, shortcuts taken, standards glossed over, regulations hand-waved, and suddenly we're expecting about 300 dead, many of them high school students. And the fact it was children on a class trip really brought it close to home, because every Korean adult went on class trips like this in school.

Koreans have been very hard on themselves as a country... so much so, that I'd suggest readers take any editorial they've read with a grain of salt, as many of them have put more weight on the emotive side than the analytical. I've heard from a few people the sentiment that "we've just been pretending to be an advanced nation all this time" -- somebody told me there's a Korean saying that a wooden water bucket is only as deep as the shortest piece of wood, equivalent to the English "a chain is only as strong as its weakest link" - meaning that shortcomings in some areas undermine all the advancement Korea has made in other areas. So do us all a favor, readers, and don't take lines like "We’re like Stone Age cavemen waving smartphones in the air. Look at us!" completely at face value, or pull them out next time you're trying to prove a point about Korea. These are emotionally charged times, and some people have right lost their perspective. That's allowed. No need to be a jerk about it.


There's a lot of public anger for failures at every level -- from crew, to captain, to the company, to safety inspectors, to government emergency response protocols and organizations, and the media has made an even bigger mess of things, rushing a number of false stories to press, only to be embarrassed when those text messages, and that diver giving interviews, turned out to be fakes.

And the online commentary has run the full gamut, from sharp and pointed, to vague, mushy and half-baked. And, of course, somebody brought in the cultural explanation.

The Korea Times here mentions two outlets -- CNN and Time, that suggested Korea's Confucian heritage would make the students more likely to follow the orders to stay below deck until it was too late to save themselves. Financial Times also critiques the cultural argument.

In the remainder of this post, I'm going to run down some links where you can read up different views of different cultural arguments. In my next post, I'm going to get a bit more general, in discussing why the cultural argument has problems, what they are, and how to avoid them. Click on the links in this one to read various positions on something that's now being hotly discussed in various places.

Blogger Waegukin, who actually works with Korean high school students, does a handy dismantling of the idea Korean students would be obedient past the point of self-preservation, saying,
"We’ll never know exactly what happened to the students on the boat: what choices they made and what they tried to do. But one thing I am certain about: they died as thinking individuals, with individual dreams for the future, doing their best to survive and help their friends. To suggest otherwise is grotesque." 
Jakob Dorof, at Vice Magazine, of all places, launches another successful rebuttal... by actually knowing more about Confucianism than "uh... something about hierarchies." He gets a block quote, too (my emphasis in bold):
In truth, however, the catch-all of “South Korean culture,” or even neo-Confucian obedience in particular, fails to account for what happened on Wednesday. The problem with such arguments is their suggestion not only that the Sewol crew and harbor officials were blinded from moral responsibility by cultural programming, but also that the hundreds of students and others left on the ship were socially hardwired automatons who, though cognizant of their ability to escape, felt too inhibited by a respect for their elders to move. This is excessively reductive, for one, but falls apart altogether when you consider that many of the people who stayed onboard were in fact elders of the crew. Furthermore, if Confucian doctrine were the be-all and end-all under these circumstances, then what of li—a fundamental Confucian precept that encourages those beneath an authority to disregard orders if they seem irrational or unjust?
His article also goes into specific detail about what was happening when, with a timeline of events, and then he puts his finger on something much more plausible, and the one that's been much discussed in local media: "The real problem, at all levels, seems to be protocol—or rather, the absence of one." The Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, and Choe Sang-hun's piece in the New York Times all devote significant column space to the problem of poor awareness, training, and adherence to safety protocols in South Korea, as does the local paper of note, the Chosun Ilbo. I can't find back the article that mentions the fact that... in every other case except the one where the captain and crew panic and bail, the best way to survive an accident like this is to follow instructions from people are trained for dealing with them. The problem is that in this case, that trust was misplaced. The people who were supposed to be able to assess the situation accurately and choose the actions that minimize loss of life failed. And why they failed is the conversation that needs to happen. I would be horrified if the next time there's a ferry mishap in Korea, dozens of passengers panic and jump overboard in life jackets, or unnecessarily commandeer life boats because they don't trust the crew telling them that in most cases, staying on the boat is the safest thing to do.* (see update below) This Joongang article discusses the flipside of that "obey authority" canard: that seniors are supposed to take care of their juniors... a duty at which those responsible for the students - from the crew right up to the government - failed. This blog post agrees, asserting that more Confucianism, not less, would have helped the situation.

That's a bit of reading for you to try, if you want to have a handle on the "culture of obedience" thing.

The other place culture is being discussed, which I think is a bit more on point, is in the realm of adherence, awareness, and education about safety.

Strangely, some of the ones I think are on point make similar points to some of the ones I don't like... but the way they make them is different, and that matters. Burndog, on all those little rule-breakings that go on all the time: "there seem to be so many occasions here where people don’t give a fuck about laws or rules, and I think that that turning a blind eye, if it happens enough, can lead to the sort of tragedies that happen in Korea". Adeel on cultural reactions to national tragedies:
The explanatory power of culture is not as great as we think, and I'm not even discussing cultural differences that are really just myths or far reaches. Korean honorifics and hierarchy don't cause plane crashes. The Afghan tradition of hospitality doesn't explain why the Taliban protected Osama bin Laden. The Spanish fondness for siestas didn't cause last year's train crash that killed 79 people. Rugged American individualism doesn't explain the 2007 bridge collapse that killed 13 people.
This one's just a fragmented mess. What does China have to do with anything? Smudgem has some anecdotes about safety awareness and training. Which is (not really) culture. The Marmot and his commenters have contributed over 800 comments on Sewol blog posts on that site.

So... even in a case where Korean commentators and foreign ones alike have decided that culture is on the table for discussion, we've got a variety of views on what aspect of culture is relevant to the discussion here, and we've got people discussing it in anecdotes and uselessly broad strokes, as well as ones that draw clear and plausible lines from cultural contexts to observable phenomena.

People are going to talk about culture. And that's allowed. Let's talk for a bit about talking about culture. This post is getting long... so I'll do it in a follow-up post.

Prayers and heartfelt condolences to the families, and to everybody touched by loss in this tragedy.

*Update: It seems, with the collision between subway cars on May 2nd, exactly what I predicted here came to pass: told to wait in the subway cars for rescue, passengers instead forced the door open and made their way out. The sudden influx of upset civilians didn't exacerbate the situation in this case... but it could have.

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