The Sewol Ferry Crisis and the Dangers of Blind Cultural Blaming

I’ve been meaning to do a post about the South Korean Sewol ferry disaster for a while now, and today a TIME article caught my eye highlighting precisely what I’d been feeling while reading numerous media reports. On the spur of the moment I vented in the form of a facebook status. But facebook isn’t exactly the best medium for explaining thought in more detail, so I decided to expound a little on the blog, and hopefully shed light on what I believe to be is an extremely misguided and sensationalist tendency in today’s journalism.

Summer last year, T.K. from AskAKorean did a now fairly widely-read post on Gladwell’s cultural bias in making (non)sense of Korean aviation disasters. It’s an excellent read which will help shed light on what I mean to say. If you have the time, I’d urge you to give it a scroll-through.

As the TIME article shows, here’s a glimpse of what Western “viewpoints” journalism has to say about the South Korean ferry disaster:

Reuters: “Many of the children did not question their elders, as is customary in hierarchical Korean society. They paid for their obedience with their lives.”

Dallas Morning News: “If that was a boatload of American students, you know they would have been finding any and every way to get off that ferry. But in Asian cultures… compliance is de rigueur.”


It is appealing, is it not, to reduce a crisis comprising a myriad of issues at every level of disgustingly incapable and responsibility-fearing government, media censorship, and a visceral public temperament, all to an unfortunate development of a cultural stereotype? It’s an intellectual sensationalism. And why not, right? If I don’t like it, that’s my problem, not yours. Because it’s just an evaluation; a point of view — and mind, everyone’s entitled to their point of view.

Not if it’s perpetuating a deeply flawed practice of jumping and perpetuating stereotypes now quickly establishing itself in mainstream media as what’s fun, smart, and cool. Dallas Morning News is one thing, but Reuters? CNN? It’s mass-scale cultural stereotyping, and in fact, it is extremely dangerous. It absolves the authorities by diverting attention from them, and slings the blame into an “inherently flawed” cultural education system – something on which I have strong views but which I will not discuss here – and a tangentially related tradition. Suddenly, it’s the fault of the hundreds of innocent civilians involved in the disaster. It’s a convoluted way of saying: it was inevitable. Here sit our beloved media sources telling us: tragic, tragic; sucks for you South Koreans, you should have known to disobey the Captain’s orders, like they would have done in America! As if it’s common sense to be actively contemplating an escape seconds before being lurched to the side inside a tipping ferry, after urgent orders that advised that it was, in fact, safer to stay inside. To put things in perspective, here are another few minute details, not as widely publicised outside of Korea. There weren’t nearly enough life jackets aboard the ship for all passengers, and the life rafts have been judged to have malfunctioned during the accident. Nor were the passengers notified of emergency exits prior to departure. I beg that a media reporter explain to me how a culture of submission played a bigger part in the crisis than — among innumerable other factors — a corporation overlooking safety regulations, a captain that doesn’t even make the “abandon ship” announcement before he hops on a rescue boat (called to the scene, by the way, by a passenger still trapped inside) with 20 of his 29 crew members, and a handful of politicians sitting there, nodding their heads and pointing fingers at other politicians.

As I find now, Sweet Pickles & Corn also did a similar post on this, asking why there is “a recurring temptation to see Koreans as hapless victims of a defective national culture, rather than as victims of a merely human tendency to occasionally fall short of living up to what are otherwise sound ideals”. While not without a point, I must say that this is, in addition to “How did Confucianism affect the crisis?”, just as wrong a question to ask. Because it was never about “falling short of living up to what are otherwise sound ideals” in the first place. That sort of thinking still chains readers to a blind culturalist lens.

What’s wrong is the philosophy behind cultural blaming. For one thing, it sets forth a ridiculously simplified version of a nation’s culture, intricate and nuanced as can be, which doesn’t even fit the frame of how one is to make sense of the situation (see above). Second, it condescends on this cultural tendency by rendering it a cause of the disaster. Third: so now to blame are the dead and the missing who, apparently, should have “thought for themselves”. The last announcement you heard before things got critical was an affirmation of safety inside cabins, and you were seated within a group of others which, psychologically, dilutes individual resistance regardless of culture. “If that was a boatload of American students…” to quote Dallas Morning News. I am truly gobsmacked. Fourth, this way of thinking fixes the reader’s understanding of what actually happened, by making the situation out to be an immutable consequence that couldn’t really have been any other way. But the outcome could have been so very different; so many more lives could have been saved. Is the fact that it wasn’t any different the fault of culture, too? Those aboard the Sewol are wronged thrice — first by the crew, second by the nation, and now by the international community. Journalists who have but a superficial understanding of the issue, and who nonetheless excrete claims dripping with denseness that culture is to blame — I’d advise that they seriously reconsider their career in the profession. Such writing does the world harm with false consciousness.

The Sewol ferry disaster does indeed tell many tales about how appallingly wrong things can go. A “submissive and obedient” Confucian culture definitely isn’t one of them. Even if it is, it is certainly not one that can be righteously flaunted by Western media as the standout culprit. There are so many problems with this, and I am sincerely offended. Get it the heck right. Get it into your heads that blind cultural blaming is a supremacy of its own. And more importantly, stop brainwashing the public with an idea that’s nothing but destructive to South Korea’s struggles both domestically and internationally, and which at best humiliates the very ethics of honest and undebased journalism.


Any and all comments are appreciated! :)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s