What not to say about the Sewol disaster
The extent to which we are personally affected by news of a tragedy is proportionate to how close we feel to its victims. So a disaster in some far-off part of the world has less of an emotional impact than one in your own country, and one in a distant city is less emotional than one affecting your neighbours.
That’s natural, and so I can understand if the Sewol tragedy is not something that greatly affected you. But for me it has been heart-wrenching. I feel a genuine sense of grief about it.
Partly this is because the details are so horrible; partly it is because of the immediacy of the video footage and the constancy of the television coverage of it here. But mostly it is because I have taught so many classes of Korean students. And so I feel like I know those kids. They could have been my students. While I’ve never taught high school, the first students I taught in Korea are now in high school; many more will enter high school next year; and the first-year university students I am teaching now are only recently graduated.
I do know those kids. I know their dreams for their future, their interests, how they acted with their friends, their teachers, the opposite sex. I know how they worked hard and how they goofed off.
But I will understand if their deaths do not affect you in quite the same way. With one exception: if, being vaguely familiar with Korea, it occurs to you to make the following speculation:
Like other Asian nations, South Korean society is based on a neo-Confucian culture which emphasises obedience to authority figures and deference to elders … “Obedient” students on the ship are among the missing, while “disobedient” students survived.
…then take a deep breath, think for a moment, and please – just shut the fuck up.
To be fair, most of the outside commentators on this have known better. But some – from journalists to people on my facebook feed to the usual idiots at waygook.org – have not been able to resist offering up this simplistic thesis, invariably with an air of smug self-satisfaction, as if they and only they have truly seen the root cause of what happened.
Don’t be one of these people.
Firstly: because you’re wrong. Secondly: because your idea is not only simplistic, but a racist slur against a bunch of innocent dead kids. And you don’t want to be that person.
For the first, Jakob Dorof at Vice has laid out the timeline of the accident and the instructions to passengers, showing why this idea is wrong, thus saving me from having to do it. You can read the details there, but put simply: when initially told to stay where they were, the passengers, not being experts in maritime safety, had no basis to question the instructions. By the time a reasonable person could have concluded that it was bad advice, the ship was so heavily listed as to make movement almost impossible. Human beings can’t walk on floors that have become walls. They can’t climb flat surfaces at a canted forty-five degree angle. This report of this text message conversation between a father and daughter makes this clear:
“Dad, don’t worry. I’ve got a life vest on and we’re huddled together.”
Dad’s reply: “I know the rescue is underway but make your way out if you can.”
“Dad, I can’t walk out,” she replied. “The corridor is full of kids, and it’s too tilted.”
For the second – the idea is racist because it reduces a bunch of thinking individuals to a group of mindless automatons, sitting stupidly in place while they drowned. It is a horrifically offensive slander against a bunch of dead kids. Do not, do not go there.
I said before that I felt like I know these kids. And I do. Are Korean students, generally speaking, somewhat more obedient than students in the west? Probably. But anyone who has taught them knows that they are far from being mindlessly obedient. And it is not hard for me to imagine a parallel situation, and so know how they would have acted.
If, for instance, I was teaching a classroom of Korean kids, and the school caught on fire, and I told them to stay in their seats, I am sure they would comply. But if we were on the ground floor, and there was a window in the classroom opening onto the playground, it would be a matter of seconds before my students started suggesting that maybe we should just go out the window. If I told them to stay in their seats as the flames continued to approach, they would argue with me fiercely. When it became obvious that my instructions were idiotic, they would ignore me and climb out the window.
Some would do it more quickly than others. A few, trusting me as the responsible adult, might continue to wait. They are individuals, influenced by their culture as we all are. But not a single one of them would sit there and burn to death because they had been instructed to do so.
A slightly different situation, perhaps closer to that of the Sewol tragedy. The students are alone in the classroom. An announcement comes over the school intercom from the principal, saying that there is a fire in the school, and students should remain where they are. How long would the students wait before deciding themselves that it was a better idea to get out of the classroom? I don’t know, but I’m sure of this: when the first whisp of smoke came under the door, the students would get out of the classroom, regardless of what the principal had announced over the intercom.
I’ll tell you what else I know: they wouldn’t shove or trample each other. If there were students who couldn’t make it out, other students would help them get out.
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.
One other thing: if you do still want to think that neo-Confucianism had something to do with the tragedy, you might also consider this. One area in which the influence of neo-Confucian ideas on contemporary Korean culture is clear is in the relationships of siblings – an idea which extends to older and younger friends who are considered like siblings: hyeong, nuna, etc. In this relationship the younger sibling has a duty to respect the elder, and the elder in turn has a duty of benevolent care to the younger. So, while you’re examining the role of neo-Confucianism in this tragedy, you might also stop for a moment and think about what role it played in this:
A 6-year-old boy surnamed Kwon had put his lifejacket on his 5-year-old sister as the ferry Sewol went down.
“He told his sister that he would go and find their parents,” the boy’s aunt said.
Kwon and his parents remain missing, and the sister is being looked after by her grandmother.