Wednesday, October 9, 2013

My Commemoration of Hangeul Day

Firstly, before I begin, I would like to say upfront that this blog post is going to be a critique of a portion of Korean culture. Therefore, I would like to start out by saying that it is difficult, if I may be allowed to understate, to say what constitutes Korean culture – it's not exactly quite a matter of listing a few points that every Korean agrees on.

Korean culture itself has drastically changed over time, particularly since the Korean War . To further compound the issue, as with any culture, the ideals of Korean culture are not necessarily followed by every individual who considers him/herself a Korean. Many Confucian values as well as traditional Korean values have since been modified, updated, adapted, adopted, and co-opted by the modern Korean State, and this, too, caused them to mutate into something that pre-modern Koreans would not have recognized.

And in recent years, these traditional ideals have met competition in the form of personal liberty through globalization. To put it bluntly, the ‘culture’ that defines Korea today is a mess. I hope that whoever reads this will realize that I know that when I speak about Korean culture, I fully understand that it is nearly impossible to define and that, as a result, I have no choice but to generalize.

Without further ado, here we go.

Like many people, I, too, appreciate holidays – the comfort of home, the tranquility of peaceful quiet. However, considering the fact that today is Hangeul Day, I think it would be remiss if I didn’t take some time out of my daily life to sit down and commemorate Hangeul Day in my own way.

When a non-Korean (from a non-Confucian culture) spends any significant length of time in Korea, one of the first things that he/she notices is the level of conformity that exists among Koreans. Considering the collectivist nature of Confucianism, which Koreans have historically been strongly influenced by, and the numerous times that Korea has been invaded by its neighbors throughout its 5,000-year history, which forced Koreans to become more insular and protective of their traditions and cultures, this should come as no surprise.

Even Korean protesters tend to be conformist.
Source: http://s1.reutersmedia.net/resources/r/?m=02&d=20111122&t=2&i=536351266&w=&fh=&fw=&ll=600&pl=390&r=BTRE7AL0WLV00

Aside from history, Koreans’ conformity can also be found in everyday behavior such as popular trends. For example, in Western countries, where individuality is championed over assimilation, individual consumers have a tendency to purchase certain brands because they have associated those particular brands with their own identities. As a result, brand loyalty tends to last a relatively longer period of time in the West.

(Though it is debatable whether this sort of individualism seen in the marketplace is genuine or not, the fact that the word ‘I’ is capitalized is reflective of Western values.)

In Korea, however, individual consumers tend to choose which goods or services to purchase, at least partly, in order to conform with each other. A very good example of this kind of behavior, though certainly not limited to, is the sudden increase in the popularity of North Face jackets. When one looks for a rational reason for its sudden popularity, one cannot help but simply be stunned at the sheer absence of anything that resembles rationality.

Source: http://www.kulfoto.com/funny-pictures/22755/oh-you-wear-a-north-face-jacket

As such, with the exception of certain ‘national’ commodities that are protected from competition via tariffs or subsidization such as Hyundai cars, Jinro soju, KT&G cigarettes, or your typical Korean apartment building, product life cycles of most other commodities tend to be much shorter. A new (or even long-existing) product or brand’s sales will explode inexplicably one day, but often decline just as precipitously.

More telling than the distant past and trending behavior, however, is the fact that conformity can also be found in the Korean language itself; especially in the prevalence of the use of the word ‘우리’ (pronounced as ‘oori,’ which means ‘we’ or ‘our’) in everyday speech. For example, you will seldom, if not ever, hear a Korean refer to his/her country as “My country,” but rather as “Our country.” Though there is certainly a word for ‘I’ (, which is pronounced as ‘na’) and ‘my’ (, which is pronounced as ‘nae’), the collectivist philosophy that underlie Korean cultural norms shows itself through the more popular usage of ‘we’ as opposed to ‘I.’

And therein lies one of the fundamental problems that plague Korean society – the philosophy that states that ‘we,’ which is nothing more than a numerical superiority, somehow becomes sacred whereas ‘I,’ the individual, is forced to suffer an ignoble death.

Source: http://img.pandawhale.com/post-3742-Candles-executing-a-Light-Bulb-0A8O.jpeg

It is the philosophical assumption that individuals are nothing; Mankind is all. Forget that Mankind is nothing more than a collection of individuals. The collectivist ideal that Koreans adhere to imply that individuals exist through, by, and for each other. It is therefore not good to be different from one’s neighbors; it may lead to sticking out, which one is not supposed to do. However, the crime of being different pales in comparison to being superior to one’s neighbors, which is utterly evil.

Is it thus any wonder that Koreans seldom ever express strong disagreement unless it is through the anonymity that is granted by the Internet or the mob? Koreans almost always insist on remaining silent rather than disagree for they dare not speak the thoughts of their own minds. That is because Koreans have been socialized into believing that all must agree with all. But as they cannot know if their thoughts are the thoughts of all, they fear to speak, especially when in opposition.

Traditionalists who abhor modernity and all the ills that are associated with it claim that Koreans ought to return to the morality that was provided by the teachings of Confucianism. There could not be a more perverse idea. ‘To return’ implies that Koreans were once aware of a rational morality. Considering that Confucianism is a school of thought that has indoctrinated Koreans into believing that the individual is nothing compared to the collective, and that this school of thought has influenced Koreans for millennia, it would appear that what Koreans need to do is not to return to some old morality, but to discover morality – a morality that champions the freedom of thought and actions of the individual; a morality that allows people to know that the fact that they exist need not indebt themselves to others, that they need not live for others nor ask others to live for them. A morality that states that one needs to do more than be merely born to deserve love or respect from one’s brethren.

The Korean language as it currently exists has made the word ‘we’ a primary cause for an individual’s existence whereas the word ‘I’ has been relegated to nothing more than a mere second thought. If Korean history and culture are anything to go by, the word ‘we’ must never be given the level of importance that Koreans have given it. Doing so forces people to live a lie – to subjugate their minds to a Collective Mind, which, in fact, does not exist.

This DOES NOT exist!
Source: http://johnrfultz.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/cosmicmind.jpg

More perversely, however, the word ‘we’ allows the unworthy to earn unearned pride (see “The Irrational Challenges to Interracial Dating” for my notes on unearned pride), which sullies the hard work of rational men. It makes everything that was once clean unclean and once wise unwise. The word ‘we’ is monstrous because it is a word that sanctions serfdom and shame while it suppresses free will.

What the Korean language lacks, if not in existence, but certainly in importance, is the word ‘I’ so that people can finally know that their lives do not belong to gods or kings or the proletariat. By championing ‘I,’ people will finally begin to realize that the only obligation that people owe is the obligation to pursue their own individual happiness.

Of course, blaming the Korean language for Korea’s societal ills is akin to blaming cars for automobile accidents. It’s not the language or the car that is at fault, but the driver; the driver in this particular case being collectivism. As perverse as collectivism may be, however, it is nothing more than an idea; and the only way to defeat an idea is to replace it with a new idea.

Hopefully, by accepting the supremacy of ‘I over ‘we, Koreans can begin to heal their wounds, both physical and psychological. Otherwise, Korea will forever be defined by nothing more than this:


10 comments:

  1. I'm struggling here to find the right words. I've only been interested in Korean culture for about a year. It's been a nice distraction for me considering the state of my own country and the powerlessness I feel over our current economic and political situation. I'm an American. It didn't take long for me to understand that Korean culture is defined by conformity. Along with this comes a tremendous level of corruption and hypocrisy, the subjugation of women and outward displays of racism. When you live in a hive anything foreign or different is an intruder and a potential threat to the collective. Everything from school yard bullying to the plastic surgery craze can be attributed to the collective need to conform. At first I thought this might be a good way to organize society. Since living in America the ideal of individualism has become so corrupted as to become a hyper competitive every man for himself mentality. I felt like America could use a little less "I" mentality and a little more "we". I've since changed my mind. You know what's wrong with Korean society, the same thing that's wrong with American society. Neither of our cultures seem able to moderate. The ideal society respects the rights of the individual while recognizing the needs of the collective. This is a fight that thinking people have been waging for hundreds of years. I'm convinced that while this goal is admirable it also may be unattainable. There is too much resistance, even in my country.

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    1. Hello again, TT. Welcome back to my blog. Please, allow me to reply to your comment.

      You use the word ‘moderate’ here but the philosophy that you are endorsing is the philosophy of compromise. But my position is that the battle between individualism and collectivism is one where there can be no compromise.

      The core tenet of individualism is that every individual person is an independent, sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his own life. And we also have to recognize that the collective (or society or the tribe or whatever we wish to call it) is nothing more than merely a collection of individuals. Therefore, society is really nothing more than an aggregate number. There is no such thing as a collective mind or collective interest or collective goal. There can and only are individual minds and individual interests and individual goals.

      Once we accept the premise that the collective is an artificial political construct, an aggregate number; when we talk about “the needs of the collective” or “public good,” etc., what we are actually talking about is “the good of the majority.” And whenever we talk about the “good of the majority,” it is always tacitly implied that it comes at the expense of the minority. And what that ultimately means is that the rights of some individuals is more important than the rights of others.

      If we accept that some individuals’ rights can be violated in order to maintain the rights of others, then we have to accept the fact that rights do not, in fact, exist. Rights are either universally accepted for all, or they are only privileges that are granted to members of the gang that happen to be in power for the time being.

      When you mention that “the ideal of individualism has become so corrupted as to become a hyper-competitive every-man-for-himself mentality,” that is not individualism that is at fault, but rather the failings of individuals’ morality. For example, do we gain self-esteem through our motivation to achieve, or by the desire to beat others? What do we desire? Are our desires motivated by reason or merely by hedonism? Are our goals based on rational self-interest (such as producing a superior product that we can sell in the market) or based on irrational whim (such as swindling people though fraud)?

      Institutional philosophy, no matter how good, will never function properly if the individuals’ morality is not up to par. That is why I said “what Koreans need to do is not to return to some old morality, but to discover morality.” Obviously, this is not something that only Koreans have to do but as well as people all over the world.

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  2. You know what, I like your blog. You clearly speak/write from the viewpoint of a person that fits the text in your site's "about me" section.

    I enjoy your uncompromising style of writing, countering idiocy with logic, and coming up with LOGICAL conclusions.

    If you read back far enough on his site, TK was once not too far from where you are now in terms of entertaining and informative viewpoints on societal issues in and on Korea.....before blind nationalism (대한민국 style) set in, kicking out whatever common sense his earlier posts used to consistently portray.

    Stay true to your intellect. Some may not agree with it, but I believe it WILL take you a long way in the Korean blogosphere.

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    1. That was tremendously flattering. Thank you, whoever you are.

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  3. "Considering that Confucianism is a school of thought that has indoctrinated Koreans into believing that the individual is nothing compared to the collective, and that this school of thought has influenced Koreans for millennia, it would appear that what Koreans need to do is not to return to some old morality, but to discover morality – a morality that champions the freedom of thought and actions of the individual; a morality that allows people to know that the fact that they exist need not indebt themselves to others, that they need not live for others nor ask others to live for them."

    What I find wanting in critiques of Korean Confucianism is a lack of understanding of Confucianism. Many (I am not sure about you) have not even picked up a single Confucian text. I am not sure whether "collectivism" is a problem inherent in Confucianism, and there are counterexamples in Korean culture (e.g., seeming lack of the "Bystander effect" until fairly recently). Confucianism starts with the self, the individual. Take for instance, this famous passage from the Great Learning:

    "The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things. Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated. Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole kingdom was made tranquil and happy. From the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything besides. It cannot be, when the root is neglected, that what should spring from it will be well ordered. It never has been the case that what was of great importance has been slightly cared for, and, at the same time, that what was of slight importance has been greatly cared for."

    Also, btw, I am currently writing a series of blog posts on Hangul: http://kuiwon.wordpress.com/category/projects/on-hangul-supremacy-and-exclusivity/

    You might find this post interesting: http://kuiwon.wordpress.com/2013/10/10/on-hangul-supremacy-and-exclusivity-hangul-under-the-dictators/

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    1. Hello, Kuiwon. Firstly, I would like to say that after having read some of your blog posts, especially when taken into consideration the subject matter that you deal with, I must say that I was very impressed with the level of work and research you put into it. Although you claim to be merely a hobbyist, I think you may be being a bit too modest.

      As such, I will defer to you in your knowledge of Confucianism and classical Chinese literature.

      That being said, I do not agree with your interpretation of the passage from “The Great Learning” as proof that Confucianism is not inherently collectivist. The passage seems to say that Confucianism requires its adherents to start with the self. However, what is the motive of this apparent support for individualism?

      As I said to another commenter, the core tenet of individualism is that every individual person is an independent, sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his own life. What that means is that one’s own life is one’s ultimate standard of value, and that one’s own happiness is one’s highest purpose. Individualism rejects any other unchosen obligations.

      But what does the passage from “The Great Learning” tell us? To paraphrase, “Through investigation, people gain knowledge, their thoughts become sincere, their hearts are rectified, their persons are cultivated, then that allows them to regulate their families, which allows their states to be well governed, which thus makes their kingdom tranquil and happy.”

      It may start with the self but the goal is not the self. Eventually, it leads to imposing patriarchal order on the family, the state, and the kingdom. The reason I say ‘patriarchal’ is because, if I remember correctly, the “five principle relationships” that are advocated by Confucianism are:
      1) Rulers and subjects
      2) Fathers and sons
      3) Elder and younger brothers
      4) Husbands and wives
      5) Friends

      In other words, Confucianism dictates that everyone has their place in society, and everyone owes obligations to their supposed superiors. If this doesn’t say patriarchal, I don’t know what does (which in turn helps us to better understand what is implied by ‘tranquil and happy’ as expressed in the “The Great Learning”).

      And finally, let’s take a look at the difference in the languages. In English, and other Latin-based languages, ‘ethics’ is defined as ‘rules of behavior based on ideas about what is morally good and bad.’ The Chinese word for ‘ethics,’ on the other hand, is ‘伦理.’ Even a layman like myself can say with certainty that the Chinese word for ‘ethics’ shows an entirely different cultural focus; one that is clearly collectivist. But as someone who is as well-versed in classical Chinese as you are, I am sure that you can better explain the etymological differences better than I could.

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    2. But I forgot to answer your point about the “Bystander Effect” that can be seen in Korea, as was seen in a very unfortunate case of apathy among Koreans when a female middle school student was sexually assaulted on a bus in the middle of the afternoon (http://news.naver.com/main/read.nhn?mode=LSD&mid=shm&sid1=102&oid=003&aid=0003884574).

      Correct me if I am mistaken but you seem to be saying that the fact that Koreans can be apathetic, even to someone who is clearly being attacked right in front of them, is proof that Confucianism, which Koreans are heavily influenced by, is not collectivist in nature.

      I reject that argument through and through. Apathy of this nature is not a contradiction toward collectivism, but actually a built-in feature of collectivism.

      Collectivism states that the individual, which is merely a component of society (in the case of “The Great Learning,” the individual is merely a building block from which to impose patriarchal order on society), ought to be sacrificed for the collective good. In other words, despite the goodness of the self that Confucianism requires all individuals to seek, because the goal is not to benefit the individual but rather society through individual sacrifices, people eventually come to realize that collectivism requires self-inflicted loss and pain.

      Collectivism requires everyone to sacrifice for each other. Everyone is required to think of themselves as sacrificial offerings. But this leads to moral and psychological contradiction. All individuals seek life and their own individual happiness. People may try to quench that thirst after collectivism has been forcefully drilled into their heads, but whatever vestiges of rational thought that still remains with them keeps nagging at them that something is wrong with their world. It tells them that they do not owe their lives to others.

      And that’s when people begin to believe that they are immoral. And perversely, that was the unstated goal of collectivism from the very beginning as people who think that they are immoral naturally seek outside guidance/leadership. No one can truly be a collectivist. No one can truly meet the criteria set by collectivism because it is a contradictory philosophy. But most people do not realize that. They just think that they are immoral as they do not know any better.

      But people do not like to think of themselves as immoral. Not many people can live with the level of guilt that is associated with it. And so they begin to rationalize: “Collectivism – and everything that it entails – is good. It’s just me that’s... off. So what if someone else is in trouble? I don’t need to do anything. The other good people, those who have nothing wrong with them and who unlike me are good collectivists, will surely step in to right the wrong. I don’t need to do anything.”

      Individualism allows each person to think: “If I see a wrong being committed, provided it comes at no great cost to me, I can choose to right it.”

      Collectivism, on the other hand, destroys an individual’s moral compass through moral contradictions, and eventually forces individuals to confuse something that is as basic as right and wrong. That is how something as perverse as “Bystander Effect” can come into existence.

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    3. I was claiming that the Bystander Effect in Korean culture is rather recent. It's not unheard of in pre 1990s Korea for a Korean elders to break up any misdeeds they see on the street. There's a line in Mencius specifically against the Bystander Effect: "if men suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, they will without exception experience a feeling of alarm and distress—not so they may gain the favor of the child's parents, nor to seek the praise of their neighbors and friends, nor from fear of a reputation of having been unmoved by such a thing." (more reading: http://orientem.blogspot.com/2011/01/korean-bystanders.html)

      "As I said to another commenter, the core tenet of individualism is that every individual person is an independent, sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his own life. What that means is that one’s own life is one’s ultimate standard of value, and that one’s own happiness is one’s highest purpose. Individualism rejects any other unchosen obligations."

      Also, I don't know how old you are, but this stinks of naivete only a clueless liberal arts student fresh from college (or still in college) can have. We live in a society. No man is an island. As someone with an engineering/science background, I can attest that it is crucial for people to be able to work in a group (without succumbing to group think). Confucianism is an attempt to strike that balance between extreme collectivism and extreme individualism.

      "In other words, Confucianism dictates that everyone has their place in society, and everyone owes obligations to their supposed superiors."

      Blind "obligations" are not required in Confucianism. In fact, "blindly following and flattering" one's parents is considered against filial piety. Not remonstrating against a superiors' flaws is also considered against filial piety. I would seriously recommend you read at least one Confucian work before arguing against it. After all, Voltaire, an advocate for individualism, is said to have a portrait of Confucius in his quarters and was quite a fan of his works.

      On another note, through my reading of works of Classical Chinese by Korean authors, I have seldom come across the word "we"; and in fact have only seen first person pronouns in late 19th and early 20th century works (e.g., 我等, 我輩, 吾人, etc.). Use of first person pronouns in works prior to that are singular, and some are quite diminutive (e.g., 小人, 愚, etc.). This indicates that collectivism that you think of with "Uri" wasn't set in Korean culture around that time, and quite recent.

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    4. You know, I was going to afford you a great deal of respect until you said, “Also, I don't know how old you are, but this stinks of naïveté only a clueless liberal arts student fresh from college (or still in college) can have.”

      Firstly, it is clearly evident that YOU are a collectivist. Your insinuation that a young person who is fresh from college or still in college could not possibly be rational has betrayed your biases as someone who fails to see individuals for their worth and someone who prefers to lump individuals into groups.

      Secondly, it appears that having a background in engineering is clearly insufficient in allowing a person to think critically. I said that individualism rejects any other unchosen obligations. Did you even notice the word “unchosen?” The fact that individuals live in society with other individuals has never been questioned. Only a complete fool who is oblivious of reality would make such a statement. Individualists can actually befriend others and cooperate with others. Just like the cliché that you used, no man is an island. However, individualism states that people do not need to obligate themselves to others when it is not in their interest to do so.

      If the only critique of individualism that you can muster is a straw-man argument based on folksy homilies, then you are clearly not an equal that I hoped that you were.

      Thirdly, my age is none of your goddamned business.

      As for the rest of your comments, your utter rudeness and lack of critical thought has convinced me that no further engagement is needed. Take your wares and leave. You are no longer welcome here.

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    5. I did not mean to offend you with that line, and sincerely apologize if it did. Nor do I think it's indicative of whether I'm a "collectivist," as I've clearly disavowed that a few lines below.

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