Confucianism Fails to Explain Sewol Ferry Tragedy
By Byunghun Yoo
June 19, 2014
The ‘culturalist’ response to national tragedies fails to explain why South Korean students were unable to abandon ship.
The perception that Confucianism, or a supposed “culture of obedience,” is to blame for the recent tragic sinking of the South Korean ferry Sewol stems from an approach that is common to Western media and particular scholars known as “culturalists.”
The assumption is simple: There is a certain predominant “culture” or set of “norms” peculiar to a society, and that is the most influential (if not the only) independent variable by which a wide range of social phenomena can be explained. The range spans from individual behaviors to even national socioeconomic status. Hence, the French value populist culture, which is why they always shut down Charles de Gaulle Airport during labor protests; the Japanese treasure their culture of shame, which explains why their government would never recognize the Rape of Nanking or the use of comfort women; Thailand is the world’s top tourist spot because its people are kind and hospitable toward their international guests, thanks to their age-old Buddhist background; and Sub-Saharan Africa remains poor and underdeveloped, unlike Western Europe, which reaps the accomplishments of a Protestant work ethic and industrious traditions. The list can continue this way as long as analysts believe in interpreting the complicated mechanisms of world affairs in this way. Eventually, they will present something akin to “The Clash of Civilizations” before their congressmen, cabinet members, and military commanders. And before you know it…
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