Talking Through Bigotry

Miss Jiwaku and I have an acquaintance, a Korean fellow we know, though I won’t say how we know him. (Anonymity will allow me to speak more honestly.) He is a fine sort of fellow, in general, quite professional and creative, easy enough to work with and even at times funny; she and I have learned many things from him, and I hope likewise he has learned a thing or two from us as well.

However, there’s one thing that makes it hard for me to get along with him, something it’s hard to put my finger on exactly because, well… it’s the same thing that makes it hard for me to get along with a lot of young Korean men around his age. It’s things he comes out with on occasion, in part, but I think it’s more the problem of communicating with someone who lives in a world where the kinds of things he says can simply be said, without a moment’s consideration.

Things like, “I’m not racist! I like hip-hop!” or “I just don’t like gay people, okay?”

Now, before you rush to remind me that people in Canada say stupid shit like this all the time, pause for a moment. I’m talking about someone who works in a field where dealing with non-Korean/non-white people and with openly homosexual people would be pretty hard to avoid. He’s university educated, and thoughtful and generous in a lot of ways… as long as you’re not black (or Middle-Eastern, or maybe Southeast Asia), or gay, or otherwise somehow too far along the difference scale for him to effectively grok you.

Both Miss Jiwaku and I have talked about this with him, she more gently and I more bluntly. In discussing his desire to go abroad and study more, I said something along the lines of, “You know, if you go there, there will be people who look at you and judge you just by your face. I know you’ve never experienced that, but do you think that feels good? Because that’s what you’re doing when you say you don’t like gay people — it’s the same.” Miss Jiwaku was gentler, pointing out that if he continues to say the kinds of things he’s said about gay or black people to us once he goes abroad, it will hurt his career — most people in his field will think of him as stupid and probably as an asshole.

What we haven’t said, and what I struggle with, is the fact that I don’t quite think of him that way– I mean, as an asshole… but I also struggle not to do so. I mean, he’s young, and he’s inexperienced. I suspect he’s never had a gay friend, or sat down and talked to an actual black person. He doesn’t really know what he’s talking about, and the things he says are well within the range of acceptable things to say for a lot of Koreans, sad as that may be. At the same time, he is generous and he has integrity — or at least, he has been generous to us, and shown us integrity. Neither of us is gay or black or any of the other things of which he presumably disapproves.

I am writing this post after having stumbled upon an old post I wrote, one that was, essentially, a rant about the general social acceptability of certain bigotries in South Korea today. It was a bloody-minded lashing out against all of that, daring homophobes to put their money where their mouth was and stop using digital  computers if they hate gay people so much — after all, we wouldn’t have them if it wasn’t for Alan Turing.

Of course, that is engaging in one of those things I hate — using a celebrated individual to exonerate a group when that group rightly needs no exoneration — but there’s another problem with it… which is, saying things like that just shuts people’s minds; it gets their resistance up, and good luck to you if you think you can get them to change their minds by criticizing them. Even getting people to rethink their attitudes by criticising their ideas is hard enough.

I’ve been thinking about why I have been writing such things — firing more and more angry, trenchant salvos off into the void — and I think that, besides the usefulness of a pressure valve to me personally, it helps me let off steam from work. After all, it’s one thing for you to encounter a bigot out there in the world, out in life. But classrooms are not life, and it’s far from unusual for me to run into a student who seems to think it’s all well and good to criticize Jews, blacks, women who behave in any way other than the wholesome expectation set upon them, white foreigners, “the Japanese” (each of these in one huge, easy-to-generalize-about monolith) or any number of categories of people. Richard Morgan attributes his penchant for violence in his writing at least in part to all the pent-up rage he repressed during his years of teaching ESL, and hearing people say the most nasty, bigoted things in a context where it was his job to be friendly, supportive, and to encourage them to speak more, as long as they use English.

Well, I don’t teach TEFL much anymore, but I am in a position where similar rules apply: I can call students on these things, but I have to do it in a way that makes it clear I’m attacking their statements or ideas, not them themselves. (And I have to constantly remind them of this, of course.) Perhaps the same dynamic has entered my blogging that Morgan describes in his fiction wrtiting, I’m not sure, but I do know it makes for a pretty boring blog. (Well, except for those few people who like to read the rants of expat teachers — I know one or two of those, but no more.)

But it’s also, I think, a kind of laziness. It’s so much easier to write what I wrote:

If you hate gay people so much that you’re willing to throw one out of school for daring to talk about himself honestly–breaking the rules of the religion you claim to bloody represent, and yeah, I did my fucking catchecism so don’t try to play that bullshit with me: there’s no “ostracize and cast out the kid” in “love the sinner, hate the sin”–then at least have the decency to repudiate all the gay influences on Western civilization.

Give the modern world back to those of us who appreciate it, and go live in the arid, joyless desert of your wildest fantasies.

Such as: get rid of your digital computers. Back to the abacus! Oh, didn’t you know? Alan Turing, widely considered the father of digital computing, was gay. Yep, queer, gay, homo, whatever nasty word you have in Korean for that. And nobody’s even apologized yet, apparently, for the way he was hounded to death by the British government. Who now look like scum for what they did to him.

And give us back the Sistine Chapel. Yeah, yeah,  Michelangelo successfully defended himself against the charge of homosexuality at some point or other, if I remember right. So do lots of gay people, and the  rumors that surrounded him were pretty powerful, and pretty persistent. Who knows, but… just to be safe, and considering his art has so many naked men in it… you’d better hand it over.

Oh, and literature. You have no idea how many major authors were and are homosexual, or bisexual, or whatever, do you? Well, I do, and I’m telling you: there will be big holes in the history of literature. Hell, statistically speaking, I’m pretty sure some of those who were inspired to write the Bible were something other than what we moderns delineate as heterosexual. Ooh, didn’t think of that, did you? Nah, you probably even think (erroneously, I might add) that the Bible referred to homosexuality often, or always did so negatively, right? Uh… no.

I could go on. But hey, if you feel like making a clean breast of it, that’s a start. I’ll bother with the rest of the list once you show enough conscience to follow through with that.

But I know you won’t, and that’s why you need to wake up your slammed-shut little minds and cut it with the persecution. If you want the fruits of all humankind to be allowed into your life, you need to stop punishing a few for being different… not just because those few contribute too, but because you are enjoying the fruits of all humankind, and it behooves you to be a bit more fucking civilized.

… than to say, something like this:

Look, I know that what you said is something that doesn’t seem wrong to you, doesn’t seem objectionable. I know that most of your friends wouldn’t bat an eyelid, but I do. I do, and most of the people of a comparable level of intelligence and education where I come from would more than bat an eyelid: they’d write you off as hopeless, or at least as stupidly blunt. They’d wonder whether you were a religious zealot, or whether maybe this kind of bigotry is just common in Korea; they would probably get a bad impression of you and your society. And they would very likely not bother to talk to you again.

And by the way, even those who share your views would, at a comparable level of intelligence and education, phrase what you said differently. They would say something less straightforwardly unselfconscious; they might say, “Well, I think people have the right to do as they please, but I’m a Christian, and… well, we’re not comfortable with homosexuality,” or something like that. Yes, yes, we have loudmouth bigots too, of course we do, but very few of are actually well-educated or intelligent… and those who are, tend to be using that kind of talk to appeal to the poorly-educated, ignorant, and/or stupid for their own political or economic gain.

The thing is, that latter kind of talk is the kind that does get people to think. Not the hopeless ones, but a lot of people aren’t necessarily hopeless. The latter approach means it’s possible to talk to this person, it’s possible to respect them while telling them, “Look, I’m asking you to rethink your attitude about this…”

The screaming, ranting indictments, unfortunately, most of the time just make nothing happen — they do me no good, they do my readers (most of whom I assume are in the choir to which I preach) no good, and it’s not like I talk this way in real life.

So, I think I’ve stumbled onto a resolution, not just for 2012, but for the future in general — instead of ranting, get the shovel and do the work. Dig, and if I have rage still, let it go into the fiction I write.

11 thoughts on “Talking Through Bigotry

  1. Bigotry is all around us. Rich vs. poor. Highlands vs. lowlands. Daegu vs. Seoul. Educated vs. uneducated. Science vs. brainwashing…err…religion. French vs. English. Rural vs. suburban vs. city. Sci-fi vs. fiction (Really? No science fiction books in the top 100 greatest books of all-time. Talk about elitism.) Rugby as a sport vs. all those effeminate sports. Spell-checking vs. not spell checking. etc. Well, you get the idea.

    Bigotry is just a sad fact of life and will never go away as long as there is more than one person on this planet. Most of us just have a governor inside our brain that keeps it from spilling out of our mouths most of the time, but we can’t help what we think when we come into contact with other humans. We pass judgments all the time. Personally, if I really believed in hell, I figure all smokers will end up there as they make my life a living hell when they smoke in my presence thanks to a wonderful illness whichever is the true god bestowed upon me at birth.

  2. John,

    Well, but your definition of “bigotry” includes things that people choose to be or do, as well as things people have no choice about.

    I think when someone doesn’t spell check work (in a professional context, ie. for essays or work, not for blogs) it’s a choice, and it reflects a kind of laziness, disorganization, or unprofessionalism. It’s bad insofar as it reflects an actual choice not to do something properly, and because poor writing can have negative effects in the real world.

    Whereas, being born into a locally non-dominant race, or living in a place where one’s race is dominant, neither is bad (it’s nothing anyone should be judged for) nor does it reflect anyone’s conscious choice. In other words, the race of a person is a patently stupid reason to judge someone. Given the number of times I’ve heard homosexuals say that they knew their orientation from childhood — just as heterosexuals commonly seem to do — I’m inclined to simply consider it in the same way as race: an inborn trait, and something that has no real negative effects out in the world. (Unless the scandalization of people who are dying to be scandalized by others’ private lives is a negative effect caused by those whose private lives are being scrutinized thus; I would argue it is not.)

    What I’m saying is, yes, there’s all kinds of bigotry. The kind that disgusts and horrifies me is the kind that hinges on judging people on stupidly arbitrary criteria, and it’s the hardest for me to talk through with people, mostly because it is lazy and stupid like all bigotry, but also irrational and unfair.

    I agree, though, that it is simply a human inclination to pass judgment of a kind on others, whether positive or negative. It’s something we do even more with strangers, and as Dr. Douglas Kenrick noted recently (in a book I reviewed here) it’s likely this kind of thing is hardwired into us.

    And I will also admit that it’s probably also inevitable for people to have a few “special cases” in which they think bigotry is warranted and acceptable, no matter what. After all, if we’re wired to be gregarious, then we are also wired to be hierarchic, and that implies we have a LOT of wiring about deciding who we will see or acknowledge as effectively inferior or superior to ourselves, as useful allies or as potential enemies, or as potential underlings or overlords. We will likely always be sorting people into those kinds of strata, in our minds — even in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series, only the “best” people get invited to the highest profile parties, for example.

    But I am also quite sympathetic to the idea that whatever our inborn human tendencies are, they can be directed towards primarily useful outlets. If only the bigotry focused on race could be focused people who are actually doing collective harm, and who could stop doing it, I think we’d be harnessing this tendency for good. While it might be an unpleasant way to get people to stop driving fuel-inefficient cars, or littering, at least it’s not as patently stupid and unjust as racism or homophobia.

    But yeah, I also hate smoking too, and can’t help but look upon people who smoke (cigarettes, habitually) as foolish individuals who are making a foolish choice. I mean, we’ve known smoking was clearly and directly linked to cancer, and insanely addictive, since when? But I only really revile smokers who insist on smoking in places where I need to breathe their crappy exhalations.

  3. I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a point at which anger is healthy and useful as well as inevitable, but I’ve also come the conclusion that it makes me miserable to be angry all the time.
    So there’s gotta be a balance, and I think I’m finding it more through fatigue and avoidance, but yes, opening doors is likely to change more than putting up walls.

  4. I think anger is at some point healthy, useful, and inevitable. But yeah, if you let yourself, you can end up using it as a default mode, which unhealthy, unuseful, and quite avoidable. So yes, balance is what need to be sought out.

    It’s weird, in that I don’t find myself less disgusted about things, so much as I know that conveying my disgust may be counterproductive up to a certain point. (After that, conveying disgust is for bystanders, not one’s interlocutor.)

    Fatigue and avoidance: yeah. That.

  5. As a Korean-American (A Korean who was born in America, just to make that clear, not someone who’s mixed) there’s a lot that I can and can’t wrap my head around on this topic. While I’ve been around plenty of Koreans, I’ve never lived in Korea so there is only so much that I can infer of the Korean view of this topic. My best guess, however, is that it’s mostly stems from stereotypes and a bit of classism as well. Stereotypes of foreigners probably are a bit more difficult to break there compared to here especially considering the fact that they will only get a certain amount of foreign media. Since there are quite a few poor areas in Africa and SE Asia, unfortunately the horror stories of the way foreigners from these areas are treated probably has some credence. Even African-Americans are probably treated the same way because they have the perception of them being ghetto from the media. You can sort of tell that it has to do with class because even Koreans from the country-side are the butt of jokes in the media.
    Many people like to say that Korea is “behind” the West on these issues but the truth is that they just have less exposure and thus less experience with it. This is, of course, to be expected of such a homogenous nation so other than education, more exposure is the key to better relations.
    Fortunately, like anyone you will meet on this planet, anyone with more than half a brain will be more than happy to get to know you first before acting on these pre-conceived notions and I am happy to report that there are plenty of people with fully-working brains in Korea, I will even be bold enough to say that they in fact make up the majority. Just present yourself well and you should be welcomed with open arms.

    1. June,

      If you haven’t lived in Korea, it’s understandable why you might think as you do. I’ll put it this way: you suggest that the poorer parts of Southeast Asia and Africa might be virulently anti-foreign because of their poverty and lack of education; well, many of the more progressive South Koreans I know actually describe Korea as a “developing country” because the mentality here is like what you’d expect in a poor, backwater place with zero experience with the outside world.

      Except that collectively Koreans are, in fact, much MORE virulently anti-foreign (and especially anti-American) than anyone else in Asia — including much less economically-developed countries. Seriously, there are studies that back this up: even Vietnamese and Laotians, who suffered directly in a war with the USA in living memory, profess less hatred for the USA than Koreans. (One such study is cited in this book by Gi Wook Shin, along with historical explanations of the roots of the phenomenon in the Kwangju Massacre and the democracy movement — because, yeah, it’s a recent phenomenon dating back to the 1980s. Essentially, Koreans realized America wasn’t going to step in and end the dictatorships, so when the dictators got abusive to the demonstrators, Koreans blamed America. It makes a certain kind of sense from a Korean mindset — since every problem a Korean is presented is, conventionally, suggested as fixable by a government, corporation, or other powerful entity. In many years teaching here, and discussing social problems and issues, I’ve heard two students suggest any other response to a problem that hoping some big institution would benevolently intervene and fix it for us. Two.)

      As for lack of exposure and experience: Korea is, right now, busily reconceptualizing itself as a multicultural and globalized society, and there have been expats in most cities and towns for a decade now — and in many parts of Korea, foreign people have been around a century or more. I realize that change is slow, and we cannot expect it to happen overnight; but I also know for a fact that the decision-makers when it comes to this reconceptualization of Korea as multicultural seem to have it in their heads the way forward is to Koreanize those Southeast Asian women who mainly stand in the forefront of the issue for them. They haven’t realized that Korean society needs to change, and radically, if it is to become functionally multicultural; and that giving these women courses on how t cook Korean food or bow properly to their husbands’ parents isn’t going to do much for interracial harmony in Korea, or to prevent the kind of abuse that many of these women apparently experience, with no resources and no help. But, yes, most Korean women are also treated like second class citizens in my opinion

      I don’t disagree with you that there is a class issue involved — indeed, Koreans being as hierarchy-minded as they are — or that stereotypes are part of it. Stereotypes are always an issue in racism. Likewise, sexism comes into play with racism: one example any expat can point out is how much absolute shit a Korean woman must wade through just for walking down the street with a non-Korean man.

      But I’m afraid that the issues of classism and sexism and stereotypes don’t contradict the notion that racism is at work: in fact, they’re basically components in Korea’s version of racism, which like everything else in Korea is hierarchic. There is racism against all non-Koreans in some areas (don’t sully “our bloodline”/steal “our women”/expect equal pay for equal work) but hierarchy allows white foreigners to enjoy certain privileges (better work conditions, less chance of violence in the workplace, probably slightly better legal protections); non-white non-Koreans have it worse, with non-white non-Western non-Koreans generally having it worst here.

      I would generally agree that Korea is “behind” North America on this, for a few reasons:

      First, racist comments are absolutely acceptable here, to the point where it’s assumed nobody will be offended when someone equates Southeast Asian with lazy, or blacks or Chinese with dirty and stupid, and so on. My partner is Korean, and hears this kind of stuff constantly — constantly. Of course there are non-racist people here, who like her are offended; but she is the only person in her circle who cares enough to call people on it, or take offense. And when I say she hears it constantly, I mean just walking down the street. I mean people saying, “I don’t wanna eat ‘Chink’ food today,” or “‘Nigger’ food” (which apparently is what McDonald’s is considered) or “Migrant Worker food” (because all Vietnamese are migrant workers, right?) It’s not so much the comments that trouble her (and me) as the fact that people spew this stuff without any apparent awareness of how offensive it is. (And like I say, we have lots of nice friends who don’t seem to have such racist attitudes; but since Koreans are so nonconfrontational about this kind of thing, spewing disgustingly racist commentary is basically socially acceptable here. The Minister of Defense halfway said the Korean equivalent of the word “Nigger” in a talk (and then changed his words to “ignorant black people running around”) and was forced neither to apologize, nor to resign. I can imagine that happening almost nowhere else in the developed world. It was in the news, but a tiny, minor story.

      But more importantly, Korean institutions still haven’t woken up to the fact that institutions have a responsibility to promote values of respect and equality. When I was growing up in Canada, there were big anti-racism campaigns and I remember, clearly, stickers on walls in schools (and still being posted when I went to university) that said things like “NO to RACISM!” or “RACISM IS WRONG!” My point is you can’t really do much to change the bigotry of adults, but you can teach young people it’s wrong. Korean institutions aren’t doing this much; the fact that only a minority of Korea’s mixed-race citizens manage to graduate from high schools here suggests that the educational institutions aren’t doing their part to help promote this kind of equality and respect either.

      Fortunately, like anyone you will meet on this planet, anyone with more than half a brain will be more than happy to get to know you first before acting on these pre-conceived notions and I am happy to report that there are plenty of people with fully-working brains in Korea, I will even be bold enough to say that they in fact make up the majority. Just present yourself well and you should be welcomed with open arms.

      Sorry to tell you, but this is not the experience I’ve seen with nonwhite foreigners in Korea. Oh, and EBS kind of has some evidence of that:

      Of course some people will welcome a white man (or woman, if she’s skinny enough) with open arms. The story is, I think, rather different for a black person (from whom I hear a mixed set of reactions, some positive and some awful), or a Vietnamese, or a Filipina/Filipino, or a Japanese-American, or an Indian (like the man who, in my city, was insulted aggressively on a bus — called dirty and threatened in front of a Korean woman, and who sued and, somehow, won his defamation case. That he won suggests the court was not racist; but he didn’t sue the first time it happened. Such things are a constant, neverending occurrence, and for a while I took to carrying pepperspray and a self-defense shocker gizmo, after several strange (drunk) Korean men attempted to assault me in the space of a month or two.

      The difficulty of talking about this is that there is one’s in-group — where Koreans can be extremely welcoming and considerate and friendly — but also the out-group. Koreans take for granted the kind of rudeness and inconsiderate behaviour that happens between strangers here. Race adds a dimension to that inconsideration and rudeness that most of them don’t imagine exists until they see it for themselves… like my partner’s friend who was shocked when, as she walked with us and a white male friend of mine, an old man called her a “Whore.” Not because of her clothing — she was dressed like a schoolteacher. Not for holding hands with him — they weren’t a couple. Just because she happened to be in the presence of a non-Korean man. “Whore.”

      My partner turned and shot her a look that all but said said, “See what I mean?”

  6. I’m not quite sure where the first two paragraphs of your response are coming from, but it is interesting information nonetheless. The point I was trying to make was that groups that are perceived negatively (i.e. African-Americans being thuggish) or to be poor will tend to be treated a bit poorly. It is why I included SE Asia in my example.
    You do bring up something interesting with mentioning multiculturalism especially since, as you probably know, kids are taught English in schools and hagwons. Koreans are no less capable of respecting other cultures than anyone else, but I guess the fact that it is other people being in Korea rather than Koreans being elsewhere that makes it slightly different. I also agree with the fact that when it comes to touting globalization in Korea, there still needs to be more action done to support it. I take comfort in the fact that when I’ve read news articles, there appear to be just as many people who condemn discrimination as in one in the U.S. (the distribution of intelligent comments to bigots and trolls and spam is all the same anywhere I imagine) Also, I think there is some truth in the idea that younger people are less close-minded since they are growing up in a more global environment compared to their parents. It took a mix of time, fair number in population, exposure to the other group and sometimes serious incidents to get other countries to overcome prejudices (and even now no one’s perfect) and Korea will have to follow the same path. Also, the increasing pressure of globalization, while in some senses good, will be quite stressful if they’re not allowed to make changes at their own pace. Just because they don’t have the history that countries like the U.S. does, doesn’t mean they are behind.

  7. June,

    I have written a response to your comment, but it’s really long and I’d like to edit it. But that will take a little time, so I’ll get back to this soon.

  8. Nah. Some of it is disagreement, some of it unpacking the reasons for my reaction above, some of it agreement. Just, it came out so long that I wanted to reread and condense it before posting.

    I can’t remember who it was that said, “I’m sorry to write such a long letter, I don’t have time to write a shorter one.” (I think it may have be Pascal.)

  9. June,

    Well, I wrote a long response, but one that is just far too long and bombard-like to post here. I’m thinking of working it into a couple fo different posts, as I think I had a useful/interesting realization while working through answering the question implicit here:

    I’m not quite sure where the first two paragraphs of your response are coming from, but it is interesting information nonetheless.

    I’ll save that for another time. Hopefully you’ll notice it when it does go up, as I think the expat-psychology of it might interest you.

    The point I was trying to make was that groups that are perceived negatively (i.e. African-Americans being thuggish) or to be poor will tend to be treated a bit poorly. It is why I included SE Asia in my example.

    Well, yes, and it’s elementary to say that negative perceptions and poor treatment go hand in hand. It’s a bit more complex than that, though: in Korea even privileged groups (white Westerners, for example) will meet denigration under certain circumstances; and the coupling of race with class or other elements — isn’t that on the most basic level racism? Beyond being seen as thuggish, a black man in Korea is sometimes (often?) assumed to be ignorant, unable to speak “proper” English, and so on; this is one reason people of African descent are not even welcome for interviews for a lot of positions in English-teaching… and not just because the institution is racist, but because enough of the parents paying the bills for classes will object to black teachers.

    Class plays into it, but not in a simple or direct way. Class factors in as part of (but the only factor in) a weird kind of meta-nationalistic hierarchy — after all, everything in Korea works in terms of hierarchies. Africa and Southeast Asia are poor, so people understood as linked to those places are lower on the ladder. White folks are from America and Europe (in Koreans’ thinking) so they are up high on the ladder. Korea’s own understanding of its own position on that ladder explains a great deal of Korea’s anxieties about development, identity, cultural change, and the denigration of those “lower down on the ladder” (since, by the economic terms broadly held as the bottom line in Korea today) Korea was basically at the bottom of the ladder a couple of generations ago.

    You do bring up something interesting with mentioning multiculturalism especially since, as you probably know, kids are taught English in schools and hagwons.

    Ha, well, but multiculturalism here is really a misnomer. Koreans talk about it a lot, but nobody’s pointed out the obvious: that they’re actually talking about Korea becoming multiracial. The more you know about how the government and Koreans in general are handling that change, the more you see nobody has a clear vision or model of what a multicultural Korea would look like. (Beyond teaching mail-order brides how to speak Korean better and cook Korean food and understand Korean holidays.) Koreans in general assume multiculturalism to mean different colored people will start “acting Korean”: they haven’t even discovered (let alone learning to appreciate) the vast diversity that already exists among Koreans themselves, let alone imagining a wide diversity being effected by the cultural shifts brought about by a more racially and culturally diverse society. You can think the homogeneity propaganda of the Park dictatorship for that.

    Koreans are no less capable of respecting other cultures than anyone else, but I guess the fact that it is other people being in Korea rather than Koreans being elsewhere that makes it slightly different.

    Well, think the generalization that begins this sentence is so broad as to be meaningless. It’s not like there’s an intolerance gene (or, if there is, it’s doubtful that it would be distributed in purely racial terms). But one can say that about any population: head hunters who engaged in brutally violent inter-group murder; the Europeans who lived at the height of the Age of Empires; the Southern US landowners who used slaves as their workers; Europeans in 1935. In each case, there were factors that mitigated against their natural “ability” to “respect other cultures” as much as anyone else.

    So it is in Korea. It’s not just the influx of outsiders: there are specific doctrines, especially those promulgated by the Park dictatorship (and to some degree still dominant in popular discourses about history, identity, and so on) that impede this natural ability. There is also some degree of unfamiliarity, but that is fast becoming an untenable excuse as non-Koreans become more and more visible. But a third, and very important factor, is the social dynamic of public behaviour in Korea society, which is this: nice, good, and decent people — the progressives, basically — tend very much to be nonconfrontational, to keep their opinions to themselves, to avoid public conflict, and to be “polite”; the conservatives and anti-progressives, on the other hand, tend to understand this tendency and tend to also realize that it allows them to be assholes with impunity. This means when bigots spout hate — as they often do in public here — the progressives usually just keep quiet. One gets the feeling that progressive Koreans spend their social lives “in hiding” (and sometimes, in quiet desperation); most of the passionate progressives I know here have a very negative view of Korea’s prospects for change, and either have left for good, or are planning to leave for good. Most of them (usually women, sometimes men) say they would never, ever have a child in Korea, as the education system is too destructive; but they don’t fight to demand a change. They quietly give up.

    That’s not universally true, but I find it broadly to be so. There are probably cultural reasons for this, including those rooted in shamanism (such as construing every conflict as a “misunderstanding”) and Confucianism (the constant impunity of elders, the fetishizing of social “harmony” at the cost of working through social disagreements). But whatever the causes, one gets the sense progressives are hiding here. And in some sense, that makes it feel, in practical terms, as if there are no progressives here, challenging the conservatives to change.

    While I’ve argued, as you do, that it’s a mistaken teleology to describe Korea as “behind” — as if cultural change and development necessarily follows a single path — you should also realize that most Korean progressives use words like “behind” and “backwards” and seem to take for granted this sense of Korea as an “immature” or “under-developed” country in the social/cultural sense. And so do most of the exchange students I’ve met from neighboring East Asian countries (China, Taiwan, Japan, Far Eastern Russia, the Philippines, Thailand), many of whom also feel like Korea might be light years ahead of their societies in terms of a few things (technology, pop culture) but lagging behind in terms of human rights, discrimination, racism, sexism, and so on.

    also agree with the fact that when it comes to touting globalization in Korea, there still needs to be more action done to support it. I take comfort in the fact that when I’ve read news articles, there appear to be just as many people who condemn discrimination as in one in the U.S. (the distribution of intelligent comments to bigots and trolls and spam is all the same anywhere I imagine)

    Also, I think there is some truth in the idea that younger people are less close-minded since they are growing up in a more global environment compared to their parents. It took a mix of time, fair number in population, exposure to the other group and sometimes serious incidents to get other countries to overcome prejudices (and even now no one’s perfect) and Korea will have to follow the same path.

    I think you might be surprised at just how badly education has affected this. My experience is that young people are willing to listen, and to think again, about these issues if an authority figure (a teacher or professor) talks about it with them in a non-confrontational sense. But absent of that — and really, in my experience, most students’ lives are absent of that; the one Korean professor I know who does discuss it almost inevitably highlights problems of racism and Asian victimhood in America, and never, ever seems to link it back to the consideration of racism in Korea — a lot of people seem never to examine the issue.

    Part of that, undoubtedly, is linked to a lack of encouragement to reflect and consider issues. (When you spend the first 12 years of your education memorizing and regurgitating, your critical thinking skills never develop much.) Then there’s the question of empathy, which I think is also, fundamentally, linked to imagination and critical thinking; Korean end up reading literature that focuses on homogenized visions of Korea and Korean people — and not imagining what it is like to be an outcast, different, an outsider. No To Kill a Mockingbird, no Catcher in the Rye: Korean literature, sometimes, feels a little like reading Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game: there’s a hero who is a victim, who never does anything evil knowingly, and all his actions are forced on him. Doubtless the literary lack of agency has affected progressives; but doubtless also the whole aesthetics of K-Lit has affected the way people approach the question of how to figure out why someone is offended by something. It’s a misunderstanding, one is told immediately. Don’t be angry. That’s not racist. But when you simply describe the reverse of the situation — “How would you feel if white or black performers painted themselves with yellowface, taped their eyes to look ‘more Asian’ and ate hot dogs, with little doggie tails and legs sticking out of the bun?” And suddenly, they get it. They can’t seem to get there by empathizing with someone of another race: it turns on reversing things so that, if you this were done to Koreans, how would you feel about it? (It’s also evident in discussions of sexism, which is even more tiring since the stupid, men-are-victims trope of women having all the power has made it over here and even some young women spout it from time to time.)

    Also, the increasing pressure of globalization, while in some senses good, will be quite stressful if they’re not allowed to make changes at their own pace.

    Well, but my sense is that Korea will need to deal with it quick. Korea’s pace of social change is ALWAYS faster than anyone else. It may also be that cultural change is fast, but there are certainly points of resistance.

    In the end, I’m less concerned about the folks on the street than I am about intellectuals and academics (because average folks everywhere tend to be less enlightened about this stuff than the better-educated). Sadly, my experience has been that the more educated someone is in Korea, the more jingoism and weird bigotry you encounter. Part of it is weird because it’s wrapped up in this strange self-defensive, nationalistic reaction. It makes it hard to talk about a social problem when your interlocutor is busy trying to dismiss the problem because they see talking about it as an attack on everything they love and believe in. Or else, if they’re true progressives, they are willing to talk about it with you in private, but it rarely goes beyond that…

    … with one exception: online. Because online responses cost one much less, socially. Progressives are active there… but I am sad to say I don’t think it will do much good till they are also willing to pay the price for fighting for social change in real life.

    (And of course, not just culture but also things like non-enforcement of workplace standards and the illiberality of Korean democracy inhibit that: some progressives would maybe like to do more, except people work ridiculously long days here, and tend to fear government reprisals for public actions.)

    And yeah, that’s the condensed version. I’m posting this, with an apology that I don’t have time to write something shorter…

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