Friday, April 20, 2007

Virginia Tech: Shame vs. Guilt

Korean Fears, American Reassurances
(Image from Korea Times, 04-19-2007)

The Korea Times, in an article "Americans Show Understanding Over Koreans' Backlash Worry" (April 19, 2007), reports:
Koreans and Americans appear to have different views on the causes of the Virginia shooting spree as the Korean fear of backlash was overcome by an American outpouring of compassion and help.

Koreans, especially those living in America, are still fearful that the recent Virginia Tech tragedy would spawn an anti-Korean backlash but Americans in general have extended their hand of support to Koreans, claiming that this incident had nothing to do with race.

Rather, they say, it was the case of a deeply troubled young man.
The article does not say what Koreans think about "the causes of the Virginia shooting spree," so I assume that what is meant not "different views on the causes of the Virginia shooting spree" but "different concerns about the Virginia shooting spree."

Fortunately, the American reaction so far has generally been supportive of Koreans in America. For the most part, Americans have viewed Cho Seung-hui's actions as those of a profoundly disturbed individual, not specifically as a Korean.

Probably, Koreans also think that Cho was simply insane. Nevertheless, they feel great shame over his actions, as is consistent with the degree to which South Korea is still a "shame culture." They thus also worry about Americans blaming all Koreans. My own students here at Kyung Hee University inquired about this two days ago, as I noted in one of my own comments to my initial blog entry on this Virginia Tech issue:
My students asked me if Americans would "hate Koreans" after this.

I said that I thought that most Americans would see this as yet another very American pattern of "insane loner with guns." I pointed out that this sort of thing happens every few years in the U.S. and that we know the pattern by now.
One of my readers, JK, suggested, "Assure your students that the focus is not on hating neither is most feeling directed; at. The greater feelings here are directed; for." I replied:
JK, I think that you said it fine, and I will pass along your message. My students will be glad to hear that Americans, of all groups, direct not hatred at [Koreans] but sympathy for [them].

We can't exclude the possibility of some disturbed individuals expressing hateful actions, of course, but such actions would be broadly and roundly condemned by nearly everyone . . . I think, hope, and believe.
And I do think that most Americans will focus upon the individual Cho Seung-hui rather than Koreans in general, for America, characterized by a "guilt culture," looks more to individual responsibility and blames Cho but not Koreans generally.

May this continue to be the case.

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At 8:32 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

I assume that what is meant not "different views on the causes of the Virginia shooting spree" but "different concerns about the Virginia shooting spree."

I hope you are right. Otherwise, I would be very interested in what these (interviewed?) Koreans think the causes might be.

BTW, I think Lee Dong-hun is in the wrong line of work. He should be studying to be a diplomat:

``Why does a Korean diplomat bring up the issue of race in a tragic incident that left more than 30 people killed? That is a totally new level of stupidity,’’ said Lee Dong-hun, a 30-year-old Korean law student in Boston.

``The Korean government should pay its condolences to the victims at Virginia Tech as other countries did, not an apology. People like Ambassador Lee might give a very wrong idea to Americans that Koreans only care about protecting their own ethnic group and less about the senseless crime that left so many young lives dead, which is so far from the truth,’’ he said.

At 8:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

CIV, my impression is that Koreans think that Cho was insane.

Mr. Lee Dong-hun is right about Koreans not needing to apologize, of course, but cultural responses are hard to alter. Koreans do see the world in terms of ethnicity and nationalism, so they assume that others see the world this way as well -- much as we Americans assume that others see the world as we do, namely, as made up of individuals.

We therefor seek explanations in terms of the individual's personal history, but Koreans don't assume that we will.

Off to class now...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Hodges


The American kindly assisted the fearful Korean-student to not fear. Like a kindly father - he placed his arm over the worried Korean-student's shoulder -- and gently guided his primitive tribal ignorance to a more enlightened Western perspective: "The murderer was crazy ... you see. A loner, loser, and a nutcase."

The Korean, already growing resentful over the heavy paternalistic arm on his shoulder, and foreign smelling armpit in his face thinks: "Hey ... Cho Seung Hui was one of us. Who are you calling crazy, a loser, and a nutcase?" Images of ripping an American flag flashes through his brain. Yet he holds his peace since he is outnumbered by too many Yankees on campus.

Since the Korean also wants to finish his semester at V.Tech, he will follow the script: " You mean you don't want to hurt us?" The Korean actually manages to produce a watery glimmer in his eye.

The American smiles big ... his own eyes strangely glassy and benevolent reminding the Korean of housewives seen in the audience of the Oprah Winfrey TV show ... the moment after Oprah walks on stage.

"Of, Course not." says the American. He gives a good hearted laugh,and pats the Korean on the back. "That Korean guy was just an individual who lost it... a real anti-social loser."

The Korean student smashes his fist into the American's face.

"Who are you calling a loser?" screams the Korean.

At 5:30 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, your scenario is -- I suppose -- intended as humorous satire -- but I don't see Americans or Koreans reacting in remotely the way that your fictional short story depicts, so I don't see the point of your satire.

For the present, I'll leave your 'creative' writing posted as an illustration of what I reject, but I don't want to see any further bashing of Koreans or of anybody else on my blog.

I reserve my right to act as editor and to not publish any comment of which I disapprove.

In short, no more of this on my blog. I'll delete it. If you want to publish such material, you are free to start your own blog and freely express yourself there.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous' posting is offensive not only because of its mocking anti-Korean tone, but because of its bias against the mentally ill. Cho had documented clinical signs of mental illness. People with mental illnesses deserve our compassion and understanding. What Cho did was awful, but it appears very much that his mind was physiologically ill.

At 3:42 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Sonagi, for your comment. I haven't quite placed Anonymous's motives yet. He may indeed have been mocking the mentally ill.

Ostensibly, our friend Anonymous was reacting to the cartoon that I borrowed from The Korea Times. At least, that's the only motivation that I can find for the scenario presented in the short story.

There's also an apparent intention of satirizing my point about the distinction between a shame and a guilt culture. The expressions "primitive tribal ignorance," "enlightened Western perspective," and "heavy paternalistic arm" all suggest this.

I receive the occasional anonymous comment criticing things that I write, characterizing them as postcolonialist paternalism rather than as an attempt to make sense of differences.

You should see -- if you haven't -- the attacks on The Metropolitician by those who call his posts postcolonialist white-boy rantings against Koreans. They never bother to read enough to discover that he's half Korean, half African-American, that he studies anthropology, and that he knows a lot more about the substance of Critical Theory than they do. And he doesn't need their advice.

I don't know if that's what the current 'creative' Anonymous is up to, but some of the expressions seem to point in that direction.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:30 AM, Blogger Stephen C. Carlson said...

Thanks for the insights on shame and guilt cultures.

I live in Northern Virginia, not far from where Cho grew up, and I know many people who graduated from Virginia Tech (including my wife).

There's a very large Korean community here, and most people around here know so many Koreans (both immigrant and American born) from school, business, and church that we know that Cho is in no way typical of Koreans, or their culture, or their admirable values.

If anything, Cho's following the pattern of the "insane loner with guns" (which you pointed out) shows just how Americanized, unfortunately, he had become.

At 5:51 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Stephen, for the visit and remarks.

I agree, Cho's actions so clearly fit a type that we've become so very familiar with in America.

I've seen little that is specifically Korean about Cho's actions, and I don't think that we'll be seeing any backlash of the large-scale sort feared by Koreans, though we may see misguided individuals taking violent action.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:23 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

Jeffery, beyond the shame/guilt distinction, do you think that any of the reaction in Korea might be the result of a homogenous society not entirely understanding how a heterogenous society might react to something like this? I'll admit, I was surprised and saddened to hear some people suggest that there might be any sort of backlash against Koreans. Granted, I grew up in the very diverse Northeast, but except for complaints against Korean store owners in some predominantly black urban neighborhoods, I can't think of any event or occasion when anyone in the U.S. had problems with Korean-Americans as a group.

At 2:52 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jeff, Korean homogeneity is part of the reason.

Another reason -- I hesitate to say -- is projection. Koreans know how they would react if a foreigner were to go nuts and shoot 32 Koreans. For whatever reasons, many Koreans do react collectively. They consider a collective reaction normal and are, I think, surprised that Americans aren't reacting collectively -- except in mourning.

I'm not being merely academic on this point. In 2002, an American tank accidentally ran over two high school girls, and for weeks and weeks, there were powerful emotions of anger directed at anyone who looked American, mass protests at the U.S. Embassy, incessant student rallies to condemn America, and repeated strains of the favorite pop song in Korea at the time, "F***ing America" ... but without the asterisks.

That's the sort of thing that Koreans expect in response to such a tragedy.

Now, of course, there are differences in the two cases. There's a lot of anti-Americanism here in Korea due to the U.S. military presence, due to the division of Korea, which is partly blamed on the U.S., due to the strength of leftist ideology, and due to other such things, so all of these surely played a significant role, especially since much of the anger was directed toward driving the U.S. military out of the country.


Anyway, I note these points not because I want anyone to start bashing Korea or Koreans. I'm just trying to be clear about patterns and differences. These can be discussed calmly, I hope.

At any rate, I like Korea and Koreans, and that's a good thing since my career trajectory indicates that I'm in for a long stay here...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:58 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...

I think that anonymous' central point is that the potential for misunderstanding between our cultures is easy to underestimate. I am puzzled myself by the cartoon from Korea Times which you displayed with the headline. I find it embarrassing. And it is worrisome that Koreans understand us so poorly. Maybe, as you say, it is projection, but that thought is not comforting either.

My perception of Koreans derives partially from their strong alliance with the US. Their participation in Vietnam earned them a great deal of respect from our servicemen. In Philadelphia Koreans have a successful Christian subculture. I can't remember reading anything negative about them, although a few people do seem to resent their success. My overall impression is of a law-abiding society with insular tendencies, comparable perhaps to the Jewish subculture. Some racism is evident in their hiring practices.

The normal closed nature of Korean society here made me suspect that the VT perpetrator was damaged somehow by being forced to integrate at a sensitive age. I myself had to move at the age of 8 and it was very difficult in many ways. I didn't have to learn a new language. On the other hand, the fact that people don't like you does not necessarily imply that they are bad people. Nobody liked this guy for very good reasons. Everybody understood that his problem had nothing to do with being Korean.

People naturally have strong collective responses to events seen as emanating from hostile forces. Since we all know Muslims, it was hard for us to see them as a hostile force after 9/11. Since we all know Koreans, we're not likely to blame them for the actions of an oddball.

I don't know if we can blame it on American culture though. Does this sort of thing never happen in Korea? The murder of a mayor in Japan strikes me as no different from things that happen here. Some places, especially homogenous cultures, are more peaceful in general, and the people may have less access to and money to pay for weapons.

At 5:16 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JJ, my problem with the 'creative' post by Anonymous was its mocking tone.

If it's satire, for instance, then toward whom is the satire directed? Who is being satirized by expressions such as "primitive tribal ignorance," "enlightened Western perspective," and "heavy paternalistic arm"? Koreans? Americans? Me? All three? And why the satire anyway? It just seems inappropriate in the midst of such a tragedy.

As for violence in Korean society, there's actually quite a lot, but since guns are more difficult to obtain here in South Korea, then the violence takes other forms (e.g., beatings, stabbings, burnings, etc.). Still, living in Korea is generally safer than living in the U.S.

As for specifically this sort of thing happening in Korea, check out the case of Woo Bum-kon, who killed 58 persons (including himself) on a murderous rampage here in Korea in 1982. You can find the story on Wikipedia.

Nevertheless, Seung-Hui Cho would likely have been rather Americanized after 15 years in the States, and he does fit a type with which we're familiar.

That doesn't mean that his Koreanness played no role, but we won't know that part until much further along in the ongoing investigation. Everybody has a story, including Cho.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:26 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...

According to today's Philadelphia Inquirer, the Korean aunt of Seung-Hui Cho believed he had mental problems as a child. He didn't talk. She was happy for him when his family moved to America because she believe the open society in America would be good for him and encourage him to participate more. So, if she's not retro-fitting her impression, it seems more likely that whatever the problem was, he brought it with him.

Being good Americans, we always search our own consciences first. We look for ways to prevent future occurrences. We examine the forces of society that might be modified. I think this self-critical impulse is a very good thing, but sometimes outsiders believe us too readily when we blame ourselves.

Nature vs. Nurture. I'm gonna go with Nature on this one.

At 11:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JJ, I agree that nature has much to do with this one, and that's part of what I was getting at in my original remark about this recent tragedy being a very American one of "insane loner with guns," a scenario with which we're very familiar in the States.

Nature supplies the insanity; America supplies the guns.

That's an oversimplification, but it gets at a basic truth about what happened.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The metric for self-worth in Korea is status ... usually signified by money and position. Most Koreans have no conviction of an after-life: the idea of deferring one's worldly gratification for an otherworldly hope -- is deemed utter nonsense. Korean Kristians jocky for position, pushing each other aside for the limited tits of God laid out before them... desperately extracting worldly blessing. A Korean either gets it NOW -- or becomes a loser for eternity. The reason why Korean Kristians offer the world's most passionate prayer.

God through nature did not bestow Cho the needed gifts to be an American WINNER. By default he sunk into a personal fantasy world -- for relief. Within this insular world ... the voices found one more vulnerable Korean boy ... and spoke flatteries to sooth his pain: "You will be as a god."

Cho became a god ... and tread the grapes of wrath. He binged on human blood. We should not feel sorry for him. In his self-deification he became evil. Every one of us ... is Cho in some degree. For those who create a personal fantasy world -- such as fancying oneself a gypsy scholar --
we live in self-gratifying delusions that subtly harm our neigbor.

Mr. Hodge ... you are a religious man. Tell us -- What is the answer to this dillemma?

At 6:48 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, I will grant that materialism is a problem in Korea, as is status-seeking, hierarchical thinking, and a lot of other problematic things.

However, you presume to know a lot about Cho's thoughts, more than I think is possible to know.

As for your insulting words about me and my "personal fantasy world" as a "gypsy scholar," I'll not respond further than to note that they are insulting and have no place on my blog. I do not allow ad hominem attacks and will delete further comments from you that are insulting.

Incidentally, my family name is "Hodges."

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My apologies Mr. Hodges. I can see "face" is not merely an Asian thing. I will be gentle.

Yes, despite your incapacity as a mind reader, I think you can generalize about the human condition.

I ask you two questions: Did Cho descend into the realm of the demonic? What is the hope of mankind? You are a gentleman scholar: feed us with truth ... as you know it.

What must we do to be saved?

At 9:21 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, about your remark:

"My apologies Mr. Hodges. I can see "face" is not merely an Asian thing. I will be gentle."

Face has nothing to do with this. I simply don't allow insults on my blog. Keep your comments courteous, and you'll encounter no problems. You have managed to maintain a modicum of civility in your most recent comment, though only marginally so.

As for your first question, I reply that I think that Cho was insane. What drove him insane, I do not know, but I am sure that we will be hearing a lot about this in the future.

As for your second question, my answer could plausibly be inferred from the nature of my blog and its interests, but this blog is not intended as a space for proselytizing, so I prefer not to reply directly.

And I will add that if you intend to post further comments, you should adopt a name or initials to keep your comments distinct from other anonymous individuals who post from time to time.

Jeffery Hodges

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