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Missing the point

“South Korea is a culture that prizes obeying your superiors,” CNN correspondent Kyung Lah stated in her coverage of the now capsized South Korean ferry.

More than 450 passengers, many of them teenage students on a high school field trip, were aboard a ferry when it tipped over and began to sink off the South Korean coast on Wednesday, April 16, 2014. According to reports, the ferry’s captain Lee Joon-seok ordered passengers to remain seated for their own safety. Many of the passengers who complied are now trapped underwater.

Amid the media frenzy surrounding the disaster and the controversy of the captain’s actions, Lah points out a supposed cultural idiosyncrasy to explain why students heeded orders to stay put instead of attempting to escape the sinking vessel. In doing so, she inadvertently makes it seem as though victims are at fault for obeying misguided instructions and that a hierarchical culture vis-à-vis Confucianism is to blame for their erroneous judgment.

However, a tragedy such as this one cannot be boiled down to explanations of cultural behavior. Looking to authority figures for guidance in times of danger is not a stereotypically “South Korean” act — it is what most people would do. Regardless of upbringing or background, it is natural for people to trust that those in positions of authority or expertise have a better grasp of an uncertain situation, such as when students here at Princeton remained indoors and looked to Princeton Alert updates for the all-clear after reports of gunshots at Nassau Hall surfaced. Passengers justly believed that the captain and his crew understood proper emergency protocol and knew what was best. The tragedy lies in the miscalculated order itself, not in the act of heeding it.

The multifaceted tragedy of the Sewol ferry’s sinking is not yet completely understood, nor will it ever be. New developments in investigations continue to surface even as the rescue operation continues on in the face of disastrous weather and horrible water conditions. To reach for something as indeterminate and elusive as culture to explain what is a very real and hurtful — and ongoing — tragedy is poor reporting on Lah’s part.

Though some would choose to target Lah’s personal background as a South Korean when evaluating her coverage of the accident, I would rather focus on her identity as a representative of American press covering a foreign event. When addressing a tragedy that has occurred in another country, it is all too easy for U.S. national media to strip the story down to more palatable elements for the sake of their viewers. It is easier to say, “This is how things are over there,” than to spend precious on-air time explaining the details of a particular event. The story becomes more sensational when one can make a sweeping statement about a country’s culture that gives an all-too-easy explanation for how such a disaster could have come to be.

This is not to say that there is no merit in studying culture or that cultural differences do not exist. But there are ways to study culture that account for its vast complexities. For example, the East Asian Studies Department at the University strives to move away from the Orientalist tendency to essentialize and arbitrarily categorize what Edward Said calls the “other” in his book Orientalism, instead encouraging students to explore holistically “the culture, history, societies, politics and languages of East Asia (China, Japan and Korea).” However, it is disrespectful and unfair to the victims of this tragedy to use an over-generalized point-blank statement to explain the decision made by people in extreme and devastating circumstances.

In the end, however, what matters most — in fact, the only thing that truly matters — is that there may still be potential survivors trapped in air pockets underwater, that families are waiting desperately to be reunited with their loved ones and that as world citizens, we must support them and those working tirelessly in search-and-rescue operations. The rest — understanding what happened and why — can, and should, wait.

Jiyoon Kim is a freshman from Tokyo, Japan. She can be reached at ljkim@princeton.edu.

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