Ask Joshing Gnome for Friday, June 13, 2008

Gord Sellar of the excellent asks:

A question, Joe: what do you think it is in Korean culture that makes people say things that are manifestly being demonstrated not to be true? (Like saying your brother-in-law can’t eat fish, while he is eating fish?) This puzzles me to no end.

Dear Gord,

That is a good question, and I am glad that you came to a certified BS artist for an answer, which I shall know pull out of the air.

You see, Gord, Korean culture requires one to take more articles of faith than the Church of Latter Day Saints.  Koreans learn from a young age that, while their elders may not know everything, it’s best to let them figure that out for themselves.  Korea’s history must be accepted as a static set of facts, and any challenge to these received truths is to be violently rejected.  This outlook on life places a premium on what should be true rather than what is actually true.  That is why, say, people can violently protest against diseases that don’t exist, believe in fan death despite repeated evidence to the contrary, etc.  I  rather suggest that it would be more difficult for a person raised on a steady diet of magical thinking to look at a situation and see it as it is than to simply pull a piece of received knowledge out of the file cabinet of their mind and try to shoehorn it into the situation as best as one can.

That said, it’s not exclusively Koreans who do so.  How many times have you heard North Americans in Korea repeatedly pull out one of the classic NorAm received facts every time they see two drunk Korean men holding hands and go ‘Woah, gay guys!’  No matter how many times you explain that not everyone in the world is so homofocal as we, they’ll persist in saying things like ‘Naw, there’s definitely some latent homosexuality going on there.’

Lazy thinking from lazy minds.

I hope that answered your question, Gord.  Keep up the great work on your site.


~ by Joshing on June 13, 2008.

11 Responses to “Ask Joshing Gnome for Friday, June 13, 2008”

  1. Gord Sellar and Joe Mondello contributing to a single post? Holy cow! A K-blog Teamup to rival Spiderman and Wolverine! (Hope you don’t mind: I’m gonna link to this.)

  2. Well, as the (apparently, from the banner photo above) hairier of the two of us, I hope I get to be Wolverine! Oooh! Slash, tear! Roar!

    That’s an excellent answer to my question, so thank you. I think you’re saying in your inimitable way what I usually phrase as, “A lack of consequences for not making reality checks.” While North Americans do it too, they’re likely to get called on it or even mocked to their faces for contradicting evidence that’s right in front of them. (People who work in the White House excepted.) Most Koreans prefer not to contradict their elders, at least not explicitly, but I’ve seen it among peers in classrooms, too, so I suspect the avoidance of confrontation for the sake of “harmony” is maybe also a part of it.

    The LDS analogy, though, is priceless.

    By the way, though I think we agree about the above, I’m not sure I agree about the whole “homofocality” thing being the whole picture.

    I don’t go to swimming pools or jimjilbangs in Bucheon much — I don’t go out too much at all, actually — but I have some stories that are, well… very odd. Mostly involving occasional ajeoshis with a very pronounced interest in Western men’s genitals, my own unfortunately included.

    But holding hands? Most of the North Americans I know get over that after the first few months of quips about widespread lesbianism.(Personally, I’ve only rarely seen guys holding hands here anyway. Much less than I saw in, say, India.) What I have seen here, though, that makes me wonder sometimes, is adult men, drunk, goofing off by trying to grab one anothers’ genitalia. I wouldn’t say, “Aha! They’re gay!” but I don’t think this is strictly a case of Western homofocality either.

    Makes me think of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and of a very interesting interview with a gay Filipino office worker I read a few years ago. (Who claimed from his experience that it is much easier to seduce self-described “straight” Korean men than their Western counterparts.)

    But this is not an area I know much about at all. Except from, you know, fending off the prying hands of ajeoshis in dimly-lit countryside jazz clubs and swimming pool shower rooms.


  3. I’m not saying there’s no latent homosexuality in Korea: The number of sexual abuse cases that happen in the army here puts the lie to that. What I’m saying is there are plenty of us who can’t think of physical contact between two human beings in non-sexual terms, and that is essentially the opposite of thinking.

  4. It’s not only LDS that strains credulity. All religions do to an extent, and the monotheistic ones are particularly imaginative. While teaching a unit on world religions at an international school in China, I invited my all-Asian class of ESL students to bring to school religious objects to share with the class. One Korean Catholic boy brought a crucifix. You should have seen the look on a Chinese girl’s face. She was horrified to see the hanging corpse as a decorative object. It’s miraculous that Christianity and Islam have become dominant world religions when one considers what they require believers to believe. I chuckle whenever Western Christians mock Koreans for believing in fan death. The key difference between the belief in fan death and the belief in the trinity, the divinity of Jesus, and salvation through death and resurrection is the numbers of believers.

  5. Since the LDS reference has drawn so much attention, I may as well mention that I chose it because of the three lists of articles of faith on Wikipedia, theirs was the funniest.
    I will disagree with you on one point, though, Sonagi. The main difference between fan death and the things you mentioned is that fan death is both testable and debunked. Religions, smart ones, anyway, usually limit their articles of faith to things that can’t be disproven.

  6. Joe,

    Well said. I’m probably just more interested in whether the homofocality actually does translate to more rigid sexual identity or not, but how the hell would one test it, and that is a radically different point from just saying that men holding hands=latent homosexuality. (Any more than, say, the social acceptability of men being naked in the same public bathing pool = latent homosexuality, a claim for which I nearly clubbed my very homofocal brother-in-law, as it was getting a bit much with him mimicking porno soundtrack music at the mention of a public bath.)


    I don’t know, I’m an atheist, but I don’t think all religious beliefs are equally bizarre. I think there are some which are bizarre enough they just don’t (or, well, wouldn’t, were they to be proposed) catch on, and that the reason why lies in what are essentially glitches in the basic systems of cognition we’ve evolved. Excellent book on the subject: Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained

    But honestly, I’ve heard some magic underwear stories from deconverted LDSers, and I find their beliefs much weirder than (equally untenable) dogmas — official and otherwise — that I was raised to observe while growing up Catholic.

    But yes, fan death would be the most unfalsifiable of all. The problem is that convincing someone to falsify it is so hard, given what they perceive to be the costs. (And sleeping with the air con and fan on while holidaying in a tropical country seems to be unobjectionable, at the same time, so how it all differentiates is a mystery to me.)

  7. Gah, I mean “the most falsifiable of all,” not the opposite. Argh!

  8. […] a question."- Brian in Cheolla-do has now come under attack from Korean netizens. – Explaining why Koreans believe things that are certifiably not true. – Are there too many foreign lingerie models in Korea?  – Double […]

  9. The main difference between fan death and the things you mentioned is that fan death is both testable and debunked. Religions, smart ones, anyway, usually limit their articles of faith to things that can’t be disproven.


    I’m an atheist, but I don’t think all religious beliefs are equally bizarre.

    Agreed. Some religions have more convoluted doctrine than others. That is why I wrote in my previous comment, “All religions strain credulity to some extent, and the monotheistic religions are particularly imaginative.” I am an agnostic (genuinely believe the existence of a higher power cannot be proven or disproven, hence, I am doubtful but leave open the possibility I might be wrong) who follows Buddhism but doesn’t accept some of its major tenets like reincarnation.

    But honestly, I’ve heard some magic underwear stories from deconverted LDSers, and I find their beliefs much weirder than (equally untenable) dogmas — official and otherwise — that I was raised to observe while growing up Catholic.

    And how is magic underwear more bizarre than eating Christ’s body and drinking Christ’s blood or wearing a scapular as a “go directly to Heaven” pass? I was raised Catholic, too, BTW. The homes of my mother and extended family members are filled with icons. I couldn’t throw a stone in any direction without hitting a statue of Mary or a painting of the sacred heart of Jesus. Curious to know if your parents know you are atheist and how they reacted. Mom didn’t take the news of my disbelief in Jesus too well and told Grandma, who didn’t take the news too well, either.

  10. […] Ask Joshing Gnome for Friday, June 13, 2008 […]

  11. Sonagi,

    Well, the Catholicism I was raised in was less icon-filled, I think. I’ve never even known someone who wore a scapular, at least as far as I was aware. In other words, the Catholicism I was raised in was so abstracted and modernized that one has the feeling you’d have to just be a stick-in-the-mud to contest its validity.

    The idea of God was tenable because you could never prove or disprove it. The idea of miracles was, with the exception of some weird priests I knew in the 80s who were obsessed with (ie. every sermon was about) Medjugorje, pretty much dismissed as something that had happened back in the old days, but not now, except in the Hallmark sense of babies being born whole. Yes, the host was the body and blood of Christ, which was probably the wedge for me, because it was something I could see as manifestly untrue, and any talk about the essence being transformed struck me as wholly fantastical. (After you meet a few people who hear voices or see things that aren’t there, it lends a whole new dimension to how nutty religious dogmas sound.

    But I hold fast with the argument that some esoteric claim about the “invisible essence” of something being transformed is still in a wholly different class of claims than, “This underwear is magical and can save your life.”

    Though in defense of the magic underwear people, I’ll add that one ex-Mormon I know said that the “magic” stuff is folk religion, not really doctrine, and that the real significance of the underwear is promises one has made. Still seems weird to me, but no more weird than other articles of clothing in other cultures. (Like the decorated penis-sheaths word by some New Guinean groups, if I’m remembering my Jared Diamond correctly.)

    As for my family’s reaction, it’s interesting: my father was a non-practicing Presbyterian, and my mother was a lifelong French-Canadian Catholic in what I think was the very early stages of lapse. She’s since declared the Vatican is an agent of evil in the world and opposes the Church generally; as she’s moved away from the Church, she’s gone to more New Age things — which was also where my father went in the last few years of hid life. I don’t talk about my own beliefs much — my fiancée said the other month, “Aha, there. You’ve called yourself atheist, finally.” I was sure I had before, and I make little secret of my views, except of course on my blog I’m careful since I work in a Catholic institution at the moment.

    But my parents, I think, had long known I had issues with the Church and with religion, and I think they finally just let it be because they knew what kind of person I am, and meanwhile, they themselves were distancing themselves from mainstream Christianity anyway. But my mother retains her Catholic surety in her beliefs. When we still talked about things like the afterlife, or the power of crystals, or healing energy massage or whatever, she always said to me, “Someday you’ll know the truth,” as if atheism is a way of living in denial. I had no living grandparents by the time I’d figured out what I (didn’t) believe, so that was that.

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