Tribalism 2.0

Over the past 6 months – both in the run-up to moving and since arrival – I’ve learned a lot about myself, Korea, and my relationship to it.

The most important source of information was the blog of now-retired UW Green Bay professor Steven Dutch on Science, Pseudoscience, and Religion.  I found it last November while trying to suss out my position on religion, but I found it provided a comprehensive intellectual framework from which to better understanding my beliefs, preferences, and biases – as well as those of Korean society.

It’s a brilliant read and I burned through its entirety in a month (skip his movie reviews, which are the only part that suck).

Most of the posts fall under a handful of categories:

Many posts overlap and show up under more than one category.  But there’s one that stands alone in discussing culture: The Most Toxic Value System in the World.  The post analyzes cultures – commonly occurring in the Balkans and the Middle East – that obsess over the external markers of “honor”:

Honor and “Honor”

We use the word “honor” in two ways. One meaning denotes a set of largely internal attributes: trustworthiness, loyalty, courage and truthfulness. The other denotes an externality, as in the expressions “graduation with honors” or “honorary degree”…

When describing other societies, our failure to distinguish between the two types of honor leads to gross misunderstandings. So far I have always put “honor” in quotes except when referring explicitly to internalized honor. I am convinced that “honor” is a gross mistranslation of words from other languages. While these concepts in other languages may overlap some of the elements of what we term honor, the “honor” mentality just as often impels people in other societies to do things that are grossly dishonorable by our standards…

It’s considered bad form in many circles to criticize another culture’s values. In addition, the social science literature contains a number of rationalizations for the “honor” mentality. One is that every value system makes sense to the people that hold it. Another is that every value system exists for a reason. Well, of course. The problem is that you can make these assertions about any value system whatsoever. Rape and genocide and embezzlement also exist for a reason, and make sense to people who think a certain way. That doesn’t tell us whether the values are morally acceptable or even whether they are beneficial to those who adhere to them…

It’s a fantastic post and I recommend you go ahead and read it in full before continuing.

No really, I’ll wait while you finish reading it.


Now at a glance Korea doesn’t fit the standard profile of these so-called “honor” societies, which tend to have nomadic cultures and are economic wastelands – the poster child being perhaps Afghanistan.  With its high tech and vibrant economy, it has much more in common with Japan’s culture, which he describes as being based on “guilt” (in a good way).

But a crucial difference between Korea and Japan is that the final Joseon dynasty embraced Confucianism as the official government ideology, whereas Japan never fully shed its Shinto (animism) and Buddhist roots.

And if you take a close look at Confucianism, it bears many of the hallmarks of Middle Eastern tribalism, save escalating violence of personal revenge and killing.

My “aha” realization: that Confucianism is precisely the full embrace and formal codification of tribalism minus for the social friction and violence, which it clamped down like a vice.

Looking at Confucianism through this lens explains those aspects of Korea that foreigners both most admire (generosity to peers, low levels of crime and violence) and most abhor (xenophobia, sexism, cultural narcissism and victimhood, obsession with face).

The high levels of educational attainment and economic output – the most obvious discrepancy between Korea and Middle East – seem to belie the theory, but bear with me.  My whole point is that the singular difference between Confucianism is reduced social friction and violence, and to be fair, that is HUGE.  Just in economic terms, petty feuds and inconsistent justice are massive drains on productivity, hence the fact that Korea in 1960 had the same GDP as Afghanistan and today is called the “miracle on the Han” today.

Still, a contrast between the Korean vs. western conception of education (degrees, rote memorization vs. experience, theoretical understanding) and economic output (facetime, OEM manufacturing vs. productivity, value-oriented design) belies the implicit bias of tribalism towards external honor that can be outwardly measured and displayed.

In case you didn’t already, I strongly recommend you read the entire post.  I will spend  the next several posts analyzing Korea against each of the points by which these “honor” societies are characterized:

  1. Restrictions on the free flow of information (yes)
  2. The subjugation of women (hell ye- shut your mouth woman!)
  3. Inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure (who, me?)
  4. The extended family or clan as the basic unit of social organization (one word: jeon)
  5. Domination by a restrictive religion (sweet jee-juh-suh yes)
  6. A low valuation of education (you wouldn’t think, but…)
  7. Low prestige assigned to work (no, but I do have some choice words about Samsung)

More coming soon.


PS: while the theoretical framework comes from Professor Dutch’s blog about which I can’t speak highly enough, much of my raw data on Korea comes from the entertaining, offensive, and informative (though often hyperbolized) Korea blog, ExpatHELL.  Read with caution, an open mind, and more than a grain of salt.

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7 Responses to Tribalism 2.0

  1. Tom says:

    Oooh, culture blogging. Keep it coming.

    • Tommy boy,
      I’m counting on you and James to assess whether there’s any merit to what I’m saying or I’m just being full of crap. Hope to finish this series by the end of the week.

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    • Hi Tom,
      Yeah I’m assiduously avoiding comparison at an economic level since:
      – Korea does have a stellar performance
      – it’s the most obvious point of deviation from other “honor” countries
      – I want to avoid so-called phlogistonomic arguments

      I’m saying that Korea is like the middle east in all OTHER respects.

      That said, I do think Confucianism has led Korea to shape its institutions in a manner which most closely resembles Louis XIV-style mercantilism. And if you buy THAT, then you can make all sorts of economic arguments which are based simply on institutions and other “neutral” ground without delving into messy and intangible “cultural” arguments.

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