Sunday, April 10, 2011

Koran Burning, and the Cowardly Shield of Individualism

The news that Koran burners have blood on their hands is getting surprisingly little publicity in the U.S. To those who are not aware, Pastors Wayne Sapp and Terry Jones in Florida burned a Koran in a church on March 20. On April 1, several hundred protesters surrounded the UN headquarters in Afghanistan, and the protest turned deadly. At least 30 people were killed, including seven UN staffers.

To the extent there was any reaction in America, the reaction was no more than some tut-tuts and hand-wringing accompanied with some mutterings about First Amendment rights. In fact, some people took to task that Gen. Petraeus dared to offer condolences to the people who died in the violent episode. Particularly interesting is this post by W.W., an America-based correspondent for the Economist:
General David Petraeus and Mark Sedwill, NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, issued a joint statement condemning the Florida zealot's zealotry and offering "condolences to the families of all those injured and killed in violence which occurred in the wake of the burning of the Holy Qur'an", omitting to note the agency and responsibility of the zealots actually responsible for the deadly mob violence, almost as if zealots in Florida are expected to control themselves while zealots in Afghanistan are not.


But the military occupation of Afghanistan, which is (let's face it) the basis of most anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan, is not Terry Jones' responsibility any more than it is mine, and neither is the behaviour of zealots enraged by his idiotic pyrotechnics. The mob can't pass the buck to Terry Jones any more than Terry Jones can pass the buck to Khalid Sheik Mohammed. The buck stops in each zealous breast. It's imprudent to issue official statements that suggest otherwise—that suggest responsibility rests with those who try to incite and not with those who choose to be incited.

The Wall Street Journal concludes its piece on Mr Petraeus' unwelcome new travails with a quotation from a rioting zealot in Kandahar:

"We cannot see the difference between that man in Florida and the American soldiers here," said Karimullah, a 25-year-old religious student who, like many Afghans, goes by one name and took part in Sunday's Kandahar protests. "They are killing our people here while in the U.S. they burn the Holy Quran. America just wants to humiliate the Muslim world."

Like Terry Jones, Mr Karimullah is just full of it. He can see the difference between the American soldiers in Afghanistan and Terry Jones, if he tries. For example, Terry Jones is not part of the military occupation of Mr Karimullah's country. And the innocent civilians Afghan rioters have wantonly killed aren't American soldiers or Terry Jones.
Zealotry and Responsibility [The Economist] (emphasis added)

The Korean thought this was interesting because it clearly shows something about America that drives this American crazy:  the stunning lack of self-awareness at the collective level, and the willingness to hide behind the ignorant and cowardly shield of individualism at every opportunity.

More after the jump.

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This is not to say that the Korean rejects individualism as a whole. To do so would be foolish. There is a great deal of truth in the idea that people deserve to be treated as individuals, and human rights accorded to each individual is one of the greatest achievements by the mankind in modern era. Individualism also contributed toward generating wealth unprecedented in human history. At bottom, the Korean is an individualist -- he is the same guy who blasted creepy Asianophiles for failing to see the individual. It is just that he is not an individualism absolutist.

What the Korean does reject is this: hiding behind individualism at the face of a collective-directed effect. Collective action holds as much truth as individualism. Much of what we do is done as a collective, and such collective action, in most cases, affects another collective wholesale, not tailored to individuals. The clearest illustration of this is from John Howard Griffin, a white journalist who darkened his skin to experience life as a black man in the segregation-era South. After numerous experiences of being unable to find a storekeeper who would let him use the bathroom or a public bathroom open for blacks, Griffin wrote in his book, Black Like Me:
But at the time of the rebuff, even when the rebuff is impersonal, such as holding his bladder until he can find a “Colored” sign, the Negro cannot rationalize. He feels it personally and it burns him. It gives him a view of the white man that the white can never understand; for if the Negro is part of the black mass, the white is always the individual, and he will sincerely deny that he is “like that,” he has always tried to be fair and kind to the Negro. Such men are offended to find Negroes suspicious of them, never realizing the Negro cannot understand how — since as individuals they are decent and “good” to the colored — the white as a group can still contrive to arrange life so that it destroys the Negro’s sense of personal value, degrades his human dignity, deadens the fiber of his being.
This is a classic illustration of the cowardly shield of individualism. In both segregation and Koran-burning, a group is humiliated for its collective characteristics: African Americans because of their skin color, and Muslims because of their religion. This humiliation is administered without regard to any difference among individuals within the group -- even the most peace-loving Muslims are humiliated in a Koran-burning. But when the humiliated group directs its anger to a member of the humiliating group, the shield is self-righteously raised: "I personally feel bad for you, but this is not my fault. See, you got the wrong individual. You should direct your anger at the right person." Under the shield of individualism, an action by the collective to which you belong can never be attributed to you in any way, because there is an infinite number of ways to extricate yourself from the collective. It was the other political party; I personally opposed; I just work here; I was only following orders.

At this point, individualism absolutists may object:  "Both Koran-burners and Afghan Muslim protesters fail to account for the individual. Why can't the two denounced equally?" And this is what W.W. essentially does, labeling both Terry Jones and Karimullah as "zealots" who deserve equal contempt. But this is the objection that makes the shield of individualism not only cowardly, but also ignorant. It is ignorant because it ignores the fundamental disparity in individual positions created by the respective groups to which the individuals belong, without regard to any individual characteristic.

Koran-burners are Americans; Muslim protesters in Afghanistan are Afghans. There is a huge difference between being an American and being an Afghan, regardless of what kind of individual one may be in those two respective group. And here, America has all the power, and Afghanistan has none. Treating individual Americans the same as individual Afghanis is to be blind to this difference.

Another post in the Economist, written by a different writer M.S., makes this exact point:
I do think there's a distinction here which has formed one of the main confusions of America's confrontation with the Islamic world over the past decade. Like Terry Jones, Karimullah may be a deeply ignorant and unpleasant guy. But as writers for English-language publications and websites, and as members of the American polity, we are engaged in a community-wide political dialogue with Terry Jones. We are engaged in no such dialogue with Karimullah. Karimullah does not read any of the websites my colleague and I read or write on, and we don't read any of the websites Karimullah reads or writes on, if indeed he is among the lucky 28% of Afghanistan's population who can read. 
So this is the Korean's point: Americans would do well to develop a better sense of collective awareness. This kind of awareness begins by asking ourselves these questions: which social groups do I belong to? What are the unique advantages of those groups? How are those groups perceived by other groups? How are my own actions affecting such perception? If other members of my group are tarnishing the perception of my group, what can I do to stop those members?

These questions are essential not because individuals are unimportant relative to collectives, but because individuals are much more important than collectives. (Remember, the Korean is an individualist.) True individualists must reject the shield of individualism because rare is the case in which an individual belonging to a powerless group can raise that shield. An unmanned drone is not receptive to an Afghani's plea that he is a civilian before getting gunned down. The outrage of millions of peace-loving Muslims around the world does nothing to the Koran-burners. The shield of individualism is a near-exclusive privilege for the powerful. If we are to respect the members of a powerless group as individuals as equal as we, we must be ready to lay down the weapons that are only available to us.

Americans are not good at doing that. As members of the strongest and wealthiest country in the world, Americans can freely peek out of and hide behind the shield whenever they damn well please. M.S. delivers an absolute money shot on this point:
A lot of the more ridiculous and pointless mistakes America has made over the past decade revolved around attempts to "send a message" to groups of people who were not listening to us, did not speak our language, and interpreted and responded to our gestures in ways we had not intended, with disastrous results. Come to think of it, the same could be said of the murderous attempt to "send a message" to America that set this whole nightmarish decade-long farrago into motion. So I disagree with my colleague's certainty that Karimullah can distinguish between Mr Jones and the American soldiers in his country. Plenty of Americans are still today incapable of distinguishing between the September 11th terrorists and the other billion-odd Muslim inhabitants of planet Earth, despite the advantages of literacy and internet access, and I don't think we should expect the average Afghan to do any better.
Americans tend to recoil at the word "collective", and such reaction is justified to a degree -- it reminds one of "collective responsibility" and the hideous tactics of guilt-by-association used by oppressive regimes throughout the history. But the collective self-awareness is fundamentally different from such systems that oppresses and denigrates the individual. Collective self-awareness finally elevates an individual to a fair and equal plane by removing the restrictions imposed upon the individual simply by virtue of the individual's group association. This cannot happen unless we are keenly aware of what groups we belong to, and what advantages we came to possess no thanks to our own effort.

As members of a group that provides the greatest advantage to its members -- United States of America, the strongest and wealthiest nation that the history has ever seen -- it is imperative that Americans develop a better sense of collective awareness and lay down the shield of individualism. To elaborate on the principle articulated by one of the greatest fictional American heroes, this is the kind of great responsibility that comes with great power.

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  1. Thanks for the great post, as always. To speak in another "the Korean-ism", this lack of perspective is precisely because many white males have never been part of a subordinate minority culture where the actions of a few are routinely projected onto the culture as a whole. Referenced from your great post about foreign English teachers in Korea who complain about being lumped together with every other foreign English teacher that smokes pot, is promiscuous, etc.

    I brought this up to a friend, who then brought up South Africa as a counter-argument, but while it is true that the black majority in that culture would probably view the white minority in a similarly generalized way, the sentiment is quite different since the white male is still part of a very entrenched ruling class. In other words, they have the luxury of saying, 'who cares' since they still define what is proper business/cultural etiquette.

    Things may have changed since Mandela assumed the presidency, but I highly doubt societal norms can change that quickly. It'd be interesting to hear from a white male in South Africa if he has encountered any treatment of the sort.

  2. My issue is not so much what the TK has wrote here, but what he did not. He correctly points to the failure of individualist ideology when taken to such American-style extremes. What he fails to do is that 1) this is very much a historical and cultural process from which surged these American (and British) tendencies; and 2) there are equivalent failures of the other extreme - too much collectivism - that is not adequately aknowledged, even brushed off, which partially hurts TK's rebuttal against Economist.

    esp. in the context of TK's (somewhat misleading) last post about grumbling expats and Korea's English education, I am of course very tempted to say that point #2 is partially the result of TK being emotionally hurt at at expat criticism levelled at Korea (criticism which is often legit, but whose legitimacy is sometimes beside the point....if you catch my drift). As for point #1, TK's post can come off as saying "why cant Western US and Brits learn from Korea?" in a more black-white dichotomous assessment, although of course, this observation is more debatable than the previous;)

    PS: hmm seems my name is now different. I am cornflakes, btw.

  3. Whoa Whoa Whoa. Lately all your political crap has really turned me off from your blog. Can you get back to answering questions?

    First of all, you cannot sample two individuals from a country of hundreds of millions and make a point about the American spirit and culture.

    Second of all, no matter how terrible those actions were they do not excuse murder. Instead of blaming others for crimes that were committed, why don't you blame the murders?

    Also, why aren't you criticizing the specific section of Muslims who feel it's alright to commit murder in the name of their religion? Is it okay because they are of color and a minority in America? I'm just wondering why you don't feel the need to address that just as much.

    Other countries, Korea included, have been founded in hundreds and thousands of years of history of collective nationalism. America was founded in rebellion and individualism. Of course there are downsides that come along with the positives, but that comes with anything in the world.

    I mean, I lived in Korea. I learned Korean, I followed the culture, I experienced a lot of hardships there too. Not all of us are unaware of "how to get along and play nice". I don't see how this point correlates to this story about Koran burning and frankly it pisses me off.

  4. How should America have reacted to this particular incident or how would a country with a developed collective awareness reacted to this particular incident? Does Korea have a developed collective awareness. If so, how would Korea have reacted?

  5. "there are equivalent failures of the other extreme - too much collectivism"

    We have been hearing about the failures of collectivism for at least 200 years, since Robert Owen's New Lanark.
    Rugged individualism, on the other, has been glorified in the last decades, specially since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

    And the "collective responsibility" TK is talking about is not the politic "collectivism" anyways.

  6. Thanks for writing this. You have a wonderful way with words, and this is not the first time you've completely changed my mind about something rather important.

  7. I tend to agree with the detractors on this one, though I'm not angry. Referring to individualism as a "cowardly shield" seems kind of silly. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I feel that it's a proper response. That is, after all, what we're supposed to do when terrorists who happen to be Muslim blow up civilians: we are supposed to recognize that these people are wingnuts, motivated by something other than religion, although they may truly feel that their religion is telling them to do it. We are under no obligation to accept responsibility for the individual actions of every person in the country, especially when so much has been done from every level of government to discourage it. I think that was the guy from the Economist's point.

    America's behavior is far from perfect and you are correct that her citizenry need to be more aware of how others view the country. The apathy and arrogance that I occasionally see from both leaders and the populace threaten to crush this country. But... apathy and arrogance are not same thing as saying, "Both of these guys are nutcases and should not be awarded the attention they've received." In fact, that's pretty accurate in my book.

    I'm interested in hearing the answers to Dan's questions.

  8. The reaction of the rioting Afghans to Terry Jones's Koran burning and the attitude of those Americans who think all Muslims are like the 9/11 terrorists are both due to the same thing: human beings judge the in-group and the out-group by different standards.

    When someone in your in-group, a fellow American say, does something bad, steals from you, for example, you think "That individual is bad". When someone from an out-group, a non-American say, steals from you, you tend to think "Group X are all a bunch of thieves". It's a natural human reaction and it's not even necessarily always wrong - we can't operate without generalizations and they often serve us well. But, of course, it can be wrong and lead to ugly results.

    Generalizations have to be checked against the facts. It's a generalization that French people like wine, but the facts accord with it well enough. The existence of exceptions do not invalidate generalizations so long as they are just that: exceptions. Is burning the Koran typical American behaviour? Of course not. In fact, there is every indication that Terry Jones is an or *the* exception. On the other hand, do the U.S. military in Afghanistan disrespect and abuse the Muslim population? Unfortunately, the reports coming out paint a pretty grim picture. And that is probably the real reason for this rioting in response to Mr Jones's incendiary action.

  9. I'm not quite sure what The Korean, in this post, seems to be suggesting. Should American officials should issue a public apology for Terry Jones? On the face of it, that seems reasonable, normal human social behaviour. If you're with a group of friends in a bar and one of them starts behaving like a douche, you probably would apologize to other people and shut your friend up. Public institutions and companies are also expected to disown, perhaps discipline, and apologize for any of their members who offends. States do the same - but only with people who represent them in an official capacity. To apologize every time a citizen did something offensive would be impracticable and probably more harmful to state prestige than otherwise.

    It seems to me much more important for the American government to do something about the behaviour of soldiers on the ground, or pull them out altogether.

  10. @Dan

    Good question. I wonder that too.

    Korea might perhaps have issued a public apology or public officials might have sent private apologies.

    How well such an apology would be received is another question. It probably depends on the country you're dealing with: Americans were bemused when Korean officials apologized after Virginia Tech. How Afghans would react in a parallel case? I don't know.

    I suspect Afghans would not be mollified by an American apology for Terry Jones - not so long as U.S. troops are killing innocent people there.

  11. observador/cornflakes,

    Please, feel absolutely free to write about things you consider important, because the Korean is not going to cover every last thing under the sun in a single blog post. The Korean wished to make a point, and he believes that point was adequately made without having to address the points you raised.


    Lately all your political crap has really turned me off from your blog. Can you get back to answering questions?

    Telling the Korean what to do with this blog is the fastest path to getting banned from the blog, friend. (Read the first sentence of the questions policy.) Don't do it again.

    I mean, I lived in Korea. I learned Korean, I followed the culture, I experienced a lot of hardships there too. Not all of us are unaware of "how to get along and play nice". I don't see how this point correlates to this story about Koran burning and frankly it pisses me off.

    The Korean also does not see how Korea connects to Koran burning at all. The post has nothing to do with Korea. The word "Korea" does not even appear in the post. What is there to be angry about?

  12. Dan,

    How should America have reacted to this particular incident or how would a country with a developed collective awareness reacted to this particular incident?

    Actually, the Korean thinks for the most part, America acted just right. So many Americans pulled out all stops when Terry Jones first threatened to burn a Koran. And when it did happen, Gen. Petraeus denounced the action strongly.

    The Korean's target is the kind of Americans -- and it is a rather uniquely American characteristic to do this -- who criticize Petraeus for making an eminently sensible response by using the shield of individualism.

    Does Korea have a developed collective awareness. If so, how would Korea have reacted?

    Again, the Korean has no idea what Korea has to do with this. But since you ask, the Korean would say that Korea's collective self-awareness is on average better than America's.

    The Korean thinks American government/military acted more or less correctly, and he expects Korean government/military to act the same way in a similar situation. The difference would be that very few Koreans would think Gen. Petraues' statement was unjustified.

  13. Phil,

    We are under no obligation to accept responsibility for the individual actions of every person in the country, especially when so much has been done from every level of government to discourage it.

    The Korean's point has nothing to do with responsibility. It is about the unfair demand that we must be always seen as individuals while we freely and arbitrarily ignore the individuality of others. And the reason why we can ignore the individuality of others is because we belong to a more powerful group, not because we are individually superior somehow.


    It seems to me much more important for the American government to do something about the behaviour of soldiers on the ground, or pull them out altogether.

    Agreed 100 percent. Also recommend this article from Rolling Stone.

  14. Your post reminded me of a few sayings by Mao Tse-Tung ~

    We think too small, like the frog at the bottom of the well. He thinks the sky is only as big as the top of the well. If he surfaced, he would have an entirely different view.

    The people are like fish in the sea.

    Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.

    I also deplore and condemn his burning of a holy book, but I am not personally or collectively responsible for the acts of Mr. Jones. However only a fool can not acknowledge the intended impact of such action upon persons of the Islamic faith and the subsequent results. Indeed, Mr. Jones suggested such results prior to committing the act. Thus, he incited murder and he is a conspirator to murder.

    Regarding collectivism itself how do Americans personally feel when they see their flag trampled and burned by angry mobs? Similarly we joined together with one motivation(collectivism) upon being attacked and directed our anger towards one lunatic group. I know Mr. Jones is also a lunaticand I can understand the collective reaction of his targeted group.

  15. I think some people are missing TK's point -- I don't believe he is saying that either collectivism or individualism exclusively are the answer. What he's saying is (I think) there are good qualities to be taken from both, and both can very easily be abused. While it's not appropriate to judge an entire group based on the actions of individuals, it is important to take responsibility for the identity of your group and to hold other members of your group accountable. Because no one else is likely to do so as effectively.

    It's not all that black and white, and I think it was pretty clear that TK doesn't believe that it is.....

  16. A very interesting and well-thought out commentary on the subject. Interestingly, I was just talking about this very subject (the extreme individualism exhibited by Americans as a whole) with my professor this afternoon. While I don't think we need to all be held responsible individually for the actions of other people in our "groups", we definitely don't need to blow them off as "not my problem" just because someone else did/said/wrote it. History has proved over and over again that the actions/words of just a few people in a society can royally screw it up for the rest of the group.


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