This summer, while I waited outside Gangnam Station in Seoul, I saw a fashionable young Korean couple walk past me on the main street.
Dressed in startlingly urban-American clothing, the pair called attention to itself, sticking out amidst the uniformity. As I watched, the man carelessly dropped the cigarette he was smoking and the couple walked on as if nothing happened.
In response, an elderly street-cleaner ran to the cigarette butt and picked it up. Litter in hand, she caught up with the couple, took out a little note pad and wrote a fine for the young man. Despite his indifferent appearance, the man bowed deeply and apologetically and paid the fine without uttering a single word.
Immediately after showing respect for authority, the couple that appeared so out-of-place was brought back the fold of acceptability. I questioned what about the setting made the interaction run so smoothly. In another country, especially in China or America, a fierce argument would have ensued: neither side would have likely acquiesced and no amicable agreements would have been made.
My explanation? The preeminence of traditional Confucian philosophy in the Korean public sphere.
Hierarchy-based Confucian tradition has bound Korea, and many other Asian societies, for thousands of years. It emphasizes the importance of an individual’s submission to the rules of the society in order for the entire community to achieve peace necessary for development and prosperity.
Any refusal to submit can greatly infringe on the welfare of the collective will by potentially fragmenting a cohesive socio-economic fabric.
Those who betray the norms are condemned.
Not only will their effort to change the rules go unappreciated, they will be seen as individualists, wasters of social resources and destructive members of a complete society.
Like Confucianism, many traditions around the world hold the belief that collective stability is worth more than the willingness of the few to attempt change. Many segments of these societies respect stable tradition and belittle those who seek radical change that benefits only a small portion of the whole.
This notion opposes the belief that argumentation with the established order catalyzes constructive changes in the institution. Many believe that institutions benefit from opposition, open and violent, to existing social norms.
Most rally-cries for change have little practical results in mind for the collective. The would-be expenditure is rarely justified.
In many places, especially in those capitalist developing countries like China, there is too much incentive for individuals to change existing rules at the expense of society as a whole. The capitalist individual often sees change as an opportunity for profit-making.
In reality, change destabilizes the establishment and, in countries like Korea, warrants condemnation by the collective.
In modern thought, ambition and individualism is respected and the status-quo rejected. But if Korea’s policy on cigarette-butt disposal can provide an example of the benefit of adherence to societal norms—immaculately clean streets in impossibly crowded urban regions—then perhaps it can be said that uniformity and collectivism makes for a more livable world.