Yeti Rants: Making Yourself Another Face

If I were to ask you how you felt about foreigners’ behavior in other countries, what would you say? Do you believe that people should follow the customs of the countries they were born in/currently reside in? That paying respect to different customs is the mark of maturity and wisdom?

Or do you think one’s own values trump the local flavor? That personal integrity stays the same regardless of where your body happens to reside?

Of course most people will operate somewhat between those two extremes. Both of these seam reasonable but each have a flip side as well. On one hand, what if you’re an asshole who ignores customs in favor of your own actions? Taken to extremes, this is sociopathic behavior. On the other hand, does it matter if traditional values are based on superstition, religion, and other falsehoods?

Taking a place on the spectrum, wherever you are, does not justify the kind of two-faced Shakespearean hypocrisy I allude to in the blog title. It increasingly seems to me that people support causes or deride them with no thought to the logic behind their rushed judgements.

To take two recent events, a controversy currently going on in Korea is that a religious group is opposing the efforts by the LBGT community to throw a pride parade. Traditionally, Koreans have not supported or even acknowledged homosexuality. In a country that is over 50 percent Christian (the fundy American flavor at that) they have a holy book that uses the word “abomination when discussing the issue.

To most of us, this is ridiculous. Giving in to bigoted and superstitious religious fundamentalists who draw moral lines between what is natural and what is not in their own didactic terms goes against every impulse of modernity and open-minded thinking. The values that brought us everything good in the world, basically.

You can see for yourself how with “tradition” on your side (even a relatively recent tradition) you are free from the pressing demands logic, the stress of making any sense at all. This looks like satire but it is actually being handed out to foreigners in the streets of Seoul.


Amid the zany claims of 5000 years of “great moral virtue” (some Christians claim that Korea developed Catholicism separately from the West) and equating homosexuality with bestiality and incest, there is one valid, legal point. It’s a shitty law, but it is a law.  You can fight to get the law changed (I’d agree you should fight to get the law changed) but you cannot do this and then argue that customs and traditions should be generally be respected.

Backpackers Eleanor Hawkins and Emil Kaminski, among others, are also in the news. Recently they stripped naked on top on Mt. Kinabalu in Borneo. Their party (as much as could be tracked down and arrested) was jailed, fined almost 1000 pounds each, and deported.

A couple days later, and earthquake killed almost 20 people and stranded hundreds more. Many cited the taking off of clothing by Miss Hawkins and Mr Kaminski as the reason for this tragedy. Among those assigning such  blame is Malaysia’s State Tourism Culture and Environment Minister Masidi Manjun.

They actually didn’t break any laws, only custom. And yet the overwhelming response to taking off their clothes in public was that they were shallow, stupid, and irresponsible. These are the best things that were said.

In Mr. Kaminski’s own words, he recieved “thousands of pieces of hate mail” with many “death threats” labeling him a “cultural terrorist” and a “pig shit asshole” with wishes that he could be pushed off the mountain or get his head chopped off. In one internet poll, 91 percent of over 2200 hundred voters agreed that visitors should be mindful of local culture. A highly rated comment one site sums up the general attitude: If you don’t agree with their laws, that’s fine, but just don’t violate them while you are visiting the country. Otherwise, don’t go to that country.

Admittedly, much of the vitriol Kaminski received was after he mocked locals, their officials, and their customs in a snarky video that certainly did his PR no good. His counter: If local religion prohibits certain actions, then local believers of that religion should not engage in it, but they cannot expect everyone to obey their archaic and idiotic rules.

If he sounds combative, keep in mind that in addition to death threats he has been accused of causing the death of almost a score of people. Also keep in mind that he seems to be a bit of a dick. That aside, isn’t his attitude largely how we Westerners feel about the local religion in Korea? Is it not both archaic and idiotic to demonize homosexuality and to blame earthquakes on literal demons angered by the sight of bums, boobs, and wangs?

In fact, blaming natural disasters on the moral failings of others is old hat for those who fight for tradition.  In 2014, UKIP councilor David Silvester blamed punishing floods in the UK on the passing of a same-sex marriage bill. But the list of disasters blamed on the LBGT community and their desire to get married is nearly limitless. Little did you know, earthquakes and hurricanes and 9-11 itself were all because of people not respecting tradition.

I mentioned the Malaysia incident in some detail because it so recent. But similar instances in Cambodia and all over South East Asia periodically crop up. Hell, last year, Malaysia put a person in jail for 6 six months because they filmed their friends playing naked on a private beach. (And no, playing in this instance is not a euphemism.) It seems to be verboten to suggest that these customs and traditions are out of place in the modern world. If so believe this you then also must believe either that your opinion only matters in the country you were born in or that some ignorant traditions are worth keeping and others must be discarded, but with no objective criteria to know how.

If the the case of the would-be paraders and the naked backpackers are substantially different, I fail to see in what respect. Whether visiting a country or living there, there shouldn’t be an obligation to follow the most narrowly defined or anachronistic customs as defined by zealots. Perhaps the right to be naked is not a vital one, but assigning any moral decrepitude or indecency to our non-clothed forms is just as idiotic as equating two men kissing with a man humping a sheep.

So … how do you feel about customs, traditions, and the need to acknowledge  them?

7 responses to “Yeti Rants: Making Yourself Another Face

  1. One tiny thing: homosexuality wasn’t traditionally seen as an abomination in Korea at all. That’s pure modern historical revisionism, worthy of the kind of treatment one gets in Hobsbawm and Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition.

    It wasn’t particularly encouraged, and certainly Confucianism preaches heterosexual marriage and reproduction as a filial duty, but neither preclude homosexual acts or preferences… and I’ve read that even in the late Joseon and early 20th century if a lonesome old widower in the village took a shine to a local pretty-boy, and the boy was happy reciprocating, most villagers were willing to look the other way.

    Tangent: the memory-hole that Korean Christians/conservatives have shoved this bit of history into is very much reminiscent of how people here seem not to realize the long history cannabis has in Korean culture. (Some Koreans claim Americans introduced the practice of smoking the stuff, and it’d only been an agricultural plant before then, but that’s pretty dubious for the same reason that I doubt claims Japan introduced prostitution to Korea. Hell, China has what *might* even be a hemp goddess, and a massively long tradition of using cannabis as a medication, intoxicant, and for inspiration… and we know where Korean “traditional medicine” was sourced from, so…)

    Also, while the Joseon Dynasty Gay Sex Film subgenre that has emerged, isn’tyou know, solidly historical all the way through, has at times drawn on established historical figures, like Gongmin as the basis of the story of “Ssanghwajeom.”

    Interesting paper on the history of (male) homosexuality in Korea here:

    Click to access Homosexuality_in_Ancient_and_Modern_Korea.pdf

  2. After I got the “subscribe to comments” confirmation notice, I realized I hadn’t actually addressed your main point… so, with apologies for long-windedness:

    I actually have a blog post in some stage of drafting (started this past week) about how the demand to respect all cultures across the board really makes no sense. I arrived there by thinking about Oriental medicine and Paracelsus. The latter is fascinating if you want to know about the history of alchemy, or chemical medicine, or arguments about the science of medicine. It’s batshit insanity if you want to know anything useful about the human body or medicine in practical terms… and unsurprisingly has a lot in common with “traditional Korean medicine”… like, a LOT.

    Whenever I point this out, I get the sense I’m crossing a line, “disrespecting traditional Korean culture.” It drives me to ask who ever decided that all aspects of a culture deserve or warrant respect? That seems absurd to me: surely our own Western experience with feminism, civil rights, the Holocaust and the Belgian Congo, and so much else–ought to have taught us that every culture–including our own–has awful, *abominable* traditions that deserve nothing better than to be rooted out and tossed onto the trash-heap of human errors, if not human evils. Korea’s homophobia may be a recent, cargo-cultish example, but it’s still an abomination because it facilitates the oppression of people.

    Which, I think, is the signal difference between the two groups.

    I mean, if you’re traveling, it’s probably common sense not to behave in public in ways that distress the locals. It reminds me of how Koreans are pretty notorious in Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines because so many male tourists get off the plane only to ask, immediately, to be taken straight to either a golf course or a brothel. That’s just shitty behaviour. So, I think, is naked mountaintop fiestas that those same people would never do back home. Obviously not all backpackers do it, but I’ve met enough–as have you–to know it’s a “type”… the backpacker who “cuts loose” and “goes wild” in ways they couldn’t, and surely wouldn’t dare to, do back home… and forgets that, hey, some people actually fucking *live* there in the place he’s decided is his forever wild adult playland.

    Which, like I say, is where I see a massive difference between the would-be paraders and the mountain streakers. When an expat (or, much better, a foreign ambassador) lends support to an oppressed group of locals, that’s a political act aimed at lending whatever geopolitical privilege they have to the cause of alleviating suffering and pain felt by a group who, for example, experience much higher rates of suicide (because being told you’re evil, subhuman, and filthy day after day takes its toll) but also employment instability and depression and so on. Whereas I don’t see any suffering or pain alleviated by privileged Western backpackers removing their clothes in places the locals would prefer they don’t.

    Caveats: While I don’t think it’s particularly evil to disrobe (and accusing someone of causing natural disasters by doing so is obviously moronic), it also isn’t particularly respectful of the *people* who live there. I’m always going to be swayed more by arguments about respecting people than I will by arguments calling for the respect of cultures. We’d call the Malaysian tourist who visited a French cathedral and proceeded to run about the church naked for the fun of it an asshole primarily if it distressed the locals, but also if he did so because he’s decided the norms and customs of Paris are not his concern, wouldn’t we? While reactions may be hyperbolic to objectionable nudity (and are in every culture), every culture likewise has some spaces where nudity is deemed unacceptable. Someone else’s ruleset may not make sense to us, but to declare them backwards without declaring all rulesets backwards troubles me. (And I for one am not willing to declare all rulesets about nudity backwards.)

    Another caveat: both in Indonesia and India I ran across mentally ill local adults in the nude in public; they got little response–and no outrage–from locals. Actually, even the occasional mentally ill foreigner I’ve heard about usually was said to have gotten got little more than a surprised look. I’d wager most of the outrage at the nudist backpackers boils down to local disgust with tourist behaviour, (Not all of which is likely to be unreasonable.)

    So… I guess ultimately it boils down to, “Am I being asked to aid in the disrespect and oppression of people…or am I just being asked to have some bloody manners?” The line isn’t always clear, and we could both think up examples where it’s some weird mix of both, or arguable, or neither, but the existence of a sometimes murky line of some sort, I think, is worth acknowledging.

    • I appreciate the thoughtful comments, as always. I think I might be biased by my dislike of religion: I quite like the idea of someone running around naked in a Parisian cathedral!

      You make a good point about the key distinction between the two groups. The naked westerners are unquestionably operating on more base motives. I should have clarified that more. I was more interested in looking at our, as observers, reactions. Why is one group praised and one group criticized when the situations aren’t entirely dissimilar? If our criterion is that helping beleaguered people allows you to violate social norms/break the law in whatever country you’re in, I’m totally down with that. I just have never heard it expressed that way before.

      • Thanks! I am glad to have a place to discuss, and sorry my first reading was so cursory.

        Ha, well, I think someone running around naked in a cathedral might be funny. I think if a lot of foreign (say, non-European) tourists decided that France was their debauchery playland, and they behaved the way some backpackers do in SE Asia, that it would be less funny. (And the French would deal with it harshly too.)

        As far as the question of violating social norms and breaking laws: well, there are no laws against homosexuality in Korea. None. That part of the handout above is just pure fabrication… which is hardly surprising from Korean Christians, I know. But yeah, that’s my criterion: if I’m breaking an unjust law or social norm–a rule that, in its oppressiveness or disrespect of human beings, does not itself deserve to be respected–then I can do so in good conscience. It’s not *exactly* the same as helping beleaguered people: it’s more about having a vision that all societies have within them–and within their own traditions and histories–space for progress towards greater tolerance, diversity, respect for difference, and equality.

        (That’s a riff on C. Douglas Lummis’s response to the criticism that democracy is a “Western invention” and not suitable for a nation like China: Lummis responds that all societies have it within them to become less autocratic, more democratic, more egalitarian, more tolerant, and more open. I don’t have the book here in Korea, but that’s the gist of his argument, and I’ve always liked it.)

        And while that *could* arguably apply to anti-nudity laws or norms (one can conceive of a world where adult nudity is relatively unworthy of note), I don’t think those norms are usually applied unequally or specially against one group, so they’re not necessarily oppression, just a local norm. (The exception being places where women are forced to cover up excessively where men and children walk around half naked, of course.)

        I guess I’d be disgusted if all Malaysian people were free to (and often chose to) get naked on that mountain, and did so, but tourists were somehow forbidden. That’s the kind of thing I see more often in Korea: it’s okay for Koreans to do XYZ, but heaven forbid a foreigner do the same exact thing. I figure if the rules are no skin off my nose, and aren’t unjustly oppressive toward any specially-oppressed segment of the locals, it’s wisest to observe it, or at least not to cry oppression when you’re caught and crucified for breaking it.

        (Hence I tend to be vocal about racism (especially against SE Asians) or sexism or homophobia or the abusive schooling practices in South Korea, but I don’t have much to say about the lack of nude beaches here, or the strict anti-gambling laws here.)

        Again, sorry to be long-winded. I don’t have time to edit this down! 🙂

  3. Sorry for the misinformation. I’ve heard that about the law for many years now, and just accepted it as a truth without doing any research. My bad!

    You know me: I would take that “space for progress towards greater tolerance, diversity, respect for difference, and equality” and extend it to everyone as well. To me, this would eventually get rid of factory farms and our consumption of the living creatures of the world. But whether we ever come to value the lives of animals similar to humans is another matter entirely.

    • Hey, no worries, I figured as much. Laws in a foreign country are complex and convoluted, and, hell, people tend to shoot their mouths of wishful-thinking wise about what the laws actually are. I have said many timesthat one doesn’t have self-defense rights in Korea, but that’s wrong: one does, they’re just much more constrained than, say, in Canada. (Especially in a home invasion scenario.)

      It’s funny, though, the lengths to which some people will go–even lying through their teeth, and thus violating the moral codes they claim to represent as Christians–just to achieve their own self-serving ends. Or… I’m not sure it’s even about ends, so much as it is the thrill of the power to ram something down everyone else’s throats. Some people are just naturally attracted to that.

      Or maybe we all are to some degree, and it just comes out in different ways? (A friend of a friend once commented that “sincere leftists are always yearning for a purge.”)

      Which by the way isn’t a comment on your second paragraph at all, just to be clear. I suspect you’re probably right, ethics-wise, despite failing personally to make the leap for any prolonged length of time since undergrad. In practical terms, though, I don’t think it’ll happen until we have either vat-grown meat, or a collapse that shatters factory farming in a way that makes it impossible to resurrect (energy-wise, or because the cloned animals all succumb like Cavendish bananas to the same one sickness to which they’re susceptible).

  4. (Ooops, edit fail. The “wishful thinking” shooting off of mouths stuff was about Christians pretending their faith is law. When expats speculate about law, sometimes it’s also wishful thinking, but usually it’s complaining about a bad scenario that may not be any more true. (Like the one I described regarding my misunderstanding of self-defense laws here.)

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