There is a danger to the user created authority generated by popularity on social media. This is evident in the case of Simon and Martina, two Canadian English teachers living in South Korea who have gained quite a following on Youtube to the point where they have been deferred to as an authority for all things Korean and Kpop by many viewers and unexpectedly, the media like Al Jazeera. It is an unfortunate turn of events as they really do not have the authority to speak as experts on such matters, lacking the requisite language skills or understanding of Korean history or culture that comes from critical analysis, formal education, or experience. I am aware of this because they have posted that they feel like it is enough to learn enough Korean to get around and enjoy life there, but that they are not really focused on being fluent. So I was taken aback recently after watching a video of them talking about single mothers in Korea. I thought they generally focused on Kpop and their own reflections about living as foreigners in Korea, but when you talk about major social issues, there is an extra onus of responsibility. You're still responsible for whatever you write, but you should take extra care when writing things about a society because they are major statements that people might take literally. It's not just rambling about your opinions, but asserting a "fact" and that does affect a lot of people.
In their video, they make a number of assertions that are false and unfounded. The most basic being that there is no term for single mother in Korean. There is. It's '미혼모' , which translates to 'unwed mother', a woman who has had a child out of wedlock, not a mother who becomes single through divorce or widowhood. For the purposes of this post, I will focus on single mothers as it is used in the Korean context, which is women who bear children out of wedlock. They mention that when Koreans do talk about single mothers, that they only use the English term. They deduce that it is due to the fact that no such term exists in Korean. What they fail to recognize is that perhaps Koreans do not use it as much because there is less of a stigma to the term "single mother", being that it is an English term which is not connected to the past when Koreans had a less favorable view of the phenomenon. Based on the limited information and interaction they have had with Korean single mothers, one Korean single mother, Simon and Martina drew a false conclusion. This happens quite a lot in the ESL blogosphere because you have a group of people who are drawing upon an incomplete set of information about Korea due to their lack of social contacts, language skills, and understanding of the Korean culture. I recall reading a similar post by a female Canadian expat who claimed that Korean culture did not expect Korean men to be good providers for their families and it was only the influence of their individual families and NOT Korean culture that made Korean men good providers. This really made me scratch my head as the breadwinner role is a strong expectation placed on Korean men, much greater than in the U.S. or other Western countries where house husbands are more accepted. This Canadian woman had the experience of dealing with a Korean husband who did not do his part to support their family, so she mistakenly assumed that it was a common practice in Korean culture. That is why it's so important to study and understand another culture if you want to interpret it correctly. Otherwise, you are just projecting your own cultural models and going off on limited and incorrect information.
To truly understand the plight of single mothers in Korea, you would have to have a basic grasp of sociology, Korean history, and know enough of the Korean language to interact with the right people who would be able to direct you to the right resources. Simon and Martina are not in this position. They are English teachers with an interest in Kpop who have lived in Korea for a few years. You can live in a country for 20 years and still not know much about the language or culture. They may be able to share their individual experiences as foreigners living and working in Korea, but they cannot share an educated or informed opinion about the country because they don't really have the skills to do so. They are basing their opinions on limited interactions with Korean single mothers and Korean society in general. As foreign English teachers living in Korea, they aren't going to get the full Korean experience because they are so sheltered. The people they work with speak some English or there is at least one person around to help them in English. In Korea, foreigners are not really expected to know much Korean or that much about Korean culture, so they are given a lot of accommodation that Koreans would not normally get. They are getting the filtered down experience that foreigners who don't make enough of an effort to learn the language or culture to great fluency do. Because when you don't take time to understand a language or culture, you tend to impose your own constructs of them based on your home culture or language, essentially projecting a Western view on a Korean phenomenon. Just because you have a hammer does not mean that everything needs to be pounded. A hammer is not right for everything as an understanding of North American culture does not always translate to understanding Korean or other cultures. There's a different tool kit required and until you learn the language and culture properly, you're just not going to have it.
A lot of Koreans look down on unwed mothers because they are not considered respectable. The view is that if you were a proper lady, you would wait until marriage to have sex. In North America, waiting until marriage is largely considered prudish or, at the very least, unnecessary outside of a few circles. You can still be considered a respectable woman even after having had multiple sexual partners, but of course, there are exceptions. Generally, it is considered par for the course in relationship and dating life. In Korea, that is generally not the case. Waiting for marriage is the proper thing to do and if you don't, then you are not respectable, you were not raised properly, you do not have the right values. Because Korea is a more traditional and conservative society, that is the prevailing attitude. I do believe that there is discrimination against single mothers in Korea, but I really disagree with what Simon and Martin said as well as how they said it. Because they do not present a balanced view of things and are making a lot of ignorant assumptions about Korean society. They say that the lack of social services is a reflection of the prejudice toward single mothers in Korea. Perhaps, in part. But ultimately, it is reflective of the social welfare system in Korea. In Korea, people are expected to take care of their families, including their aging parents. In America, the expectation is that you take care of your children until 18, but it really is up to the individual whether they will go beyond that. It's nice to take care of your parents, but there is not as much of a stigma as there is in more traditional societies to put them up in care facilities. Koreans also have facilities for the elderly, but it is generally expected that if you are able to do so, you should take on the care of your aging parents. The Korean government is interested in cutting out any unnecessary spending, so why should they spend as much on an expense that is not as necessary as in Western countries who have a different social structure? I'm not saying that the Korean government should not increase its welfare spending. What I am saying is that it has not been a priority until now because social welfare has largely been the responsibility of an individual's family in Korea. In the U.S., the government has to take on a greater burden for the social support of individuals because the nuclear family is not as prevalent. There does need to be a balance in recognizing that not every one has a supportive family that can help them. But excessive social welfare is not the answer.
Simon and Martina believe that the Korean government should provide support to single mothers. I will disagree in part. Ultimately, it is the parents job to provide for their children. I understand the government's reluctance to increase social welfare spending for single mothers as opposed to providing support for two-parent families who have children. Single motherhood is not something that should be encouraged. The lax attitude toward children born out of wedlock in the U.S. has led to the alarming rate of roughly half of all first-born children in the U.S. being born to single mothers this year (CBS News). I believe in a compassionate government that emphasizes personal responsibility, but if there is too much support, the burden is taken away from fathers to support their children from divorce. I believe that there needs to be stronger enforcement for getting child support from deadbeat dads and that is something I agree with in the video. Is there discrimination against single mothers in Korea? Yes, but they make it seem like all single mothers are discriminated against. But I will have to take Simon and Martina to task for a lot of their unfounded assumptions.
They make a lot of mistaken assumptions about Korea for various reasons:
- They are not critical thinkers. I got that the first time that I saw their videos. They mean well, but they simply look at the world in too naïve and simple of a lens. They don't know how to discern information properly. They lack the ability for critical inductive and deductive reasoning. For one thing, they say that there is no stigma against deadbeat fathers in South Korea. That is not true. There is. I don't know of any Korean who would approve of a man not paying child support or taking care of his own children. But no one is going to announce to the world that they are a single father so that other people could gossip about him. Where would Simon and Martina or anyone hear about this unless they personally knew a deadbeat father? The only way they would hear it is through idle gossip, which his baby mama, her family, his family, and their friends are probably not going to do considering the stigma of out-of-wedlock pregnancy. It's easy to hide the fact that you are a deadbeat father, but not so much if you are a single woman with a child living with you. Those are simply the facts. Are there people in Korea who might not care? Sure, but that doesn't mean that deadbeat fatherhood is universally accepted in Korea without consequences.
- They don't know enough Korean to know what is being said out there in Korean media and society. They have posted that they have no desire to be fluent, but just know enough to get around and enjoy their life in Korea. This is very different from having enough Korean skill to read the media and understand sociological reports and studies. They are mainly getting their information from Korean news in English and from their own Korean friends, both of which are limited sources. The Korean news in English is filtered to the interests of foreigners. Individual stories from friends are not representative of the whole.
- They lack a nuanced understanding of the world. They want the world to fit into their lens of convenience. The world cannot be reduced to sound bites. If you are truly committed to understanding, you won't stop until you get it. They're a bit too reductive in the way they try to understand the world and Korea. One does not have to have a PhD. in ethnic studies to understand the impact of racism. Nor does one need a PhD. in Korean studies to understand Korea, but one does need to approach things with a critical mind.
If you are going to write something, be intelligent about it. Do your research. Truly understand whether you are going to have the skills to understand what you are talking about. If you say something ill-informed, it is your responsibility to correct that. People need to be more critical about what they choose to put out. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from responsibility. If you truly want to inform the world, you need to be committed to understanding otherwise you are just going to spout out a lot of ignorant nonsense and end up doing a lot of damage. I don't understand people who say whatever is on their mind without any consideration for how it impacts their audience. If you want your words to mean something, act like it and take responsibility. Unfortunately, too many people are unconscious and just believe anything that comes to mind. Simon and Martina are well-meaning, but they do a lot of damage by posting such ill-informed videos on Korea. It's not just about wanting to do well. You've got to take responsibility so that you don't do more damage in the process.