“You see, it is generally accepted that, in order to be efficient, you must be disciplined, either by moral code, a political creed, or by being trained to work like a machine in a factory; but this very process of discipline is making the mind dull through conformity.”

“If you don’t know how your mind reacts, if your mind is not aware of its activities, you will never find out what society is.”

Selections out of Krishnamurti’s Think on These Things.

What do these quotes have to do with copycat suicides? In a conversation with an expat who has lived in Seoul for almost a decade and has successfully built a life and career – I learned more about plagiarism. In SK, it appears that blatant copying is widely accepted – whether it’s duplicating marketing materials, the name of a business, the palette of a logo/brand, an idea, product details… I mean really, anything. There are copyright laws that are in place but are not enforced (and from what I hear from multiple sources, many laws, like traffic laws, are not enforced. I’ve been witness to this as I watch my taxi drivers run red lights, speed beyond the speed limit without a care in the world. It is no wonder that Asians have a bad rep for driving in the US – at least amongst Koreans, they don’t follow the rules. The lines are there, painted on the floor, but no one stays in them. Today, walking from the train station, I watched as the light turned red, and cars stopped in the middle of the intersection. And the cars attempting to make left turns just drove around them, causing congestion in the intersection. Cars and scooters drive so close to pedestrians that we can feel the heat of the engine breathing on our knees as we dodge the bumpers. Cars park and drive on the sidewalk. It’s utter chaos from a western perspective. But it works for them I guess. Then imagine Koreans moving to the US and driving as if they are still in Korea – it would look like madness. My Korean American friend said that it took some time getting used to driving in Korea but he finds it quite liberating now to not have to follow the rules. ) Anyway – so you will literally see businesses copy the name, products, color palette, even mission statement of another business and use it as their own. And there is no shame. It is a relatively common practice for businesses to call their competitors to solicit information such as, “what is your marketing strategy?” I am curious as to how locals respond to one another.

The plagiarism doesn’t stop there – it is also observed in suicides. (Granted, Korea is not the only country with copycat suicides). Apparently, SK is known to be the suicidal capital of the world. Because seeking help (especially psychological in nature) is widely unaccepted for fear of how they will be perceived by others; therefore it is not a complete shock that the common psychological cold – depression – can lead to suicide. Without proper treatment and/or support, it may seem that suicide would be the most reasonable, face-saving option.  Let’s look at some of the cultural pieces we have so far: face-saving/image focused, conformity, and plagiarism or copying. It is no wonder that when celebrities start committing suicide, the number of incidents in SK increase. After all, if a celebrity, someone who is admired by many and has most likely been financially successful, kills him or herself, then it won’t be so bad for me to do it, right? The underlying issue here is that there is no prevention/intervention due to cultural implications of what it would mean to one’s reputation and his or her family’s reputation if one sought help.

As Krishnamurti said, the mind is dulled by conformity and if we proceed through life simply conforming, then we never know ourselves and we can never truly know society. (Yes, I know I’m paraphrasing and interpreting subjectively). In summary, I see the aforementioned cultural pieces of SK (face-saving/image focused + conformity, + plagiarism or copying) as a catalyst for potential repressed depression, sense of meaninglessness,  and general lack of self identity. I am fighting my Western-centric training that would lead me to think that unconditional self acceptance and other acceptance is the resolution – so I continue to be curious and hope that I will stumble upon a more culturally sensitive resolution.

Other interesting links on suicide in SK:

  1. ABC International News report – “There’s a huge gap in this country because the speed of materialism spreading is much faster than the speed of cultural maturity that must grow together. It all comes from stress of rapid modernization,” said Jeung Taek-Hee. By JOOHEE CHO, Seoul, South Korea, May 13, 2010.
  2. Fast facts on suicide in SK
  3. South Korea’s suicide problem – WSJ article
  4. Exit Strategies – The Economist