Friday, August 2, 2013

Freedom of Speech Threatened by Cultural Etiquette and Sensitivity

Last week, I wrote the longest post ever in reply to Ask a Korean's post on plane crashes and culturalism.  I felt compelled to do it because it touched a nerve with me.  You see, if there is one thing I cannot abide it is branding anyone who has honest concerns about aspects of another culture as a racist.  Now Ask a Korean didn't quite say this, but he did label Malcolm Gladwell's cockpit theory as "culturalism" and made pains to frequently compare this to racism.  He even went so far to say that Malcolm Gladwell was likely motivated by culturalism in a reply to me, as if he can really know what goes on inside his mind.

There was a message to the Korean's post, and this was that nobody should make generalisations or judgements about another culture, especially if they turn out to be negative, derogatory, or possibly offensive without the most thorough intellectual rigour and study.  Let's try and think about this for one second; is this lofty goal actually possible?  No, it isn't.  There is always going to be an internal dialogue going on inside people's heads; they will always be weighing up situations they find themselves in and trying to find reasons for other's behaviour.  Sometimes the way people behave will be purely down to their own personality or their own personal upbringing or DNA, but many times it will because of where they were brought-up in the world.  If we judge their behaviour to be down to their culture we can often be wrong, but we can almost equally often be right.

So, if we can't stop this inner-voice, we can at least make it difficult for people to write books and make it socially unacceptable for people to bring-up cultural explanations for sensitive topics in conversation.  We can punish them with name-calling, social ostracism, or make it impossible for them ever to get their book published or read.  Hang on a minute, this is starting to sound a bit scary; weren't we warned about all this by George Orwell in 1984?

It has become a poisonous theme in conversation in recent history that any controversial viewpoint about a group of people of any kind is quickly labeled as a racist, bigoted, or prejudiced one.  It is a conversation-ender because it puts the other person immediately on the defensive as they are desperate not to be known as a racist.

To be a racist has rightly become one of the most socially unacceptable things to be in modern times in the West, yet despite this racism is still rife in the West, we haven't put that dog down just yet.  The main reason for this is that human beings are naturally tribal.  We affiliate ourselves with a tribe and any outside of this can be treated with less consideration.  If someone's skin colour is different, it is as good a sign as any that they lie outside of our tribe.  There is, of course absolutely no reason why we should treat others differently only because they have different colour skin, but it has taken hundreds of years of argument and science to figure this out.  Now we know the truth; there is no reason to suspect the colour of someone's skin makes them behave any differently, whether it be morally, intellectually or in any other way.

People should be afraid of spouting racist nonsense, not just because of the social stigma attached to it, but because of the ridicule they receive from people who know they have no reason for it other than ignorance and prejudice.

Culture, however, is profoundly dissimilar to race.  The difference is so significant that I believe one should never make the comparison between racism and culturalism.  Our culture really can determine our individual personality, values, and behaviour.  If you doubt this, just step outside your door and travel; it need not be to the other side of the world, you can just visit your local Muslim, Hindu, Asian or African community (if you live in the West) and see if they generally go about things in a different way than you.  I bet that most of them do.

Of course, no one denies that culture can cause differences, but this is only stated when the differences are benign or simply matters of curiosity.  When these differences are judged right or wrong, good or bad, however, then we run into trouble; this, it seems, we cannot do and because who are we to judge what is right or wrong?  And do we judge right and wrong based on our own culture?  It all appears so relative, but it really need not be.  I believe there really are right and wrong answers to such questions that are objective, which sit outside of cultural relativism that can be sorted out, but only by sharing ideas and talking about them, regardless of any offence that might be caused.

There is another key difference between culture and race and it has to do with the ownership of it.  I cannot disown or deny my race; I will always be White-British.  I can, however, disown my culture or at least aspects of my culture.  Granted, this is difficult to do, but it is certainly possible.  Given that culture is about thoughts and ways of living, this therefore gives me the right to be treated as an individual and not judged as thinking how every other British person thinks.  I can accept or reject different parts of my own culture and others to varying degrees.  This means that everyone anywhere should be judged on how they act and what they say not by their culture as a whole.

Culture, however, can throw-up patterns that are difficult to ignore.  In the Western world, where we are taught that everyone is an individual and it is immoral to think otherwise, we have gone too far and are preventing ourselves from seeing meaningful commonalities in the way groups of people behave.  Generalising is not always a bad thing and, in fact, it is essential to actually finding out what is true in the world.  Scientists generalise and hypothesise about patterns all the time.  Think of a scatter-graph of data that reveals a trend; aren't there almost always anomalies that sit outside of the trend?  Does this mean that any judgement we make on the results is unjustified?

As long as we are all willing to be wrong and change our minds and not treat individuals with prejudice and discrimination based on what we think about their culture, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with making generalisations and having your own opinion about matters.

As a matter of fact, I get pretty offended by those who tell me I'm a racist for giving my opinion about an aspect of someone else's culture (and I have been called this name more than once), who the hell are they to advise me on what I can and can't say and then slander me with unjustified names?  So, just for the sake of it, let's make some generalisations about British and Korean culture, simply because I have the right to (some statements will be comparative):

Korean Culture (negative)

1. Most Koreans are too hierarchical
2. The general level of manners in Korea is not as good as back home in England
3. What the hell is going on with their use of air-conditioning?
4. I find Korean students less creative and less able to think for themselves.
5. I generally find there is less empathy in Korean people when someone or something sits outside of a recognised group, such as the family, the business, or friends.
6. Following on from the last point, standards of animal welfare and concern for animals seems less widespread.
7. Too many Korean people are too focused on their status, money, and how they look to others, sometimes above and beyond everything else.
8. Many Korean people have a nasty littering habit.
9. Xenophobic at times.
10. Often dangerous drivers.
11. Working conditions and worker's rights are poor (for Koreans and especially Korean women).

British Culture (negative)

1. Many British people have a terrible attitude to drinking and behave poorly when drunk.
2. Although general manners among the population are good, the worst of the worst are in large and growing numbers and are worse than in any other country I have visited or resided in.
3. British food is unhealthy and not especially delicious.
4. The British attitude towards food is generally poor and too many people are overweight and pass bad habits on to their children.
5. Many British are too focused on appearing "cool" and this is reinforced by the cultural trend on focusing on Britain as being a "cool" place, summed up by the ridiculous phrase "Cool Britannia".
6. Many British are too arrogant and snobby when it comes to our collective intellect.  This is shown by the stupidity and magnanimity of some British when we gleefully put down Americans as intellectually inferior.
7. Service, from all manner of businesses, in Britain is often mind-blowingly poor and regularly and flagrantly tries to fraud people.
8. Those that do have prejudice against others tend to be extremely outspoken, noisy, sometimes violent and threatening, and generally in your face about it, especially when drunk.
9. There are too many people who lack personal responsibility and are dependent on the state.

Korean Culture (Positive)

1. Food in Korea is varied, healthy, and delicious.
2. Many have prejudice against foreigners (which is understandable) but most do not express it in an especially in-your-face, violent, or threatening manner.
3. Service is usually very good.
4. Public transport is excellent.
5. Children are generally well behaved and respectful at school (compared tot he UK anyway).
6. There is less politically correct nonsense.
7. The people are more genuine than in the UK.
8. There is very little petty crime.

British Culture (Positive)

1. It is easier to be honest with people in disagreement and really understand each other.
2. You can be friends with older people.
3. In general, manners are good.
4. British tend to be kinder to animals and people they don't know.
5. Easier to be your own person and be accepted in Britain for your own personality.
6. Workers have more rights and are better treated.

These are simply my own personal opinions, of course, but I do think many of them have a great deal of truth to them.  My real point, however, is that as long as you treat everyone with equal respect and kindness and the benefit of the doubt of being their own person, what is wrong with having opinions about their certain parts of their culture or even their culture as a whole?  It really is a help to know what others think of your culture; it can help in changing the bad stuff and keeping the good stuff.

Actually, discovering truth, what is morally good and what works is the most important thing.  Making judgements about how other people live is one of the most important areas of life because it enables us to ask questions and delve further.  Sometimes our initial judgements will be wrong and other times they will be right, but we can never know until we form opinions and theories and put our minds together to discuss them.

We will never know about or discuss a subject until someone writes a book on it or speaks up about it.  Any attempt to silence them harms us all.  It is precisely the subjects that are controversial, offensive, and that differ to our own that we most need to hear.  This is the very principle of freedom of speech and why it is necessary now more than ever in such a globalised and inter-connected world where different cultures mingle like never before.

My final word has to do with lightening-up and having a sense of humour.  I have just added this paragraph due to a music video I saw this morning.  "Asian Girlz" by Day Above Ground is obviously just a silly song with plenty of satire about just about every classic Asian stereotype you can think of.  My ability to take the song too seriously was disabled in one of the first verses where the lead singer sings:
"I love your sticky rice... and fucking all night"
 As a man married to a Korean I should get upset, shouldn't I?  But only morons who already have these stereotypical views could ever take this music video seriously.  The rest of us with more than half a brain should realise that it is simply a bit of fun, designed to be a little controversial perhaps and get a reaction. And it has got one; I had never heard of the band until this morning.  This always happens when those offended try to ban things like this.  Banning free speech/expression is almost always counter-productive as a tactic anyway, as this quite clearly shows.

I guess you could say that the song and video are also not just culturalist, but racist.  He goes on to sing:
"I love your creamy yellow thighs... and your slanty eyes"
I don't see any particular harm in the aspects of the video related to race, though, most people have got upset by the cultural stereotyping present in it.  I would be open to the argument that the video was in bad taste, but I have seen more exploitation of women in almost every Hip Hop video I have seen and far worse messages in the lyrics.  I remember owning an Eminem album once where almost every song was about swearing, raping, abusing, assaulting and killing (and it was much less obvious he was being satirical).  An 18 certificate was slapped on it and that was that.  It is telling that a very mild song and video in comparison has caused such an uproar.  Want to ban all controversial, bad taste, or rude music, books and TV.  What a boring world we would live in.  I would gladly put up with the stupid stereotypes I receive sometimes when I am with my Korean wife to not live in a world like this.

If we can't have a laugh at each other and have a sense of humour about ourselves, what hope have we got of getting along?  You think banning this song is going to stop the genuine prejudice present in people?  You think not banning the song is really going to set us back fifty years in the public understanding of Asian women?  Fair enough it is not everyone's cup of tea, but if you don't like it don't watch it, it really is as simple as that.


  1. I'm sorry....but that song is fucking shit, the fact that it's 'controversial' is the only reason anyone will ever hear it. Lame as.

    At least Oasis had the cheek to be talented while they were being twats.

    1. Shit or not, is not the point, plenty of crap music out there.

      The people who got upset about it did a great job of keeping it quiet, though, didn't they? They promoted that previously unknown band to the world beautifully.

  2. I think your are missing that there is a power and status dynamic in racism where it is "ok" for lower status victims of "ism"s (racism, classism, culturalism) to make fun or satirize those with a superiority complex. Black comedians can make fun of Whites, Poor can make fun of the Rich, Everyone can make fun of Americans, but not vice versa without risk of at least being in very poor taste or cruel. That video was dumb, crude, racist, and sexist, but I agree it shouldn't be banned. I can see how it caused an uproar and the makers should be called out on it being worse than harmless fun.

    1. Yep, you're right should have included that as it is a great point. Though, I only partly agree with your conclusion.

      Perhaps because I have always participated in sport in many different teams, I have been desensitised to offence in the name of having fun, but it seems to me that unless it is really threatening you have to take most attempts at fun at your expense in your stride. If you don't do this and always get upset it does nothing but keep you in the low status bracket and you don't get any respect. Maybe it shouldn't be that way, but showing offence will always keep you down. Not only this, but others taking offence on your behalf will also keep you down, which is what Western culture does with other cultures. By saying "those poor people who are being made fun of" you are inadvertently keeping them down. When it comes to human rights abuses and genuine discrimination or violence and threatening behaviour then fair enough, we all need to get upset. But poking fun? Such a reaction is always counter-productive.

      That video may have been in slightly bad taste, but it was harmless. Dumb and crude, perhaps. Racist and sexist? No, actually I don't think it was especially, at least not in a damaging way and the satire of the old stereotypes was pretty obvious. They did also hint at breaking the stereotype of Asian women being timid and in need of a white man to rescue her by making the Asian woman in the video sexy and confident, with them small and worshiping her from inside a cage.

  3. “ If we judge their behaviour to be down to their culture we can often be wrong, but we can almost equally often be right. “

    I don’t see any statistical evidence offered here – by what percentage will we be wrong or right? – but at least by the qualifiers you’ve offered (‘almost equally often’) can I at least suppose that we’ll be wrong more often? In which case, where is the value in such a tactic?

    “ Hang on a minute, this is starting to sound a bit scary; weren't we warned about all this by George Orwell in 1984? “

    Um, no. Orwell was talking about organized and systematic control of thought and opinion by means of mechanisms of a large and supremely intrusive state, done intentionally with the intent to consolidate political power into a central source. When people speak with their own voices to oppose racist statement and repudiate racist thought, this is pretty much the opposite Рit is, the clich̩ goes, the marketplace of ideas.

    In a free-speech society, racists have the right to speak racist ideas out loud. The rest of us have the right to point to it an d call it that, challenge it and discourage others from adopting such attitudes.

    “ People should be afraid of spouting racist nonsense, not just because of the social stigma attached to it, but because of the ridicule they receive from people who know they have no reason for it other than ignorance and prejudice. “

    You could have said this better: We should avoid spouting racist nonsense because it truly is nonsense, and speaking things that make no sense makes us appear stupid and ignorant - because we are. Actually, whether we appear this way or are ridiculed for it is irrelevant. We ought to avoid it because it represents nonviable patterns of cognition. It is just stupid, and that is reason enough.

    The song wasn’t banned, and it might be worth noting your error in saying so. Some bloggers complained about the perpetuation of stereotypes and the group behind it explained that it was a parody and said they were sorry that some people didn’t get the joke. In the end, they just decided to take it down from Youtube and iTunes rather than keep talking about it.

    They could have made another decision, and opened up a conversation, but they didn’t want to. It was their choice, though. No one forced them. It wasn’t banned.

    1. Think I probably need to clear up some things here.

      I wasn't trying to be statistical when I said "almost equally often be right". Perhaps it was a wrong choice of words, however, I do think that most of the time people are roughly working on a 50-50 shot when they use culture as an explanation to explain behaviour. Just my opinion.

      My reference to 1984 was not to suggest that the situation at the moment is the same, as I know the state controlled everything in 1984 and that is not what is being talked about here. Merely, I was suggesting that trying to limit free expression is not beneficial to us. I was simply arguing that the current methods of conversation are one step onto the slippery slope to 1984, but maybe I could have made that clearer.

      By saying, “ People should be afraid of spouting racist nonsense, not just because of the social stigma attached to it, but because of the ridicule they receive from people who know they have no reason for it other than ignorance and prejudice.“, how much clearer could I have been? By saying they have no reason other than "ignorance and prejudice" I think that is clearly saying their opinion is nonsense. I am saying what they think is either stupid or bigoted, put in another way. I don't really understand your criticism here. I am specifically writing why they should be "afraid" of speaking also because it is relevant to the post and the issue of free speech.

      I also didn't say the song was banned. I wrote that banning it would be counter-productive, if it were to happen, but checking over what I wrote again, nowhere did I say it was banned. Perhaps this line is a bit confusing, however.

      "This always happens when those offended try to ban things like this. Banning free speech/expression is almost always counter-productive as a tactic anyway, as this quite clearly shows."

      The second sentence appears to suggest they banned it, but the first clearly suggests only "try to ban". I guess the ambiguous nature of this is down to slightly unclear writing, I should have written "trying to ban free speech...." at the start of the second part, perhaps. I do think, however, if you read through the post carefully again it clearly suggests that the video has not been banned yet, there were just calls for it to be.

      There were calls for it to be banned and they were going to take the video down, as you said. No one forced them, you are right but the point of the post was simply that I actually don't want people to feel threatened enough to do things like this because of an over-the-top PC reaction to something. This continues to happen and it does quell controversy and having important conversations about things that really matter.

      I think being able to dispassionately discuss cultural differences and behaviour caused by culture is important in an inter-connected world and I do believe we can't do this at this moment in time as well as we should be able to.

  4. Does the good service only apply to white people ? Or to other people of colors (such as black,etc. ) as well ?

    1. That is a good point. Service is usually great for other Koreans and white people, but yes, I have heard many a complaint about people of other races being given very poor service. Think this shows that normally their service standards are high, but that they lower them for some minorities out of prejudice.

      A Chinese-Canadian friend of mine commented recently how she received far better service when she visited Seoul with her White-Western friends than when she visited with her family members.