Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Culture Bias in Reporting of Korean Culture and Plane Crashes?

I might have some issues with TheKorean's writing, but that does not detract from the fact I read his blog more than most others.  His opinion on many matters seems to run opposite to mine and I enjoy hearing my opinions challenged, which most of his writing does, in an eloquent, well thought-out way.  It is easy to think that just because people disagree with each other that this necessarily involves hatred or even dislike. I do not see it this way, so I'd like to begin this post by saying that I really appreciate TheKorean's blog and the time he has taken recently and in the past to respond to me.

I do, however, still disagree with him about his theory on cultural explanations and culturalism.  I will explain why in this post.  I do believe TheKorean's ambitions in his first post were greater than the position he is taking now, but the way I understand things now - and with his arguments stripped down as generously as I can - it goes like this:

1. We should not posit a cultural explanation for something, especially if the issue is a sensitive one, before we know the facts or at least have explored other avenues first, with particular responsibility placed on the media.

2. In the West, we jump onto cultural explanations when it comes to the non-Western countries and we don't when it comes to ourselves or other Western countries.  This is an example of a bias called "Culturalism."  Here are some quotes to verify this:

"If national culture is such an important concept that must be examined to promote airline safety, why does the discussion about cultural factors never happen when a European or an American plane crashes?"
 "The honest answer to these questions must inevitably involve the concept of bias, for culturalism is a form of bias."
 "This is why Europeans and Americans get a pass from the culturalist desire. It is not that Europeans and Americans do not have a culture that impacts their behavior; they clearly do. It is that Europeans and Americans are always afforded the luxury of being treated as individuals who are not slaves to their cultures. The same luxury is rarely afforded to South Americans, Middle Easterners, Africans and Asians."
"CNN will continue running stories about Korean culture whenever a Korean plane crashes, while never raising questions about American culture when an American plane crashes. That is the discrepancy that I want you to think about."

As I said, I think his ambitions were greater than this in his original post, but I am not going to dwell on it and I am willing to concede that it may only be my mistaken interpretation of what he wrote which is the cause of me thinking this.  This is what he is saying now, so let's examine it.

The first part of his argument I have some sympathy to, but the second part is simply showing complete indifference to the multitude of situations where culture is used by Europeans and Americans to explain their own behaviour, their own problems, and their own disasters, rightly or wrongly (and the behaviour of other Western countries).  Culture isn't used specifically for explaining plane crashes, he's right, but it is used in many other situations which include (and are glaringly easy to find); obesity, gun crime, healthcare, and education in the US, soccer hooliganism, violencebinge drinking and anti-social behaviour in the UK, and the economic crisis in Southern Europe.  Whether all these cultural explanations are correct or even justified are irrelevant to the 2nd point, because it does definitively show that there is no bias and Europeans and Americans don't get a pass from the "culturalist" desire as he says. 

When TheKorean talks specifically about plane crashes, the reasons for supposing a nation's culture might cause them is absolutely vital in the positing of a cultural explanation.  The fact is that we had good reasons with Korean culture, the reasons are not so clear with Western countries (even if these reasons turned out to be wrong, I think you can see how it is someone might hold them based on Korean hierarchical respect culture).  If I was to start talking about traditional Korean food culture as playing a role in rising obesity in Korea, it would be ridiculous and difficult to comprehend.  But if I started to talk about American food culture seeping into Korea and that being a cause of rising obesity, you might begin to think I am making some sense judging by the fact Americans have the highest calorie intake on the planet on average and have high obesity rates, and American food is generally higher in calories than traditional Korean food (especially fast food, which is becoming more popular in Korea).

In a reply to me, he did however, express another factor that could be involved.  He argued that problems, say, in American culture are often localised or universalised and that we didn't do this with Korean culture and airplane crashes.  He gave the examples of people not talking about Korean pilots coming from the military and the effect that might have (localised) and people not talking about "cockpit culture" being a factors across all countries (universalised).  For example, in education the problem isn't so much American culture, but arguments are given relating to the poor within America or the immigrants from other countries (localised).  And in the 2008 financial crisis, again American culture wasn't directly blamed, but corporate greed or "the one percent" a problem we see everywhere (universalised).

I think he was wrong about this because I distinctly remember reading articles in the Western press talking about military pilots becoming airline pilots in Korea, and this possibly being a factor in past crashes, and a large amount of talk about "Cockpit culture" not being uniquely Korean.  So the accusation that we don't localise or universalise with other cultures is false, at least in the example he uses.  I provide these links to show this:

In the second article, the Guardian never even mentions Korean culture in the Asiana crash investigation findings. 

When it comes to point 1, however, the justification of the reasons we make for culture being an issue are important.  It could very well be that the people in Western countries are too quick to jump to cultural conclusions and they shouldn't (especially in the media), whether it is about themselves, other Western countries or non-Western countries.  This may in fact be true of people from all countries and cultures.

In my last post, I outlined the reasons why I thought we had good reasons to suspect Korean culture as playing a role in potentially catastrophic failures of communication in plane crashes.  I think it was fair enough to speculate that this was part of the reason for the Asiana crash (especially in light of the previous cases), I also think it is perfectly fine to speculate about it on a blog.  A slightly trickier question is whether it is responsible of a major world news corporation to speculate about it in the wake of the crash when it hadn't been fully investigated yet.  The truth is, I am not sure about this.  When it's put like that it doesn't sound good, for sure.

However, without the obvious signs of a mechanical failure and a history of Korean respect culture playing a role in other crashes - according to crash investigators - I do think they were justified in bringing up the subject of the reasons for previous plane crashes of Korean airliners.  After all, if a British Airways plane crashed tomorrow, the news would probably bring up previous crashes of British Airways and other British airplane disasters, especially if circumstances looked similar.  So in Korean airline companies, the history of previous crashes will hint at the same reason applying for the current crash, so I guess drawing the same conclusions is unavoidable.

It is of course quite natural for us to look for cultural explanations for bad things we see happen connected with cultures that are not our own, this is the tribal instinct at work, perhaps.  I understand why TheKorean is against this, just because it is natural doesn't make it right and it is perhaps an urge that we all should fight against.  But I think Western culture does, quite uniquely, fight against this.  While I have written myself about the frustrating levels of prejudice still present in Western culture, institutionally, in politics, and in the media they actually sometimes take positions that are too relative and too "fair" to other cultures, to the point where we even do not apply our own laws for fear of being insensitive to another culture.  We often disregard objectivity, equality, and human rights to the detriment of our own countries and the detriment of vulnerable people who are immigrants from other countries.  Examples can be seen of this in my own country lately with the brouhaha over the allowing of segregation of men and women in universities by Muslim speakers (which has now thankfully been rescinded after an official watchdog and the government voiced objection to Universities UK's decision).

The Issue of Freedom of Speech

The wonderful thing about free speech and expression, is that when you say or do something that is lazy or is motivated by pure prejudice without reason, logic and evidence, it tends to show up.  You look like a dumbass when you're exposed, you feel like an idiot, and after a period of licking one's wounds, hopefully your opinions get changed.  This is why my heckles are raised significantly when the word "racism" is used in these kinds of arguments.

TheKorean did explicitly state he did not equate culturalism with racism (also note he remarks that culturalism is something Americans do to other Americans in this quote, which seems to contradict his 2nd point):

"I am not willing to equate culturalism and racism, because the two terms do not overlap completely. For example, culturalism is evident in the manner in which the rest of America discusses the Deep South, in a way that racism is not. But as I wrote previously, culturalism and racism are related, as they are two streams from the same source--the desire to reduce an identifiable group of people to some kind of indelible essence."

However, he is creating a strong connection between the two and he made pains to make this clear in his original post:

"Like racism, culturalism puts a large group of people beyond rational understanding."
"Like racism, culturalism distracts away from asking more meaningful questions, and obscures pertinent facts."
"like racism, culturalism destroys individual agency"

The problem with doing this is that he should know that as soon as the word "racism" comes up in an argument people from the opposing side tend to back down for fear of being labeled a "racist."  It has been a tactic used by the far-left progressives for some time now.  It is corrosive to free speech and I believe encourages a festering of racism because people's actual racist views or border-line racist views are left unchallenged.  This is the whole debate on the right to offend in freedom of expression in a nutshell and I firmly sit on the side of the right to offend (without going out of our way to offend just for the sake of it).  Of course, TheKorean is perfectly entitled to write what he does, but this is my response to it.  It is an important debate to have because it has not really been settled yet.

Because of all this, then, if he had made point one without bringing-up the subject of racism or indeed culturalism or any prejudice at all, I might have been more inclined to agree with him, but his second point was the biggest problem.  I think he alienated many people who see good reasons for making cultural explanations/opinions/speculations because they simply honestly see that there could be a large dose of truth in them.  Most are not "culturalists", or even have any prejudice at all and they resent being linked to racists. 

This is a game the progressive left have been playing with conservative opinions for some time now, and whilst I actually have mostly liberal opinions, I have great sympathy for those that hold conservative opinions when they are shot down for being racists or bigots, or simply labeled as ignorant and prejudiced.  Some undoubtedly are, like some liberals are, but I know by having known many of them that most probably aren't and they would not discriminate or show any malice against individuals on the basis of race and culture. 

It is not wrong to have an opinion about a culture, it is wrong to apply this opinion to discriminate unfairly against individuals, that is the bottom line.  By speculating that Korean culture might have been a factor in a crash, how did anyone discriminate against an individual or violate their human rights?  If then some airline company chooses to use this speculation to not hire a Korean pilot, for example, then we have a case of discrimination and this is unfair.  However, is that really likely to happen?  Perhaps it does, but that would be exactly the area we would need to clamp down on.  Not the honest musings about how culture effects behaviour, but the treating of individuals as individuals.

People were totally within their rights to challenge the assumption or the evidence that Korean culture was involved in airline crashes, but until TheKorean did so, perhaps the argument simply wasn't out there.  It is pretty difficult to report on a side of an argument that doesn't exist yet.  One should give credit to TheKorean for questioning Gladwell's lack of thoroughness and people's blind acceptance of what he said and giving the other side of the argument, but to call it "culturalism" and an example of prejudice is going too far, perhaps it was simple ignorance.  There is nothing wrong with ignorance as long as it is not willful.  By putting your opinion out there, you invite others to enlighten you and critique your position, the key is having an open mind.  I would also note how well received TheKorean's article was going against Gladwell's previously accepted theory, he certainly wasn't silenced.

Speculating with an open mind is fine, with a closed mind it is wrong.  Speculating and making it seem like fact, that is another problem and which TheKorean took Gladwell to task on.  Sloppy work motivated by culturalism?  That's a step too far, as I said, I'd say simply sloppy work and perhaps he is a 'culturalist', but I think he should be given the benefit of the doubt that he is not and his work should not be marked as motivated by a form of prejudice.  In fact, TheKorean's conclusion about Gladwell and those that accepted his work hints at a fair amount of hypocrisy because he is the one saying we shouldn't jump to cultural conclusions and says it is unfair and insensitive.  Yet at the same time he is jumping to the conclusion of prejudice, which is just as - if not more than - unfair and insensitive itself.

There will always be examples of people with prejudice, or even whole TV stations or newspapers with prejudice, but to accuse it on the whole culture or the journalistic profession in the West is unfair and not true.  And as I have mentioned, I think even the bad ones do it across the board with all cultures, including their own.  Also, defense of other cultures in the Western media is quite vociferous and a popular position to take among liberals these days.

One newspaper or TV network does not speak for the whole of Western culture.  If TheKorean's point is merely to enlighten us when we see individual news reports about their inaccuracies and jumping to cultural conclusions, he must surely know that CNN, for example, have been roundly trashed for doing both by other news networks, newspapers, political commentators and comedians.  Let's face it, sometimes, especially 24-hour news networks are so desperate for something to report, that they will report nearly anything.

The issue TheKorean brings up is not about prejudice, it is about politeness, sensitivity and accuracy in media reporting and writing, and that is something I could be persuaded upon to change my views when it comes to using cultural explanations, of any culture (when it comes to sloppy work in the media generally, I am already sold).  I would still need to be convinced that being overly-sensitive to a reasonable criticism of your culture from other countries is necessary or essentially understandable (logically speaking, I think it is not).  You are not your culture and should not be offended as if a criticism against your culture was a criticism of you personally, one should listen carefully and see if they have a point about the culture you live in, then dismiss it if they are wrong and try to change things if they are right.  Perhaps this is not very realistic (perhaps as realistic as trying to stop jumping to cultural conclusions), but this is how we can truly grow and create a better society with which to live in, and importantly, live together in.


  1. If a person of Korean heritage (no matter how small or how little time they spent in Korea) does something notable that makes the country good, everybody in Korea jumps on the 'special Korean blood/culture/heritage' bandwagon as the driving force behind the person's success.

    If a person of Korean heritage screws up, it's never the country's (cultural/heritage etc) fault. NEVER. The blame is aimed at everything and everyone from the sun to the beggar on the street, basically ANYTHING and ANYONE NOT Korean.

    In all fairness this happens in various degrees in many countries (albeit not as severe as Korea). Take a look at Andy Murray and Rory McIlroy...when they win, they're British....when they lose, they're Scottish and/or Northern Irish respectively.

    Korea needs to realize that if it want to use its collective 'specialness' as the driving force behind its citizens' success, it should not be surprised at the prospect of the same criteria being touted as the driving force behind the same citizens' screw ups.

    1. Your comparison is nonsense. Koreans don't attribute a Korean's success to 'Koreanness' or Korean culture.

  2. "You are not your culture" rolls easily off the tongues of people who've had the privilege of living like that. Most Asians (and Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, LGBT, etc.) have not. It's tiring to constantly have to declare one's individuality. Like yelling to be seen. The Korean is understandably annoyed.

    1. Would you prefer people to say, "You are your culture", and discriminate against people and not treat them like individuals? Surely you want people to say "you're not your culture." How are things going to get better if people aren't saying what I said?

      Look, I am a 'privileged one' I guess. If someone said something like British people are a nation of drunken, thuggish fools. I would reply that not everyone is, but also say they have a point and it is something us Brits need to carefully look at in our culture, I don't think I'd be the least bit upset. Your point is that it is easy for me to say that, and it is true, but what is the alternative for people of other cultures? If they act hurt everytime any criticism comes their way of their culture they immediately posit themselves as weak and the criticiser as superior. When Westerners, especially white folk, then do this on other culture's behalf they again assume weakness and vulnerability. I don't, I criticise Korean culture because I respect the people enough to think they can handle freedom of speech. I treat them like I would a fellow Brit or an American or whatever. If I am wrong about things, I respect Korean people enough with the freedom to exercise their right to put me down or the ability to look objectively and change. Yeah, of course it is easier for me, history has dealt me the better hand perhaps, but that doesn't mean what I say is not true.

      Of course, if a criticism is not a criticism, but something just plain nasty, everyone being upset is perfectly natural. I just don't see how asking the question whether Korean hierarchical respect culture played a part in a plane crash as something motivated by nastiness. It was motivated by logic and evidence. If it was unjustified, it would have been exposed and people would've just moved on to a different reason for the crash.

  3. To quote Chris from his previous post:
    " But ask yourself this; who is more likely to be well informed about Korean culture? Someone with no experience of it, or someone who has lived there for nearly 5 years and has been married with a Korean woman for 3 and a half of those years?"

    Yet when Koreans tell him he is way off (again and again, by the way), he still thinks he knows better, despite his experience in the culture being a fraction of theirs.

    I keep find myself wondering if Chris is dimwitted and does not see the logic flaws, or smart enough to see them and just ignores (meaning no disrespect to Chris here).

    1. Well, the fact is that some Koreans say I'm wrong and some that I'm right. Who are we to believe? Just the one's that say I'm wrong by your reasoning.

      The full quote was as follows, too:

      "I am the kind of person that doesn't really respect authority or even always expertise, even experts can be wrong. But ask yourself this; who is more likely to be well informed about Korean culture? Someone with no experience of it, or someone who has lived there for nearly 5 years and has been married with a Korean woman for 3 and a half of those years?"

      The difference is she had NO experience with Korean culture, not even some. That is a big difference (that's why I brought it up). I also, by respectfully debating with her, (and she said as much) did respect her opinion and dealt with it with reason and argument, I did not dismiss her. I did state that experts and authority can be wrong. That is indeed why I spent the time to debate with her. So I find myself wondering if you are dimwitted, see no logical flaws, are not smart enough, or just ignore things (no disrespect intended).

      And what kind of argument is this to do with this post? Stick to the point, what is the argument against what I say here other than Korean you know of who disagrees, i.e. TheKorean disagrees.