The Korean had thought the post about the Asiana crash and culturalism would get some readership, but hoo-wee. At over 24,000 pageviews today as of this writing, it is the most visitors that this blog has hosted on a single day. (The previous record was around 16,000, when the New York Times introduced this blog.) Although the Korean had said over and over again that this blog is strictly a hobby and he could care less about the number of readers, he is not so obtuse to make nothing of the time that so many people spent reading what he wrote. So everyone who read the post: thank you. Everyone who shared and commented on the post: thank you one more time.
The Korean attempted to make the previous post about culturalism and plane crash for focused and general reader-friendly, which meant that the post was lacking in many of the stylistic points and the inside jokes (including the Korean's constant reference to himself as a third person) which usually appear in this blog, as well as a lot of stray thoughts and asides. But no more of those shackles in this follow-up post! Here, the Korean will discuss his thoughts to the readers' reaction to the post, and also share some leftover thoughts.
(1) The Main Point of the Post. The Korean found that a lot of people misunderstood the main point of the post. The main point is not to argue that culture plays absolutely no role in plane crashes. Some commenters went so far as to claim that my point was culture does not affect behaviors at all--which is completely nuts. The Korean writes a blog that talks about Korean culture! Of course culture affects behaviors!
The main point is that we may encounter problems when we start thinking about culture as an explanation. To quote Abraham Maslow fully: "To a man who only has a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail." In this context, the Korean is not advocating that we stop using the hammer; he is merely advocating that we stop swinging that hammer at everything we see. If we are going to use culture as an explanation for anything, at a minimum, we have to know a great deal about the culture itself and be hyper-aware in which the culture interacts with a given situation. Otherwise, all the harms that the Korean described about culturalism result: obfuscation of truth, other-ization of people, and elimination of individual agency.
It is true that the Korean is rather skeptical about the "cultural" explanation of plane crashes. He is particularly so because the fountainhead of this cultural explanation of plane crashes, Malcolm Gladwell, did such a poor job in proving up his thesis. Also, because he knows that the desire to explain everything with culture flows from the same source as racism, the Korean is skeptical of people who insist that culture must absolutely be a factor, and are always in a hunt for some type of cultural answer. This is even more so because--let's be honest--there have been plenty of racist comments about the Asiana crash.
But being skeptical is not the same as being dismissive. The Korean's sense is that even if culture played a role in airplane crashes, it would be so miniscule that it should only interest the professionals of the airline industry searching for one more bit toward perfection, instead of serving as a significant contributing cause to any plane crash. But he remains open to reviewing all available evidence before making a final conclusion.
(2) Golf. Frankly, the Korean did not anticipate this. Many of the comments complained about how golf was not like flying a plane. Because golf is an individual sport, the argument went, it is not like a multi-person action like flying a plane. So the golf comparison was off-base.
This comment misses the point. The point was not to say that golf has the same level of cultural causation as flying a plane does. The point of using golf as an example was to illustrate how people never connect two far-flung data points (= poor shots) in golf just because of the golfer's nationality, but somehow people do the same with plane crashes that are also far-flung data points.
Any way you shake it, the comment does not make sense. Is the comment complaining that golf has no cultural causation, but flying a plane does? But culturalist explanations for golf are plenty. For example, many people ascribed Korean culture as a factor as to why there are so many dominant LPGA players who are either Korean or Korean-American. According to those folks, something about Korean culture might be in play when it comes to excellent female golfers. But does it mean that when Se-ri Pak missed a putt in the 13th hole of the Women's British Open in 1997, she missed it for the same reason that caused Inbee Park shanks a drive in the second hole of the 2013 Women's U.S. Open? Most people would say no. (By the way, that was a hypothetical. Don't go searching for what happened at Women's British Open in 1997.)
Or, is the comment complaining that, if a team sport was used as a comparison, a culturalist explanation would be more accurate? But there are so many examples of a culturalist explanation being embarrassingly wrong. Just one of them: in the 1950s, Jewish people excelled in basketball. Soon, a culturalist explanation developed--the Jews are good at basketball because Jewish culture encourages swiftness and cunning. Of course, we now know that such explanation is ridiculous. (Or alternatively, we moved onto a different culturalist explanation involving African Americans.) So, if so many of the culturalist theories about team sports are wrong, what makes the culturalist theories about plane crashes so correct?
(3) KAL Flights into Russia. This one, the Korean did expect some resistance. Many comments said KAL flights venturing into Russia during the late 1970s and 80s were also a pilot error, and it was fair for Malcolm Gladwell to count them as he was tallying up Korean Air's accidents.
The Korean disagrees. He will take the point is a navigation error is a serious pilot error. But the usual consequence of poor navigation into the wrong airspace is not that a military jet will appear and shoot your plane down. There is an obvious difference between wandering into the wrong air space and ramming into a mountain: the former, in most cases, does not lead to a plane crash and deaths.
But if you must insist otherwise, that's fine. This is a small point in the overall assessment of Gladwell's argument, so it is strange to see so many commenters get so hung up on it. In the Korean's mind, the greater problem was that Gladwell never disclosed the fact that two of the crashes that he counted were results of military or paramilitary attacks. At the very least, Gladwell could have let the readers decide if it was fair for him to count the three crashes as a part of KAL's safety record.
(4) More about Gladwell. One strand of thought that the Korean did not discuss about Malcolm Gladwell: the Korean cannot help but struck by the violent imperialism that is implied by Gladwell's argument. Technically, Gladwell's point is not that Koreans are forever chained to the destiny of crashing planes. His point is that Koreans can escape that destiny, as long as they stop speaking Korean.
This may not be a fair criticism, because Gladwell does not say that this should be applied to Korean people generally. After all, the chapter about the Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes discusses only Korean pilots, not Koreans as a whole. But it seems like a fair observation that Gladwell is presenting his theory with an implication that it has a broader application than airline pilots.
At this point, we are fairly deep into the realm of speculation, so the Korean will spare his words. He will only note that the idea of changing or replacing the native language to absorb a superior culture is nothing new. It has been around since the 19th century, when the Europeans and Americans began conquering the world with a sincere belief that they are better suited to run the various parts of the world than those who were already occupying those parts--which is why the Korean finds this implication unnerving.
(5) A Telling Incident. Today, Oakland's KTVU station reported that Asiana Flight 214's pilot names were: "Sum Ting Wong, Wi Tu Lo, Ho Lee Fuk, Bang Ding Ow." These are obviously fake names that smack of racism. And it is striking that KTVU, based in one of the most Asian-heavy regions in the United States, let that one be aired on television. Several people at KTVU must have looked at these names, and okay'ed their release via broadcast. How could this happen?
KTVU's excuse: the National Transportation Safety Board verified those pilot names. And the NTSB did! Apparently, a summer intern at the NTSB confirmed these names to the KTVU.
Now, my culturalist friends: what is it about American culture that contributed a local station with heavily Asian population to blindly buy the obviously false representation from the NTSB? Is there an inherent deference to authority in American culture that contributed to this gaffe? Let's hear it.
(6) Correction. Commenter Chris Kahn left very helpful comment, which is worth reproducing in full:
I'm a Korean too - I actually commissioned as an OCS (like the pilot of Korean Air 801) officer, and served as a naval officer on a ship and later as a UDT/SEAL in the Korean navy. I agree with your basic thesis that Gladwell is inexcusably sloppy and that culturalism is over-emphasized in covering the recent crash.
However, I do think that language was a contributing factor to the KA 801 crash - though such problems are not necessarily limited to Korean culture as the Challenger and Discovery tragedies, and the development of Crew Resource Management by NASA show.
First of all, I disagree with your description of the hierarchy of Korean military officers. In every day interactions, "seniority of commissioning date" is the overwhelming factor in deciding how to interact other officers, with actual age coming in as a modifying factor. Commissioning source (Academy or non-academy) heavily affects an officer's career trajectory and chances for promotion, but does not factor into the language hierarchy. Rank also does not affect the language hierarchy, which causes much cognitive dissonance and discomfort should a higher ranking junior officer work in close quarters with a lower ranking senior officer.
The senior pilot was commissioned in '75 and left the Air Force as a major in '87 while the first officer was Air Force Academy class of 26 which would mean he was commissioned in '78 and left the military as a Lt. Col. Hence, the pilot is unambiguously superior to the first officer. This is supported by the language in the transcript where the senior pilot uses the lowest form of speech (반말) to the first officer. From my personal experience, I have never seen any junior Academy officer fail to defer to a senior (in commissioning date) OCS or ROTC officer.
Second, the flight engineer is clearly much older and senior to both the pilot and the first officer. But there is another factor in play here - engineering is a secondary rating to flying and in the Korean military at least, there is a strong sense that you don't interfere with another officer's turf. Each specialty is highly silo-ed. For example, on the first ship I was on, the Chief engineering officer (Cheng) was senior to the Executive Officer (XO). Hence, at no point did our XO fail to acknowledge the Cheng's seniority, but in return the Cheng was conscientious about not overstepping the bounds of his specialty and interfering with the management of the ship.
So there were clear linguistic barriers to open communication within the cockpit of the KA 801. The first officer was junior to the pilot, and the flight engineer was used to keeping his hands off the realm of pilots.
Second, my own experience running exercises as a SEAL has shown that conventional Korean language hinders cooperation in time sensitive situations. For Close Quarters Combat exercises, where team members must work with each other within a room to clear it of "bad guys" safely, and where the situation and command structures are fluid, my unit has mandated that everyone speaks to each other in the lowest form of speech (반말) regardless of rank or age. Not only does this reduce the time necessary to communicate (since sentence endings are shorter), but it makes the junior members of a team much more likely to speak up when they see a corner that hasn't been "held" yet or a potentially dangerous situation.
Deference to authority is not a unique problem to Koreans (again, see NASA and Crew Resource Management), but I would argue that the Korean language structurally exacerbates the problem.
In the original post, the Korean pointed out that KAL Flight 801's captain would not be disrespectful to the first officer and the flight engineer because of their age and military pedigree. This comment provides more color, and raises the possibility that the first officer and the flight engineer would be deferential to the captain regardless.
The Korean is hesitant to take just one person's word for it, but he is willing to acknowledge a superior source of information. So here is the official correction: the Korean's point about the relative social ranks of the captain, the first officer and the flight engineer of the KAL Flight 801 may not be accurate.
(6) Further reading. The Korean hopes that he intrigued you about culturalism. He has previously written several posts about culturalism, and you can search for the word in the blog if you are interested in reading further. If he were to pick just one for recommended further reading, he would pick this one: Another Person's Room. Remember, there are always socks in a room. (You will get it after you read that post.)
Thank you, again, for reading and commenting.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at email@example.com.