The NTSB recently held a hearing regarding the crash-landing of Asiana Flight 214 at the San Francisco Airport earlier this year, in which a testifying expert said that Korean culture may have contributed to the crash. This, again, is giving rise to the discussion about the correlation between Korean culture and airline crashes. For example, as they did previously, CNN put out a vignette that wondered whether Korean culture caused the plane to crash.
Because of my previous post about the culturalism surrounding the discussion regarding Flight 214, many people think that I was arguing Korean culture had no role whatsoever in the crash of Flight 214. That idea is a misread of the post. The main point of the post was not that culture does not exist, or culture plays no role in airplane crashes. Although part of the reason why the post turned out to be well-read was because it argued against Malcolm Gladwell's claim that culture was the primary determinant of airplane crashes, the gravamen of the post was not even about Mr. Gladwell's argument. The main point of the post was to raise a question about how we talk about culture.
Did Korean culture actually play a factor in the Asiana crash? Perhaps. I am in no position to question the expert, seeing that I am not an expert in flight safety. (Most of us are not.) Nor do I begrudge the fact that the expert probed whether a national culture impacted airline safety. It is important to ensure that flights are safe, and it would be irresponsible for the person in charge of the investigation to not examine all potential factors for the crash. If a well-supported research, backed by solid evidence, states that culture plays a role in airline safety, wonderful. That knowledge will make our flights safer.
But again, the point was not about whether or not culture plays a role in airline safety. The point was about culturalism. That is to say: why does this curiosity about the correlation between culture and plane crashes arise selectively? Why is it that, in the 2009 Air France crash, there was no discussion at all about the role of French culture in plane crashes? Why was there no discussion about American culture when a Southwest flight crash-landed in New York, mere weeks after the Asiana crash? (Is there anyone who sincerely believes that, in the upcoming NTSB hearing about the Southwest flight crash, there will be an expert discussing the American culture's contribution to the crash?) 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. 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.
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. This is why Robert Mugabe's dictatorship is discussed as if it is a result of Africa's cultural pathology, while Vladimir Putin's dictatorship does not invite the same discussion about European culture. This is why, in the minds of the public, the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster had to be related to the Japanese culture, while the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster provoked zero discussion about the British culture.
People who are beholden to culturalism often fancy themselves to be an intrepid seeker of truth, undeterred by political correctness in search of greater knowledge. But for those people, the opposite is true: the culturalist impulse, rather than illuminating the truth, distorts and obscures it. For a speaker with culturalist tendencies, the desire to find some connection between culture and events becomes so strong that he elides the true facts for the sake of good story. The listener with culturalist mindset accepts that faulty narrative without raising questions, even though the story has obvious, glaring holes.
In the previous post, I critiqued Malcolm Gladwell's "Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes" to illustrate this culturalistic distortion. To draw the line connecting Korean culture and Korean Air Line's spotty safety record in the late 1990s, Gladwell engaged in a series of legerdemain. Gladwell ascribes several of KAL crashes to pilot errors, when those flights were actually victimized by terrorist attacks. Gladwell discusses at length the crash of KAL Flight 801 in 1997, and the inefficiency of Korean language to convey urgent messages in an emergency situation--except the pilots of Flight 801 were speaking in English. Gladwell quotes the black box transcript to claim that the co-pilot did not speak up clearly enough about the bad weather condition, but the part of the transcript that Gladwell failed to quote shows that the co-pilot in fact spoke up clearly, and the pilot acknowledged the poor weather.
The overall story that Gladwell thusly constructed is something that strains credulity: that Korean pilots are willing to die and kill hundreds of their passengers for the sake of keeping manners. Exposing the shoddy groundwork upon which Gladwell built this story was not difficult--after all, a nobody like myself, an anonymous blogger with a full time job, could do it. But the ease of this task only serves to highlight the gullibility that culturalism fosters. It is shocking that so many people--millions of people who bought Outliers and made Gladwell the most influential non-fiction writer of the last decade--simply accepted Gladwell's extremely unlikely story without asking themselves, "Seriously? I'm supposed to believe this?"
Let me make this clear one more time, because too many people, perhaps following their culturalist impulse, chase this idea as if it is a shiny object. This discussion is not about whether or not culture impacts plane crashes. For all we know, Korean culture really may have contributed to the Asiana crash. But that changes nothing about the way in which we discuss culture and plane crashes. 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.
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