Thursday, May 08, 2014

Culturalism and Understanding of Culture

[Series Index]

Propagandist poster symbolizing the Lusitania.
A sinking ship has been a subject of romanticized tragedy for at least a century, going back to the Lusitania and the Titanic. In a large part, this treatment of maritime disasters happens because a sinking ship is such a perfect vehicle for a narrative. A ship is a self-contained civilization, constantly exposed to the apocalyptic possibility for any number of reasons. Those reasons, eventually, become the story of each sinking. The Lusitania is remembered as a story about German aggression; the Titanic, a story about human hubris. If the story's devices include the death of hundreds of young school children, it can only be more compelling.

So, inevitably, the tragic sinking of the Sewol became another story. Initially, much of the story revolved around the captain's criminal dereliction of duty, as he was seen--as the world was watching--abandoning the ship without any concern for the passengers. But in a matter of days, the story turned into the one about Korean culture--how its Confucianism made its children too unthinking and obedient to save themselves when the ship's PA system instructed them to stay in their cabins as the ship was sinking. 

In the wake of the Asiana plane crash last year, I discussed the concept of culturalism, which I defined as "unwarranted impulse to explain people's behavior with a 'cultural difference,' whether real or imagined." I tried to show that the fountainhead of cultural explanation for airplane crashes, i.e. one chapter in Malcolm Gladwell's Outlier, was based on shoddy reasoning founded upon cherry-picked evidence. Then I explained the danger of culturalism: it obfuscates the truth, distracts from the real issue, and wipes away the individuality of the people who are "explained" through culture.

This time, before I could comment, several writers produced excellent pieces of writing that persuasively argued against the reductionist claims about Korean culture and the Sewol disaster. The best ones came from John Bocskay and Jakob Dorof--you should read them. Because Bocskay and Dorof did such an excellent job refuting the reductionist, "Korean culture sinks ships" claim, I feel that I should not belabor the point.

Instead, I will address a different angle. As to my Asiana article and the Sewol-related articles by Bocskay and Dorof, the objections were the same: culture is real, and it exerts real force on human decisions. When I presented my critique of culturalism in the context of the Asiana flight crash, most of the objections, in so many words, said there really was a cultural difference in communication patterns, which may well affect airline safety. Likewise, to articles by Bocskay and Dorof, many objected by claiming that culture clearly impacted the way in which the Sewol disaster unfolded, and it is not only incorrect, but also willfully blind, to say otherwise.

But such objections miss the point completely, since neither I nor Bocskay and Dorof argued that there was no such thing as culture or cultural differences. Recall that the definition of culturalism is "unwarranted impulse to explain people's behavior with a 'cultural difference.'" In my original piece about culturalism as well as in my subsequent discussion, I stressed repeatedly that cultural explanations have their place. I have little doubt that Bocskay and Dorof would agree with me in saying that culture is real, and it impacts human actions.

This leads to a natural question:  if culture is real, then what separates a cultural explanation from a culturalist one? 

(More after the jump.)

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When people offer an explanation based on "Korean culture," not simply in regards to the Sewol disaster but in general, I often find that the speaker is not entirely clear on what she means by "Korean culture." As far as I can tell, the definition of "Korean culture" in those explanation oscillates between two different poles of meanings.

In certain cases, "Korean culture" denotes a type of unchanging, indelible essence, common to Koreans and only Koreans. In this sense, "Korean culture" commands the actions of every Korean who has ever lived, past, present and future. It dictates the decisions of any Korean who has ever lived in any part of the world, be she a Korean in Busan whose family never left the city for a thousand years, or a Korean-Chinese whose family migrated outside of Korea more than a hundred years ago. It is obvious that this definition is no more than disguised racism, with "culture" serving as another dog whistle. Any "cultural" explanation based on this definition holds little explanatory power, as it collapses under its own weight.

In other cases, "Korean culture" is a shorthand for any commonly observable pattern of thoughts or behavior in Korea or among Koreans. As a shorthand, "Korean culture" amounts to little more than the sum of its highly diverse parts. "Korean culture," in this sense, is divisible to nearly infinite number of sub- and sub-sub-cultures upon a closer look. One can speak of Korea's corporate culture, culinary culture, pop culture, political culture, maritime culture, school culture, familial culture, Internet culture, youth culture, regional culture. Sometimes, these sub-cultures and sub-sub-cultures point to the same direction; at other times, they either subtly diverge, or actively clash with one another.

I believe that the second definition is the correct way of understanding culture. When I say "culture is real and exerts real influence," I am employing this definition. I do so because the difference between the first definition of "Korean culture" and the second definition of "Korean culture" is plain. The first definition is a yoke on Koreans, reducing them to unthinking automatons; the second definition is merely a descriptor, a shorthand that we are forced to use even though the shorthand never does justice to the real thing. The bodies of water that cover 71 percent of the Earth's surface include both extreme depth and extreme height, extreme heat and extreme cold, extremely large creatures and the extremely small ones. Yet we are forced to call them all "the ocean," for the sake of manageable brevity. Likewise, we may refer to "Korean culture" without losing sight of the fact that the vastness and complexity of hundreds of millions of actions taken by hundreds of millions of people every second can never be truly reducible to those two words.

One way of understanding culturalism is:  it is the moment at which the second, expansive definition of culture is tainted by the first, reductionist definition of culture. In most cases, the term "culture," as used by those who explain events by way of culture, represents a varying level of mixture of the two definitions. Importantly, those who offer the cultural explanations rarely understand the precise definition of the term "culture" that they employ, i.e. their exact location relative to the two poles. Like much of the racism in the world, culturalism is expressed not through active malice, but through unthinking deference to subconscious bias.

But regardless of whether the speaker is aware of his own bias, we know that much of the cultural explanations floating in the world are infected by culturalism, a form of bias. We can see this in the manner in which cultural explanations are offered. Fans of cultural explanations exhort that it is eminently fair to consider whether culture contributed to certain events. But the manner in which cultural explanations are employed gives a lie to this claim, since the applications of cultural explanations are anything but fair.

We know, for example, that the facts that do not fit the pre-existing stereotypes about Korea are rarely explained by way of Korean culture. This is a significant data point, for the term "stereotype" may well be another way of describing the reductionist understanding of culture. Several of the Sewol's junior crew members died as heroes, saving as many school children as they could before they perished. But there is little discussion about how Korean culture impelled those crew members to selflessly give their lives. If it is so eminently fair to cite culture as a significant contributor of human actions, why is such heroism not hailed a cultural achievement by Koreans?

Any part of Korean culture that that does not fit the stereotype about Korean culture is also disregarded. The culturalist explanation about the Sewol tragedy revolved around the supposed "Korean culture of obedience." But Korea marched from fascist dictatorship to democracy through relentless resistance and protests against the authority. A significant part of that protesting tradition of Korea involved young students, right around the age of the Danwon High School students who perished on the Sewol. If it is so eminently fair to introduce culture to explain behavior, why is one part of the national culture prioritized over another?

We also know that a cultural explanation overwhelmingly is more likely to emerge regarding a disaster in Asia or involving Asians (Fukushima, the Asiana crash or the Sewol sinking) compared to a disaster in North America or Europe (Katrina, Deep Water Horizon, Santiago de Compostela derailment.) This, too, indicates bias: cultural explanation is overwhelmingly more likely to appear when something happens in a faraway land to inscrutable people. The same question may be asked:  If it is so eminently fair to cite culture as a significant contributor of disasters, where are all the cultural explanations that expound on how American culture contributed to the bumbling response after the Hurricane Katrina, how British culture contributed the BP oil rig explosion, or how Spanish culture is to blame for the massive train derailment?

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Here, a short detour. The last point requires further discussion, because of this common objection: the claim that Americans and Europeans engage in cultural examinations of themselves all the time, chief example of which is the gun culture of America. This is a rather weak claim; it is plain that there is significantly less willingness to explain events that happen in America and Europe in terms of culture. (Again: where are all the cultural explanations that explain how British culture contributed to the BP oil disaster?)

To the extent that this weak objection has a grain of truth, it only serves to illuminate the difference between the two definitions of culture that come into play in a cultural explanation. For it is clear that "culture" in the context of Americans' discussions of "America's gun culture" refers to the expansive definition of "culture." When Americans discuss their own country's gun culture, absolutely no American thinks that the word "America" in "America's gun culture" serves to bind all Americans, or even a majority of Americans. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that when Americans speak of how Americans need to fix their gun culture, they are quietly whispering to themselves:  "except me."

The same is true for a similar objection:  the claim that Koreans constantly point to their own culture to explain the events in Korea--if Koreans themselves can use cultural explanation, why not us? But when Koreans are critiquing their own culture, the same silent whisper is constantly present:  "except me." When a non-Korean repeats Koreans' criticism of their own culture, the silent whisper of "except me" takes on a very different meaning. An "except me" uttered by a member of a culture speaking of her own culture serves to limit the applicability of "culture"; the same uttered by someone outside of that culture does the opposite.

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To return to the earlier point: none of this is intended to say that there is no such thing as culture. Culture is real, and it exerts real influence on people. What, then, can one do to talk about culture while avoiding the pitfalls of culturalism?

Judging from the experience of running a moderately successful blog about Korean culture, what I have found effective is to directly address the components of culture. After all, "culture" is a shorthand, containing a vast array of multitudes. An effective exposition of culture would necessarily be an unpacking of that shorthand.

I deliberately chose to write this post within the series after the post about the causes and contributing factors of the Sewol tragedy. My first priority in writing the second part of the series was to provide a concise summary of the relevant facts and circumstances surrounding the tragedy. But I also had a secondary aim:  I was trying to show just how much of the tragedy I could explain without any explicit reference to the word "culture." So the post included discussions about lax regulation by a neoliberal government, unchecked greed by a struggling corporation that led to a distorted business model, potential corruption and all-around incompetence.

I am humbled that the post was very well received; I am yet to see any criticism that the lack of express reference to culture somehow leaves the post incomplete. (To the contrary, many of the positive reviews for my post praised it for being "complete.") However, my post is still a thoroughly cultural piece, as it discusses many different cultural trends that one can encounter in Korea. Years of neoliberal economic reforms led to an unstable labor market, which fostered a culture of hapless dependency among the incompetent crew of Sewol. Lack of adequate disaster training bred a culture of amateurism within Korea's disaster response system, although their effort must be praised. At many junctures, large and small safety regulations were ignored, implying at a weak culture for public safety.

But how much would my post improve, had I chosen to explain the tragedy in those terms? How would the explanation become better by filtering everything through the word "culture," which inevitably invites a reductionist interpretation? In my estimation, this is simply the better way of explaining a foreign culture: break it down to its components, by presenting the facts and circumstances that gave rise to that particular pattern of behavior. Aim for true empathy and understanding by suggesting that, if you encountered the same facts and circumstances, you would do the same. I do not always succeed in doing this, but it has always been the guiding principle for this blog. The modicum of readership that this blog has enjoyed seems to say that I am not alone in the opinion that this is the better approach.

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  1. "I know a lot of people are saying culture was not a factor, but I think objectively, I can say that it certainly was.

    The government culture of corrupt agencies and lack of safety regulations.
    The corporate culture of profits above all else, cutting corners and working quickly regardless of quality.
    The social culture of respecting authority and not to ask questions - do what you are told.
    The preparedness culture of no safety drills, no real emergency protocol and lack of planning.
    The media culture which promotes speed over accuracy and clicks over integrity.

    Now all of these are not just regulated to Korea and are present in many cultures, but I believe that this accident was more likely to happen and the rescue operation more likely to be botched - here in Korea."

  2. Corporate culture of profits before all else and government culture of corrupt agencies and lack of safety regulations = neoliberal capitalism.

    'Disorganized, irresponsible, inept and selfish' describes the ferry company and government in Korea. That seems to me a simpler and more accurate description than the faux intellectual label of 'Confucianism' or, for that matter, 'collectivisim'. Let's hope that the public outcry puts enough pressure on the authorities for real change to happen.

    The public outrage in response to this tragedy is as typical of Korean culture as the shoddy behaviour that provoked it, and, despite everything, it's a positive sign for democracy that the government is in a panic over it. In the West, it seems that the authorities now ignore protesters completely and never resign no matter how much corruption is exposed, because they no longer acknowledge 'the public interest' - unless it's some sex or drugs scandal.

  3. sorry, but you're fighting a bogeyman here. South China Morning Post and a random editor from the Dallas News do not drive the international discourse on this tragedy or any other event. You, Dorof, and Bocskay would be better advised to simply ignore them; by linking to those articles, the three of you have done more to make to this about Korean culture than the original publishers.

    that said, your argument basically boils down to "only Koreans can talk about its own culture." hope you realize that (1) the vast majority of Koreans living in Korea would not consider you to be a Korean who should be talking about, much less defending, how Koreans think and act, and (2) is a fairly common, knee-jerk response by Koreans to any commentary by non-Koreans. Your intellect is fighting against your instinct here--and that doesn't make you an automaton or a xenophobe, but it certainly doesn't make you right and it probably infects your blog with a similar degree of bias as you attribute to non-Koreans. I'd compare De La Cruz pointing to Korean culture as Dong-A Ilbo's coverage of "fan death" ( It may be correct on some occasions but probably not every time. Two random journalists made the mistake--no need to make it seem like the international headline is about Korean culture.

    for an example where use of culture is used to explain a positive aspect of Korean culture, (oh wait, this was written by a Korean, so it must be okay.)

    for a very recent example of where culture was used to explain an American tragedy, see:

    1. Get back to me after you read--CLOSELY--the second-to-last section of the post.

    2. Re: " South China Morning Post and a random editor from the Dallas News do not drive the international discourse on this tragedy or any other event. ... Two random journalists made the mistake--no need to make it seem like the international headline is about Korean culture."

      Articles and commentary linking Korea's culture of "obedience" or "deference" to the Sewol sinking appeared in the L.A. Times, Reuters, and CNN, which are hardly fringe media and do in fact drive international headlines. South China Morning Post and The Dallas News were simply two of the more egregious examples. In the blogosphere, posts expressing similar opinions are too numerous to mention. Ignoring such sources might be sound advice if they were in fact easier to ignore, but unfortunately it's been hard to miss if you've been following the story.

    3. Oh hi! In addition to John's list, culture was also invoked by Time. You may find links to some of these articles in my own.

    4. It seems to me that you don't read much. Obviously you didn't read TK's post very closely because you've mucked up entirely what he was saying. And obviously you don't read what people are saying. Perhaps less frequently in news articles themselves, but in their comments and individual blogs many people are pointing to the ambiguous "Korean culture" and Confucianism as a go-to explanation. Even my friends at high school mention it. So perhaps less of a strawman than you claim.

  4. It was one thing to write a post like this when everyone from FOX News to CNN was quoting Gladwell for Asiana Flight 214. But, it's hyperbole to claim that "the story" has become about Confucianism. Because, the story continues to be about the dead children, the neglectful captain and crew, and the absent regulators.

    TK, it is that second-to-last section precisely where you and I disagree and where the bogeyman in your argument resides. When a person--whether Korean, American, or Martian--talks about their culture, there is in fact NO silent "except me." As John pointed out in his article, perfect strangers who had no direct part in the Sewol tragedy accepted generational responsibility. These men are weeping because they do not see themselves as being exempt from the situation. Same thing happened when Americans were talking about slavery in the 19th century (Northerners taking responsibility and ultimately laying down their lives for the cause...and yes, slavery was explicitly ascribed to the Southern "culture"). Similarly, when Americans talk about gun culture, for many of them, there is no silent "except me." Not sure where you hear it and why you have come to assume that as a fact--I have already suggested that this is probably one of the few remnants of your Korean heritage, but remains without foundation in reason or experience.

    Although culture does not mean "everyone EXCEPT me", it also does not mean "everyone INCLUDING me," which is the only alternative that you allow for. Again, I don't know why you do so. Your "ocean" illustration is a good one and I would posit that is how even the mass media actually intend to use the term and how most reasonable readers understand the term to mean. Only an idiot like De La Cruz believes that 100% of American students who have disobeyed and survived. However, when most reasonable people use the term (and I dare include LA Times and even CNN into this category), what they mean is that culture was a factor at the margins--i.e., facing a weighty but uncertain situation, a Korean youth might have a stronger impulse to error on the side of obedience than disobedience. These are news articles and should be read as such--not as a legal brief filed by opposing counsel or a treatise on Confucianism.

    John, my point was simply that noone other than TK will remember Sewol as the incident where "300 students sat on a sinking boat because of Confucianism." Sure, the more mainstream outlets may not have shown a perfect understanding of Confucianism or used the term inappropriately, but that is par for the course.

    1. Your examples fail to support your point. If you asked those weeping Korean men about what must be done to Korean culture to prevent this type of tragedy from happening, what do you think they will say? Do you think they will say something like, "I will change the way I live"? Absolutely not: it will be about what the government should do, what corporations should do, what other people should do. Same for the American slavery example. Did the northerners try to address slavery by changing their own culture? Of course not--they addressed slavery by conquering the South and forcing them to change. What louder statement of "Except Me" can there be?

      Your "ocean" illustration is a good one and I would posit that is how even the mass media actually intend to use the term and how most reasonable readers understand the term to mean.

      If you really think that, you simply have no idea the degree to which disguised racism infects the discussion about culture. Not a surprise either; it is much easier to see it on the receiving end.

    2. I think the weeping men will say "yes, we must change as a people and as a society." But, if you disagree, feel free to argue that point with John; although I'd be surprised if you disagreed with him given what you said about his article. Perhaps you didn't read his article CLOSELY. And, yes, there were many northerners that in fact tried to change the country's culture by moving to the south.

      You assume too much if you think I don't see disguised racism because I'm not on the receiving end of it. My point to you is that you have a tendency to see things where even where it doesn't. That's okay; with some time, you'll learn to trade in your youth for wisdom. Just keep an open mind and be willing to learn about the world and about other people--just because you teach doesn't make you a teacher, understand?

    3. I think the weeping men will say "yes, we must change as a people and as a society." . . . And, yes, there were many northerners that in fact tried to change the country's culture by moving to the south.

      You are not getting the point here. The weeping men may well say that. But if you pressed them for specific courses of actions in response, and asked them about what they themselves needed to do, do you seriously think that they will give examples of what they need to do, in their everyday lives, to prevent another ship from sinking?

      Same with the example with the northerners. If "American culture" is the issue, why did they have to move to the South at all? Didn't they already live in America? Weren't they already Americans? If "changing the American culture" was the issue, why did they have to move to the South? How is this not a case of a silent, "Except Me"?

      My point to you is that you have a tendency to see things where even where it doesn't.

      And my point is that I can see things more clearly from a better vantage point. Perhaps there is wisdom in recognizing who is in the better position to know.

    4. @No Name,

      Yeah, I agree. I don't see why TK is getting so defensive about the word "culture". It's like a demon or monster that must be carefully analyzed and taken apart by distance gun-shots before being approached.

      But, really. I want know what was in the minds of the crew and the kids as the ferry was sinking. Call it culture, society, the matrix, the cosmic shit, whatever. I think I know.
      And I think we ALL know that American crews and kids would have acted differently.
      And if anyone thinks Korean society is not hierarchy, is a fool. There are good reasons for it being the way it is, but hierarchy plays a huge role in that country. TK's posting patterns and thought processes are examples this culture at work. It's not really "escapable".

      (Usual wringing of hands about how USA hierarchy sucks too, etc.)

    5. I don't see why TK is getting so defensive about the word "culture".

      I supposed if you don't care about throwing around casual racism, there is no need to care about racism seeping into the word "culture."

    6. lineoffense - i agree with the first paragraph in your post. don't care about the rest, however; especially the claim that we all know that American crews and kids would have acted differently. i do not believe that Cpt. Lee represents a typical Korean ferry captain and these students from one high school probably do not represent all Korean high school students.

      "Perhaps there is wisdom in recognizing who is in the better position to know."

      Tk, ditto. Funny you will say something like that given that you know nothing about your readers while you have disclosed quite a bit about yourself (even more without your knowing...just to prove it, 2 Samuel 12). After an objective analysis, my vantage point is superior to yours in at least 5 different ways; although you can claim superiority in at least 3 ways. But, I'm not trying to get into a pissing match with you here. I just want to suggest that you get off your high-horse once in a while and think to understand what someone else is saying without repeating your own argument. It will serve you well in your online, personal, and professional life. Believe me; I am in the position to know.

    7. lineoffense... Well. As an American kid (a junior in high school), I can tell you that I would have acted no differently. Someone in a position of authority tells me to stay where I am in a crisis, I do it. I'm not gonna sit there and go, "hmm, who knows better what to do, me, with my total experience of canoeing and one ride on a car ferry, or the people sailing this ship? Totally me!". If a paramedic tells you to lie down, are you going to stay standing up and tell them that you know better? Furthermore, staying in place would fit with my very limited knowledge of what to do when something is sinking. If you're in a car or helicopter, you're supposed to crack a window to release the pressure and stay seated until the entire vehicle is submerged. So in that situation, I would have thought, okay, the people in charge are telling me to stay put, and that tracks with what I know about sinking things, so I'm going to stay put. And I'm about as independent a teenager as they come. So don't go telling anyone that American kids would have acted differently. Putting aside the absolute vulgarity of such a statement, as an American kid, I'm telling you that no, we wouldn't have.

    8. I can't add much to this discussion, but anecdotally I can say that when I was 16-17 I probably would have stayed in the cabin. Not because "I better be slavishly obedient to authority" but because "Whatever's going on is more complicated than me and if I start making trouble it could cost lives." This would have been magnified with a it being a school trip. I'd know that no one's parents are there, that kids can do really stupid things, and that the crew isn't going to be able to deal with a bunch of kids running around doing potentially dangerous things with no supervision.

      I'd like to think that, as an adult, if I felt my room tipping over that I'd slip out to the surface level and try to quietly figure out what's going on, but maybe I wouldn't. If the sinking was very gradual I might also not recognize what was going on until too late.

    9. @Unknown,

      I'm saying a crowd of American kids would behave differently from crowd of Korean kids.
      And in this case, turns out the rowdiest, most disrespecting crowd of kids would be the ones that survived. That's life. All things in their time, all behaviors with their own advantage.

      It's not vulgar to point out that people in different countries, ethnic groups, races, cultures behave differently. It's vulgar for high school kids to call sigma 3 IQ 50 year olds with lifetime experiences in the East and the West "vulgar" when cultural differences are being pointed out. You little snot-noses shit.

    10. You're saying that a crowd of free-thinking American teenagers would survive because they would challenge orders - yet you're also saying that the poster should respect your self-proclaimed authority based on your life experience and intelligence, and you even insult them. Funny.

    11. @amse,

      It's very rare to find free-thinking US teens. Not sure what that means, anyway.
      Yes, I'd put my background against Unknown's background on this issue. I lived in both the US and Korea for long stretches both in childhood and adulthood. I've worked for US and Korean companies in management as well as subordinate positions, Lots of stuff.
      You want to run a background on me too?

      Whose the one trying to enlarge the discussion here? Whose the one denying that a discussion is merited? Me or Unknown?

    12. Nope, I don't want a background check on you. I just wanted to point out that your reply to Unknown, specially the last two lines, feels very arrogant. I also wanted to know what made you be so sure of the behaviour of American teens in such a situation.

      I agree with Unknown and Rebeca - I think I'd be paralyzed with fear, but I would have stayed there too, because I would trust the knowledge and experience of the ones in charge. I know nothing about ships, after all.

      The rowdiest ones might very well have died in another situation because they didn't stay put when it was necessary. You say it yourself - in THIS particular situation, if they reacted *on time* maybe more would have survived. But that's assuming they could leave the ship, and that they knew they were left to fend for themselves. They did what seemed the most sound decision then - trust the ones that supposedly knew how to handle the situation. They couldn't have known the surviving crew are coward scumbags.

      It's very easy to talk in hindsight, once the emergency has passed, all the facts are known and people don't feel terrified. But we shouldn't do it, to respect those that died. We shouldn't make comparisons saying that a group of other nationality would have acted differently, either. That talk won't bring the dead back to life. The only thing we can do is analize all that went wrong, take measures, and hope something similar won't happen ever again.

    13. So you're 50. That's great. Why is a 50-year-old calling a teenager a snot-nosed shit? Don't you have better ways to express yourself than attacking me personally? Wouldn't your fifty years of experience and your great IQ have provided you with a more mature way to go about it?
      And anyways, you've admitted that you're removed from the situation; your years distance you. Maybe you've had more experience in Korea etc than I have, but who is more qualified to speak on the behavior of American teenagers, an American teenager or a middle-aged person like yourself who has to revert to expletives to maintain a discussion?
      Anyways, I think there may have been a misunderstanding. I wasn't saying that you were vulgar; I was saying that it's vulgar to look at a tragedy like this and say that people of another ethnicity would have behaved differently, the implication clearly being that they would have acted better and survived. There's some irony too, since you say that being disrespectful would have led to survival in this situation, yet you insult me for disagreeing with your viewpoint and speaking from a position of authority simply because my age makes it... disrespectful.

    14. @Unknown,

      I ain't your father or grandfather, kid. "Snot-nosed" was a term of endearment in my generation, though. And what the fuck is it with people thinking Korea is a respect/disrespect culture. That's Orientalist fantasy.

  5. Reading about this tragedy, I couldn't help but think of a work of non-fiction by Gabriel Garcia Marquez called: The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor. The sole survivor of a destroyer of the Colombian Navy that sunk in a "storm" is declared a hero by the government after living on a raft on the high seas for 10 days. He's then completely forgotten. A young Marquez interviews him long after the events, and the sailor confesses that there was no storm, that the ship sank because it was overloaded with contraband. After publishing an account that contradicts the official version, the government becomes so angry with Marquez that his newspaper ships him off to Europe. Illegal cargo and lack of adequate government oversight, sounds familiar?

    I'm often frustrated by foreign coverage of events in Latin American. You see the same reduction of events to explanations or insinuations about Latin America's culture, in this case: rule-breaking, laziness and inefficiency. Just look at coverage of the preparations for the World Cup in Brazil.

    Problems in Asia occur because they respect authority too much. The same problems in Latin America occur because they don't respect authority enough. Only the journalist's nation has a proper relationship with authority. It's absurd! These things happen because humanitiy's greed, incompetance and willingness to cover up both have no limits. It's universal.

    You can't say anything more meaningful than that without taking the time to adequately understand a country's specific historical context as it relates to politics, economics and cultural references. Something you do quite well in your blog but something most foreign correspondents generally don't have enough time or patience to do. And besides, it sells better to use misfortune in foreign nations to make readers feel good about themselves because at least Our government, Our businesses and Our society aren't as bad as theirs.

  6. It is one way to look at it. However, the overall desire to avoid culturalism is just too strong for me, especially for a case like the Sewol disaster. Our overriding goal should always be to speak the truth in as truthful a manner possible. Once you deviate from that overriding goal too much you run the risk of going down a slippery slope. To see what I mean, here are two ways of explaining this disaster that both becomes valid once we deviate from the goal of simply telling the truth as truthfully as possible. The first way is your way.

    First Way

    1. *Most* of the non-korean use of culture as an explanation of significant events is culturalism -- it is tainted by a racist, incorrect definition of culture.

    2. *Most* of the *korean* use of culture as an explanation of significant events is also culturalism -- it is tainted by a racist, incorrect definition of culture.

    3. Therefore, most people, both korean and foreign, should avoid trying to come up with cultural explanation of significant events.

    4. But culture is real and it often has an impact on significant events, so we must discuss culture when trying to explain the causes of significant events.

    5. The way we should discuss cultural causes, then, is to avoid using the word culture-- because the word itself inevitably invites the racist definition -- and break down the components of that culture as much as possible. In this way we - both korean and non-koreans - will be able to avoid the tainting of our discussion with racism as much as possible.

    Second Way

    1. Sewol disaster was caused by cultural causes at least as much as the wreckless decisions of the crew and the ferry company *not* affected by cultural causes. It is safe to say that culture played a significantly greater role than non-cultural causes.

    2. Sewol disaster was a thoroughly preventable incident. It is not an accident. Hundreds of people lost their lives due to bad culture.

    3. People losing their lives without just cause is among the most traumatic events in human affairs. Therefore we should try to stop these events from happening as much as humanly possible.

    4. Therefore, the overriding number one goal in discussing causes of the Sewol disaster is to bring about cultural changes so that the bad cultural causes are addressed as much as possible, as quickly as possible.

    5. To a group of people whose definition of culture is tainted by race and essentialism -- Koreans being one of them -- deploying the use of the word culture (while also drilling down to the sub-cultures) can be a highly effective way to influence their thinking and behavior, because racial-cultural superiority is a value highly prized to such a group of people.

    6. But is it morally wrong to push the cultural explanations as much as possible, using the word culture as much as possible, knowing that Koreans and non-Koreans will interpret those explanations in a flawed race tainted way?

    7. No, because remember, the overriding priority is to prevent another disaster like this as soon as possible, and using the word culture has the greatest impact to a group of people tainted by racial-cultural pride.

    1. In the first way, 2 is erroneous, which makes 3 likewise erroneous. In the second way, all seven steps are erroneous.

    2. Agreed, that was a very bad first attempt. Here is my second attempt to get at the same idea. An F this time and I'll give up.

      First Way

      1. Most of the non-korean use of culture as an explanation of significant events in Korea is culturalism -- it is tainted by a racist, incorrect definition of culture.

      2. Therefore, most non-koreans should avoid trying to come up with cultural explanation of significant events, or at least be very very careful in trying to do so.

      Second Way

      1. Sewol disaster was at least partially and significantly caused by cultural causes.

      2. Hundreds of people lost their lives at least partly due to bad culture.

      3. There is an overriding interest in minimizing the risk of such incidents occurring again, and therefore we should discuss the bad cultural causes as part of the process of minimizing that risk.

      4. Korean organizations, companies, and the government care about Korea's cultural image abroad greatly, especially in the western media.

      5. An effective way to impact cultural change in those organizations, then, is to have the western media talk about those cultural causes as much as possible without going so far as to give most Koreans the impression that they are simply being racists.

    3. If you want to blame any "culture," blame the rabidly capitalist and pro-business attitude that appears to have incentivized the ferry company to cut corners.

    4. CJL-- sure, as TK mentioned, that is one of the cultural issues that led to this disaster. We should discuss the hell out of it.

      Here's another way in which you can argue for a greater involvement of Western media in discussing Korean cultural issues, regardless of the racism factor. Feel free the disagree.

      1. In any development process, there is bound to be a beginning stage, maturing stage, and fully developed stage.

      2. During the beginning stage, the activity that's being tried will face all sorts of problems, and for a cultural understanding point of view, that will certainly include a ton of racism and ignorance.

      3. The propagation of cultural knowledge about Korea in the West, is in the beginning stages.

      4. For this understanding to move forward, we need more, not less, discussion about various aspects of Korean culture.

    5. JW: You have to define the term "culture" in your exposition. That's was actually the entire point of my post. What is "cultural," and what is not?

    6. TK-- of course by culture I am referring to your second definition, which is really the only definition as far as I'm concerned. (As you implied the first definition is just a flipside of racism). But as you say, the reality is that most outsiders deploy a definition of culture that is tainted by biases, notably a racist bias, in cases like the Sewol disaster. I agree with you that this is a bad thing. But does a cultural explanation tainted by racism automatically make it illegitimate or invalid? In other words, should the threat of culturalism have the kind of power in which it can shut down or discourage inter-cultural discussion, whether intentionally or unintentionally? Perhaps I'm misreading you, but you appear to be saying Yes. I say No. Main reason being (as I noted already above) that if you allow factors unrelated to the discussion itself to have that kind of power, then we have to run the gamut of other unrelated factors that can drive the ultimate goal of having that discussion (such as the factors driving the second and third ways I outlined above) that can vie for the kind of status and power that you are giving to culturalism.

    7. In other words, should the threat of culturalism have the kind of power in which it can shut down or discourage inter-cultural discussion, whether intentionally or unintentionally? Perhaps I'm misreading you, but you appear to be saying Yes.

      I think you are misreading me. Clarify something for me: what did you think about the second post in the series? Was it not cultural at all? Because I think it was very strongly cultural.

    8. Oh come on TK. You're not an outsider. Are you not suggesting with your culturalism posts that outsiders have to tread very very carefully because of the threat of culturalism? And yes I read your second post and thought it was great like most of your posts.

    9. Thank you for that, but what I'm trying to do is to figure out what you mean by "cultural." Did my second post discuss cultural factors, in your opinion?

    10. I wouldn't characterize it as a 'strongly cultural' although I think you do discuss cultural factors. You drove the discussion using specific actors and what they did and how they reacted, not by system wide issues.

    11. Then what should be added to make it more cultural? What are the "system wide issues" that you are thinking of?

    12. If you drove the discussion using the topics you mention below as the paragraph titles and gave examples of other cases in korea that supports the notion that it is in fact a system wide issue I would consider that strongly cultural. But where are you going with this?

      "Years of neoliberal economic reforms led to an unstable labor market, which fostered a culture of hapless dependency among the incompetent crew of Sewol. Lack of adequate disaster training bred a culture of amateurism within Korea's disaster response system, although their effort must be praised. At many junctures, large and small safety regulations were ignored, implying at a weak culture for public safety."

    13. But my post actually said all the stuff in the paragraph you quoted!

    14. I'm sorry if we're having a misunderstanding due to my limitations, but I thought the culturalism problem resides mainly with outsiders, not insiders like yourself, and that that is the issue you and I have been discussing about till now. In which case the fact that you wrote a post that discusses cultural factors is quite irrelevant?

    15. I should clarify: I think anyone, not just an insider, could have written that second post. I think it is a very cultural post, but no one would have claimed that the post is culturalist. That's what I'm trying to get at.

    16. Ok, that's fine and good, but after outsiders read your cultralism posts, how comfortable do you think they will be in talking about cultural issues in front of a Korean audience? How comfortable would you be talking about black cultural issues in front of a black audience, without having the threat of perceived racism floating in your head, and without concisouly changing the way you speak, as you did by not using the word culture? That's the discouraging effect that I'm trying to say is the unintended consequence of your culturalism posts. It's because you put culturalism on a special pedastal. I'm disagreeing with you that it should not be held so high up, because culturalism/racism is just one among other important external factors that we may have to consider if we go down that route. (Of course if the racism rised to the level of active malice, that would be a difference discussion)

    17. Why SHOULD I feel comfortable talking about black cultural issues in front of a black audience? I'm not black, and there is no earthly way for me to know black cultural issues better than a black person, who lives those issues rather than merely studies them. It makes total sense for me to think a bit harder and be a bit more careful about my words. That's not discouragement; it's a call for reflection and humbleness.

    18. Finally we come to the part where we disagree. What you believe is a call for reflection and humbless will be enough pressure for most people to bow out before even trying. And I don't think you in particular should pre-emptively feel uncomfortable at all. Why should you feel the need to feel that way? Because of the greater threat of racism due to you not being black? But most of us have racial biases, including black people. Because chances are they know the issues better than you because they actually live in the culture? But living in the culture doesn't automatically mean you are more *knowledgable* about the culture and the various ramifications and interrelationships and the history. (It certainly gives you a big leg up, I don't deny that) Because you're afraid that they'll laugh at you and your discussion? But that's not a good reason. So I disagree. You should NOT feel uncomfortable.

  7. It's a fair question to ask what was culture's role in the disaster. No one can escape culture or cultures. It's all around us. The idea anyone has a an objective view is a cultural idea also.

    Certainly, there are better remedies for prevention of future disaster. For example, better training of captains, better government oversight, emergency walk throughs, or very general arguments of socialism vs Randian capitalism what have you. But you still can ask what culture had to do with this sinking. And you shouldn't have to defend yourself against charges of amateurism, disaster ogling, or any other bunch of insults, diminishments, brow-beatings thrown your way. Unless, the actual question of the role of culture is answered- postively, negatively, or in some manner explained. Which I have yet to see, anywhere. At least in a convincing way.

    For one example of why a cultural explanation matters is the question of why the kids stayed in the ship as long as they did. You can say that they needed to be trained better or given start of voyage disaster instructions, but that would still beg the question. Not every emergency is the same, not every emergency can be pre-mapped. And surely one message everyone follows is listen to what the captain tells you. That's universal.

    So the question should be asked. Did culture play a role, and what was it? I've taught Korean high school students in the classroom in Busan in 2010. And the stereotype of Korean student's obeying their adult overseers to absurd levels is absolutely true. You see this in the public schools and the after schools. Kids working ridiculous hours and sacrificing summers, free time. Mostly because they are too young to know of other ways, or have not experienced other cultural contexts.

    I'm not saying that this is a terrible thing, btw. They were really good students and a delight to teach. And they mostly seem to enjoy themselves in these military-esque/education settings. But the point is, this is a cultural issue. And to pretend it is not relevant, because there are other explanations, causations is like a race car driver not worrying about the engine under the hood, because as we all know it's all about the wheels. So shut up about the engines!

    1. lineoffense,
      Did culture play a role, and what was it?

      Based on what I know (take that for what it's worth), I don't believe culture was a material factor.

      And to pretend it is not relevant, because there are other explanations

      Other explanations suffice.

      These kids were instructed multiple times to stay underneath by purported experts and experienced seapersons. An inexperienced kid would have to be pretty arrogant to assume he knows better.

      Based on one of the videos, it seems the kids didn't have a clue they were even in any real danger. Who could have fathomed that a big boat could flip and trap everyone inside? I never knew that was a possibility.

    2. @GST,

      Culture is always a factor. It's deep. I agree that rationally the sinking seems like lighting striking the same place twice. I'm not blaming the kids, that's just wrong. But I would have liked to see more "push back", resistance, maybe just see some fear and panic. Run from the tsunami, follow your gut. It's not all about orders and "experience".

      I don't blame the kids at all, though in the end. It's really about the not so enigmatic thing- culture, upbringing. Most of all the adult parties involved. Unbelievable. I think it goes deeper that retail practices, economic incentives, know the procedures,etc.

    3. @lineoffense

      "I've taught Korean high school students in the classroom in Busan in 2010. And the stereotype of Korean student's obeying their adult overseers to absurd levels is absolutely true. You see this in the public schools and the after schools. Kids working ridiculous hours and sacrificing summers, free time. Mostly because they are too young to know of other ways, or have not experienced other cultural contexts."

      As a Korean who grew up under the Korean education system, I can tell you first hand that this 'obeying thy superiors' attitude has little to do with some kind of instilled, habitual cultural behavior that we mindlessly follow; it is much more a result of the simple fear of heavy punishment we know that will fall upon us (which often involves severe beatings) if we disobey. Thus, a student 'following orders' is merely making a rational choice in order to avoid punishment, and will jump at the opportunity the moment he realizes he can get away with it(a good example of this is what students do after graduation ceremonies - they dump away textbooks, throw eggs at teachers and in some extreme cases even beat up oppressive teachers' cars.).

      It's the generally oppressive attitude of teachers and the older generation, which stems from the militarist culture of first the Japanese and later the Korean military dictators (both of whom pretty much molded modern Korean society out from the military model), which makes the students behave that way, not because they are willingly doing so. Certainly not because "they are too young to know of other ways"; in fact they are mature enough to understand the dark reality of how their society really works so if they try to follow those "other ways", they will likely be screwed. Modern Korean society was messed up from the beginning and a big ongoing Prisoner's Dilemma is making progress very difficult, but that doesn't mean the people involved are particularly irrational beings. The main reason Korea became such an oppressive society today is not because of some ancient confucian tradition, but because of militarism and corporate fascism which holds power even to this day.

      (The military dictators even distorted the context of confucianism in that they put emphasis only on 忠孝(obedience to king and parents) and neglected other important confucian values like 仁義(benevolence and righteousness); thus the image of "confucianism" many people have today is in fact pretty different from the real, traditional confucianism. So if someone says confucianism is the reason of Korea's many problems, he should really be talking about modern authoritarian regimes and it's derivations. The former is not only inaccurate but also implies Korea's problems are stemmed in tradition and thus innate, while the latter shows they are circumstantial and can change with the right conditions.)

    4. @seaofsoju,

      Agree with some of your observations. I never said Confucianism was at fault, to clarify, if that needed clarifying. I've said that a few times. And clearly Koreans understand Prisoner's Dilemma instinctively. Wouldn't say they are "mindless", only acting from what they know, within the boundaries of what they know.

      Overall, I like modern Korea. I'm glad S.Korea's military is much more powerful, at least conventionally than N.Korea's. And Korean's definitely prefer having a viable Samsumg, LG, etc, over having only Sony, Apple, or Microsoft to buy from. Or like how in Korea that have that Korean Lotteria next to every McDonald's. Or TomToms next to Starbucks. Like a shadow warriors in the convenience food space.

      F+ck it, it's a small crowded country of bright and greedy people. Doesn't mean its oppressive or fucked up. It's nature.

  8. In certain cases, "Korean culture" denotes a type of unchanging, indelible essence, common to Koreans and only Koreans . . . In other cases, "Korean culture" is a shorthand for any commonly observable pattern of thoughts or behavior in Korea or among Koreans.

    Culture is what we consciously or implicitly self identify with collectively as a people. The "common" is not necessarily "cultural".

    The tragedy of Sewol was the consequence of Korean society, not culture.

    1. Culture is what we consciously or implicitly self identify with collectively as a people.

      Not necessarily. Counter example: "a dysfuncitonal workplace culture, in which the workers do not trust each other."

    2. TK,

      I'm not sure this disproves my point.

      If workers identify this as a unique and differentiating aspect of their workplace environment and self-identify with it as such, their dysfunctional environment can then be recognized as their workplace "culture".

      Society is not culture. And culture is not society. Psychologically speaking, culture is the "persona". Society is the "persona", the "shadow" and the "body" in motion.

    3. If workers identify this as a unique and differentiating aspect of their workplace environment and self-identify with it as such, their dysfunctional environment can then be recognized as their workplace "culture".

      But I'm not sure if such recognition is the same thing as "self identify with," and your explanation seems to drop the part about "collectively as a people."

    4. TK,
      They "self identify" with it insofar as they are workers in that environment. Collectively, they recognize it as a distinguising characteristic of their workplace (not merely a temporary phase).

  9. “The cultural explanation is overwhelmingly more likely to appear when something happens in a faraway land to inscrutable people.”

    Another possible explanation is that the images of school desks covered in white flowers connects all too forcefully with people across nationalities. In other recent disasters such as the BP oil spill, it may not have been as easy to identify closely with Gulf shrimpers, oil rig workers, and others affected by the disaster. And this thought is from someone who lives in the Gulf region. However, the vast majority of us do have schoolchildren in our lives who go on field trips, and who we very much expect to return to us safely. In how many films has the superhero snatched the school bus from plummeting? We have literally invented a genre to help deal with this anxiety and we will keep inventing fictions about “if only”.

    Faced with horrifying headlines, whether these events are next door or on another continent, it seems to be a natural impulse to put some distance between us and the victims. That might be even more true when there is a sense of shared vulnerability. How often do women hear, from our own community, that we need to change our behavior in order to be safe from gender violence? It was a religious leader in Florida, of all places, who said that Hurricane Katrina was was divine punishment. It’s easier to preach than it is to seriously address the power dynamics in a society. Thank you T.K. for articles that help balance the dialogue.

  10. where are all the cultural explanations that explain how British culture contributed to the BP oil disaster?

    This might not be a particularly good example, because it wasn't a chiefly British disaster. There are BP staff on trial because of the accident and BP is a British company, but they are Americans who were working in the US on a US project. BP's (British) corporate culture might still have had an effect, but there were other factors, too, notably the US government's failure to regulate and oversee the drilling.

    Other candidates might be the bombings on the 7th of July, 2005, the London riots or football hooliganism, but these have all been subjected to quite a lot of cultural discussion. And so, while I agree with most of your post here, I don't really agree with the second part. I'm not sure we are a particularly introspective lot, but a google search for the exact phrase "what is it about us Brits" gets 71,000 hits. Not only is that quite a lot for an exact phrase, but it features the inclusive word "us"; the self is not excluded.

    Elsewhere "Watching the English" became a bestseller in Britain, and this chart ( went viral on UK social media. That last point might seem a bit whimsical, but Andrew Salmon suggested in one of his books on the Korean War that this kind of understatement led US command to misjudge the seriousness of one particular situation. As a result, he argues, the Americans did not send the support it would have and British lives were lost. So while I think he was wrong to bring up confucianism as a factor, it's not true to say he limits cultural explanations to Korea.

    1. "Things are getting a bit sticky over here." (British officer to American base commander)

      American base commander understands: 'The situation is getting slightly difficult but they're fine'.
      British officer means: 'All hell is breaking loose. We are about to be overrun by hordes of Chinese'.

      I don't think understatement was a factor in the BP disaster, though. Just neoliberal capitalism in action again.

  11. @TK,

    Fair enough, but don't let the racists-idiots dictate and control the discussion by getting you into an over-protective mode.

    @No Name,
    Not saying American kids would handle situations better in all situations. What if the Sewol didn't sink, and some American kid did jump of the ship prematurely and drowned. Not all adaptations are optimal for all situations.

    Judging by the videos inside the Sewol the kids were "typical" Korean kids. Reflective, pensive even, some joking about their plight. Not even really asking what options are available or questioning the need to stay inside.

    If the students were American, ie mixed, I'd imagine some would be in a blind panic, others just in flight mode, others in "Fuck U" mode, etc. More pell-mell. Most would probably stay as directed. But a important minority might have set things in motion, just enough.

    Somes panic is required. Blind stupid run for your lives panic.

    1. I've seen *one* video from inside the ship. I heard jokes, inconsequential chatter, someone asking where the teacher was, others asking about lifejackets, and a lot I didn't understand. I did not hear any panicking. Neither did I hear any fear or sense of urgency or any suggestions to get out of there. But, as I said, I might easily have missed any such suggestions.

      Of course, the person who made that video eventually made it out...

    2. I thought the kid who made the video died. One thought I had was whether kids from one culture would have been more likely to have risked jumping into the waters if kids in that culture were better swimmers.

    3. @Matt,

      Off topic, but we discussed this in an earlier post.

      Looks like the Senate is getting catching up with us. "redskins". Indeed.

  12. In my opinion, the "culture" that needs to be discussed is the corporate culture. Hundreds died not because of some Confucian confusion but ultimately because the ferry sank. So why did the ferry sink? In the documentary "The Corporation," the filmmakers attempted to to compare the way corporations are systematically compelled to behave with what it claimed are the symptoms of psychopathy, e.g. callous disregard for the feelings of other people, the incapacity to maintain human relationships, reckless disregard for the safety of others, deceitfulness (continual lying to deceive for profit), the incapacity to experience guilt, and the failure to conform to social norms and respect the law." Precisely. Profits before people drove the ferry company to retrofit the ship in a top-heavy way, load 3X too much cargo, etc. And these corporate cultures cross all boundaries of race, ethnicity, religion.

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. I think the main problem with this post is summed-up in this line:

    "If it is so eminently fair to cite culture as a significant contributor of disasters, where are all the cultural explanations that expound on how American culture contributed to the bumbling response after the Hurricane Katrina, how British culture contributed the BP oil rig explosion, or how Spanish culture is to blame for the massive train derailment?"

    Let's suppose that you're right and no cultural arguments came up for any of those Western disasters, would this prove an unfair prejudice? No, not necessarily.

    You make an assumption that aspects of different cultures (in your definition 2) will deliver similar results in all areas. This makes you assume that, let's say, aspects of US culture are just as likely to to be causes or exacerbaters of disasters, which is not necessarily true. It could just be that there are aspects of Korean culture that make disasters much more likely to happen and therefore it makes much more sense to question Korean culture as a cause.

    To highlight this, think about food in different countries. It is clear that attitudes to food and the food itself vary in different countries. Some have better habits and more nutritious diets. This is why American food and attitudes to eating are often linked to obesity, diabetes and heart disease and Japanese food and their habits aren't. We have a much greater temptation (justifiably) to use American food culture as an explanation for ill health, like obesity, than we do for Japanese or Korean food culture. In fact when we see a program or a news broadcast about a fat Korean, the influence of American food culture often gets some of the blame.

    So the prevalence of using culture as an explanation depends on the subject being discussed. We should not feel bound to be fair in the way you suggest, i.e. to use culture as an explanation for disasters equally between different cultures. As I have stated many times in my general disagreement with you, it is the reasons for the use of culture as an explanation that are important, not the numbers of times it is used as an explanation.

    1. It's not so much proof of culturalism but more like supporting evidence. The fact of the matter is that western media is woefully unprepared to be able to do real investigations on their own and the manpower to do it. Language barrier is a major hurdle for instance. Lack of people on the ground another. So they reach for whatever remotely asian thing they can recycle as an explanation, which in many cases is confucianism and hierarchy. Hopefully things will improve.

    2. I agree there is bad reporting and a search for any story they can find, but I think they do that everywhere. Just look at how bad CNN were during the Boston bombing coverage (as well as almost any other big story you can imagine). The media are also prone to search for the positives as well as the negatives, like as I mentioned reporting on healthy eating in parts of Asia and the Mediterranean to explain things about good health and life expectancy. The key is, there are good theories/ideas/reports and there are bad ones, but I think to say it must be 'culturalism' (a form of prejudice) is wrong because it adds a lot of emotion and complicates the argument. We don't need anymore 'isms' in Western countries right now. I think it could eventually be used to shut down honest debate, like other accusations of prejudice have been in recent times.

    3. But culturalism is real and its bad and it happens quite often. It's not the end of the world but it's real.

    4. Let's suppose that you're right and no cultural arguments came up for any of those Western disasters, would this prove an unfair prejudice? No, not necessarily.

      I'm not interested in "not necessarily." I am interested in what is actually happening in the world, not some theoretical possibility.

    5. How about, 'no', then?

      I said, 'not necessarily', because I am completely open to the fact that some people might use cultural explanations because they are prejudiced. Maybe it happens sometimes, perhaps even often. But why don't you acknowledge that the Western news citing culture as a cause for disasters in Korea and not in Western countries (though I think they do often cite culture for their own and other Western countries) could very well be because there are aspects about Korean culture that makes disasters more likely and that they are absolutely justified in bringing them up?

      Dismissing it as a just a 'theoretical possibility', is not good enough and I think shows you have no good argument against it, as you must know different cultures are not equal in all aspects. I suspect you know this is an important counter to your argument. Why not address it properly? Some cultures will have advantages or disadvantages others do not. Sometimes aspects of a certain culture really have explanatory powers in certain situations, where in other cultures they don't.

      @JW - Yes, prejudice is real. Culturalism is real, but TheKorean has not proved it is at work in the mainstream media's interpretation of Korean disasters or in Malcolm Gladwell. What he proved was that Malcolm Gladwell is capable of doing shoddy work and the mainstream media will use cultural explanations in reporting and are capable of shoddy work too (surprise surprise). Sometimes they are wrong, sometimes they are right. When they are wrong, they could very well be honestly wrong. To make the claim of widespread prejudice in reporting, as TheKorean is doing, requires a much better argument than the one he is giving.

    6. I think that the claim is being made or at least implied that Korean culture is more likely to contribute to disasters so it is those who make that claim to prove it - it is silly to make an accusation and then say "prove me wrong!". So far, I have not seen any solid reasons to believe that Korean culture is any more or less likely to contribute to disasters than other cultures.

      A good start would be for someone to prove that Korea is more likely than other countries to have disasters - if they do, then that might lend credence to the idea that Korean culture makes the country more prone to such things, after all it seems logical that if Korean culture fosters disasters, then they should have disproportionately more disasters than other countries.

    7. So if a country has one of the highest accidental death rates in the world among developed nations, it is still not OK to question that their culture might have played a role? There was evidence and testimony for Korean respect culture being a factor in the plane crashes. Anyone living in Korea must have experience with the Korean culture of bbali bbali, and poor safety. So we have documented evidence, Korean pilot testimony, statistics, and the experience of many an expat living in Korea. Yet still most people are not suggesting Korean culture is 100% to blame, they are suggesting it might have played a role.

      Seems to me you must speculate cultural involvement, because if you ignore the everyday behaviour of people in a given population as a possible cause, then they/you will be doomed to repeat the same errors. You won't find out if aspects of Korean culture are more likely to produce disasters until you first ask the question and then think about it and investigate it.

      Plus I could very well turn the same argument around on you; before you start accusing people of being prejudiced, perhaps you should prove that is what they are doing and not using their experience of the culture, statistics or some other method to come up with an important and valid argument.

    8. So if a country has one of the highest accidental death rates in the world among developed nations, it is still not OK to question that their culture might have played a role?

      Not really sure what you mean here. My point is that if Korean culture makes the nation particularly prone to these types of disasters, then there should be higher rates of disasters.

      I don't think that anyone could reasonably deny that culture plays a role in how people behave, but focusing on it without much evidence that it played a significant role in this particular incident detracts from addressing what could be more pertinent issues, like safety protocols, adequate training, oversight, and so on and so forth. That is the real danger here.

      So yes, culture may have played a role, but so what? Unless there is some definitive proof that it was a significant factor in causing deaths then it really is stating the obvious - of course culture affects behaviour.

      Also, where did I call anyone prejudiced? All I asked for is some definitive proof that Korean culture played a significant role in causing deaths, and that so far no-one has shown any. Did you even read my comment?

    9. @Christopher,

      Really, man. I get shouted down on this blog whenever I even use the word "culture". It's like a thought crime. Like we are living in, well, the USA in 2014. Ritualistic punishment of lexical crimes against humanity.


      You won't ever get a "definitive proof". But Christopher rightly points out Korea does have a high rate of man-made disasters. This is surely related to not having caught your breadth econ development. As the Sewol ship and sinking completely exemplifies. The other stuff- Western liberalism of culture vs Eastern conservatism and how that relates to the Sewol, that's an important question. But you won't get a "proof". It's not the kind of proof that exist in any textbook.

    10. lineoffense

      Well unless there is some kind of definitive proof that culture plays a significant role in these man-made disasters then the discussion is pointless - if you can't prove the claims then why should anyone take the culture-is-responsible claims into account when looking for ways to prevent this kind of thing happening again? Should policy makers act on something that no-one can prove?

      Plus I fail to see how proving that Korea has a greater incidence of man-made disasters is something that cannot be definitively proven - accidents are real world events that can certainly be measured so you will have to explain why that cannot be proven. Christopher Smith claims that Korean culture makes accidents more likely - and you agree - so you both must have some kind of statistical evidence that proves definitively that Korea has a disproportionate number of accidents?

      If you cannot show that Korea does have more accidents, then there is little reason to believe that culture was a significant factor in this - or any other disaster - any more than it is in other countries.

    11. See this in the New York Times:

      "In South Korea, more than 31,000 people, including 3,000 students, die every year in accidents, accounting for 12.8 percent of the country’s total annual deaths, the highest rate among major developed nations."

      "Those episodes include everything from car accidents to fires..."

      Why is this the case? Seems as though it is everyone's responsibility to question culture, in fact highlight all possibilities. If you don't, and culture is very relevant, nothing will change and Korea will continue to lose people to preventable man-made accidents. Lives are more important than worrying about appearing insensitive.

    12. Well I don't think that article says what you hope it is saying. Number of deaths does not equate with a higher rate of accidents. But even if that is the case, then you have missed the point of the article which blames poor safety standards due to rapid development leading to short-cuts, and possibly corruption. I think that you might find that to be the pattern for most countries who have industrialized - profit-driven development leading to cost-cutting and hence accidents in the workplace. The article does not support your argument.

      In fact, your vague complaints only distract from the great points made in the NYT piece that offers concrete reasons and hence concrete possibilities for correction of any issues leading to poor safety.

      I think that are really reaching here.

    13. It doesn't equate with a higher rate of accidents, but come on, you are being very slippery here. It certainly implies that there are more accidents here, certainly more fatal accidents.

      The article also doesn't just talk about safety standards and corruption caused by rapid development, which is part of the problem for sure. Any fair minded person would see you have just conveniently ignored the bits in that article you don't like. It talks of culture directly also:

      "With no large-scale disaster reported since arson caused a subway fire that killed 192 people in 2003, South Korea appeared to have put its curse behind it — and the country appeared to be moving past its culture of “ppali ppali,” or “hurry hurry,” loosely translated as a tendency to justify cutting corners to get work finished quickly."

      "Now, many Koreans are expressing shame at how far their country still needs to go to address safety concerns"

      And anyway, I merely used the article as a source for statistics, which are not a matter of opinion. Even if that whole article didn't support my argument (but it at least partly does), you asked for some evidence and I gave you probably the only measure that is really available, i.e. deaths from accidents as they will be recorded in most countries, and now you're weasling out of explaining it. How are we going to get stats for simply number of accidents? You think all countries are as good as each other at reporting accidents? In England, for example, any even minor accident at work is written up in an accident book, I have serious doubts whether that would be the case here. This brings serious problems comparing nations. Deaths, however, have to be reported, you can't just ignore them, so they are probably the most reliable measure. You seem to be the one reaching to explain it all away.

    14. The article in no way supports your arguments, nothing in the article even remotely implies that these deaths occurred as a result of culturally conditioned passivity on the part of the victims. And as I said, every nation has experienced large-scale disasters during their development and industrial process - that is nothing unique, meaning that what the piece terms "culture of ppali ppali" may be as much a function of economic expediency as any deep-rooted cultural practice. I don't think that the article's author is using the term "culture" to describe anything more than a cost-cutting economic practice typical of profit-driven industrial and economic development.

      Like I said, questioning culture is one thing, but to do so - ad nauseam - in the absence of any substantial evidence that culture (and not human greed, or error) is significant to the issue, is little more than a distraction from addressing any of the real issues and their solutions, and thus irrelevant.

      Plus, I think that you are wearing blinkers when you read the article - there has not been any large-scale disasters since 2003, meaning that that they are rare these days and in no way "more likely".

    15. No. When did I ever once state that I thought that culturally conditioned passivity from the victims was a cause for their deaths? Where did you get this from? I don't think it, never have expressed it and in fact, I have written that I don't think it on my blog and given a radio interview in Korea saying that I don't think it. This total invention of what I said is quite revealing about just how closely you have been reading what I wrote. The culture of indifference to safety, I believe is a factor. Some explanation, here:

      Real issues and their solutions? What makes you think they don't involve culture? Madness. So you are going to willfully overlook an extremely relevant part of life as a possible explanation? Why is it a distraction also? I have never understood this point. How would asking a question about culture detract or distract from any investigation into causes?

      Before you say so, I don't think the example of say, CNN saying that obedience to elders was a factor in why students stayed below deck, is culturalism. Despite the fact a Korean American said it (Kyung Lah), I just think it is a bad argument plain and simple. However, it is very common these days for people to think bad arguments are immediately the result of prejudice.

      Depends how you frame 'large-scale' disasters, but just this year a building collapsed in Gyeongju (11 dead 100 injured), and in December a bridge collapsed in Busan (4 dead). I wouldn't mind betting you could find many more examples of smaller scale man-made disasters.

      PS: Unbelievable. You assume I hold a view and use that assumed view against me in argument, then accuse me of wearing blinkers.

    16. Come on now, when you say "respect culture" you have to mean culturally conditioned passivity, if you don't mean that, then your points don't make sense.

      The reason I don't believe that the real issues and their solutions involve culture is because I haven't seen any convincing proof that culture was a significant factor - you are yet to show why consideration of culture (including "respect"/passivity culture) has anything to do with the high number of deaths. Again, it comes back to you making a (so far unsubstantiated) claim and then saying that I should prove you wrong - which is still silly.

      Also, please point out - please - where I have accused anyone of prejudice. I don't think that you are thinking too clearly and are getting bizarrely emotional because I have asked you (quite reasonably) to prove your claims - if you want to believe things without evidence then fine, but I prefer more substantial evidence before I buy into a belief.

    17. The whole culturalism debate is based on accusing people of prejudice, that's what 'culturalism' implies. You may not have explicitly said it, but it is the topic of this blog post is it not? Isn't the point TheKorean is making is that many culture arguments are an example of prejudice?

      I think respect culture can play a role in some disasters and I think it might have done with the Asiana and other Korean plane crashes. Never once, said it was involved with the students on the Sewol. Fact remains you accused me of thinking something I never said and now you seem to be insinuating I'm lying. Why don't you just own up to that mistake?

      Gave you about the only stat that could feasibly demonstrate there are more accidents in Korea than in other developed nations. You don't accept it, but I'm not saying it is convincing proof, merely saying it is revealing and does partly justifying thinking that culture MIGHT be involved \and worth investigating.

      Buying into a belief? All I am saying it that it is ok to question aspects of a culture and that it is possible to do so without being a culturalist and that positing a view on culture has no effect on deflecting the 'true' causes. Indeed asking questions about cultural issues may help reveal the truth and is extremely important to do in order to prevent further tragedy.

    18. Actually, your statements about respect/passivity culture were vague and non-specific, but why bring it up in this post about Sewol if you did not mean to say that it applies to this event?

      I am not the Korean, so what he has written is irrelevant to our discussion - culturalism is a form of prejudice, but that is beside the point. If that applies to you then I will leave it to others to decide - I couldn't care less, my concern is that assertions have been made about how this supposed cultural conditioning led to deaths, and I think it is perfectly reasonable to ask for some proof of that since the claim is also being made that it should form part of the solution to any future course of action.

      You admit that stats are hard to come that show Korea to have a worse disaster record than other recently - or in the process of - developing nations. In other words you believe something without there being any evidence to support it. Sure it is okay - I say that it is good - to question aspects of a culture, yet if there is no reason to believe that this "questioning" can offer concrete solutions to the issue, then it is merely a distraction and pointless, not to mention completely irrelevant.

    19. I never talked about student passivity being the cause of deaths, don't blame me for your misreading. You read something I never wrote, period. You should have just admitted it was your mistake.

      What TheKorean wrote is very relevant to the discussion; it is the whole reason why we are having the discussion (and we are doing it on his blog!).

      Stats are hard to come by, but you seem to completely dismiss the very revealing stat I did give. These stats, the history of previous accidents, interviews with pilots of the Asiana crash, black box recordings and investigations of past crashes, and expats experiences and observations are examples of kinds of evidence. Do they prove culture involvement 100%, no, that is why there is any discussion at all, but don't pretend there is no reason to believe cultural involvement in any of these disasters. You still haven't divulged exactly why you think merely questioning cultural involvement is a distraction, pointless, or irrelevant.

      Anyway, I believe this discussion has gone full circle, I think I would only be repeating myself beyond this. I still disagree with you, but I appreciate the debate, thank you.

    20. The article you linked to states that there have been no large scale disasters since 2003, and nowhere does the article state that respect/passivity culture (as hard as you try, you cannot reasonably separate the two) had anything to do with any disasters. This casts some considerable doubt on the assertion that Korean culture makes disasters more likely, and that culture is a significant when they occur. You are obviously cherry-picking the data.

      Of course, none of this provides any proof that these cultural factors you are frothing about had anything significant to do with any of these disasters - you are still choosing to believe in something that is supported by poor evidence.

      You are just plain wrong with your assertions. Once again, you can't throw out wild poorly supported assertions and then insist that you be proven wrong - no reasonable person would take you seriously.

    21. Never said the article did state respect/passivity culture! How many more times, I never made that point with the Sewol disaster, I specifically said it with regard to the plane crashes.

      I'm trying to leave this now, you are simply arguing with things I never said all the time, you haven't admitted that you misread me and in fact you are continuing to misread me. Just can't comprehend it.

    22. Well I too am leaving this conversation but I have to say that you are being somewhat squirrelly. Yes you alluded specifically to the plane crashes, but if that has nothing to do with what happened with Sewol, then your point is vacuous - why bring it up at all? Clearly you are trying to suggest that if these supposed aspects of Korean culture were significant factors in these other disasters, then that must somehow be proof that culture had something to do with Sewol - perhaps respect/passivity culture.

      The problem is that you are making vague and unsupported insinuations, not that you are being misread.

  15. I always thought that blaming other cultures for whatever disaster was not only disrespectful but also irresponsible, especially because the arguments are rarely objective and always done by comparison which doesn't really hold up to scrutiny. There is no way to prove that one's cultural and social structure is superior to other.

    Personally, I'd like to salute those kids for doing the wisest thing and listen to authorities, i.e. the ones who should- no, MUST know better than themselves in order to earn that position. It wasn't their culture's fault, it was the irresponsability of those who were supposed to be the reliable parties involved. I just hope that it serves a lesson for the Korean government to improve the security and regulation systems in all areas. As for the "Korean culture", I think it's doing just fine the way it is because no matter how you look at it, distinction and respect towards authorities and superiors was, after all, the very foundation of all great human societies and for every single tragedy in which it would've been better not to listen to authorities, I can name a hundred that were caused because people did not follow instructions.

    I apologize for my poor English skills and thank you for always sharing such eloquent and interesting articles.

  16. I agree with TK that culture has a time and a place to explain human actions. In this case, I don't believe it did. They were just kids who expected the captain and the crew to have more information than they were privy to - in such a case, I think obedience was natural and universal just like the people who stayed put during 9/11. I do think culture still explains the KAL crash and the Asiana crash and the suicide of the VP of the school. In those airline crashes, the asst pilot had more information but failed to make it clear or failed to override his superior's orders. I know TK disagrees with me on the issue of suicide being cultural but I do think under this circumstance, suicide can be explained by culture.

    But my position has always been that there may be other factors besides culture that could contribute to these tragedies such as speedy economic development that ignores safety regulations and concerns including safety drills, training, imposition of penalties for failing to meet standards - this explains all the disasters mentioned above.; lack of regulatory oversight (sampoong department store and other disasters).

    One thing to consider is whether lack of litigation contributed to these disasters and if so, is being a litigious society vs. non litigious society "cultural" or do you consider that a non-cultural factor?

    1. While the cause of the accident was clearly corruption and lack of attention to safety standards, I still have to wonder if kids from a different culture would have reacted differently. TBH, I hope kids from my own country would have had the sense to get out quick, although it might all too easily have happened that they too would have listened to authority for fatally too long.

    2. People stayed put in the WTC during 9/11 because they were told to. I think in most disasters, people initially follow commands because of the assumption that captains/authority figures know more than they do and because chaos would ensue if they don't. No one knew at the time the ship was flipping over. By the time it was clear the ship was flipping over, it was too late to climb out of the ship because the ship was sideways. I don't think anyone under the circumstance would have acted differently.

  17. Americans are experts in all cultures. It's endowed on them as part of their birthright. It's called American exceptionalism. Not so much non-white Americans, but whites exercise their prerogative with zeal. It's why you see Americans offhandedly comment on the Middle East and related conflicts as though they were cultural anthropologists. For instance, we say the Islamists do not respect women and treat them abusively while we are more civilized and respect women as equals. How do you explain that American women are being raped at an alarming rate in the military?

    It's not so much that knuckleheads in this country know about other cultures, it's just that our constitution supports a culture where having an opinion is the same as knowing something. And that' a problem when studies show this country is getting dumber all the time , while so called backward countries are markedly superior to us.


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