Monday, 27 October 2014

Some Old Korean Rock.

Yes, I have heard the complaint that some kinds of Korean music do nothing artistically -- they just take foreign music and put it in the mouth of somebody Korean.

I think the conversation is much more complex than that -- the act of mediation has a lot of different things in play -- why are they choosing this song or this style instead of another, and why does some stuff catch on, and other stuff not? I had a student tell me about her abiding love for U2, which surprised me, because U2 is almost never the foreign band mentioned when you ask your Korean friend who loves foreign music, to name a few bands they like. I've never heard a Korean pick a U2 song in a noraebang. Not to mention, you can just put on a record... so why do we want our singers to bang out live versions of songs, if accuracy is the issue? It's not. There's simply more going on. And even if imitation is the only thing that's going on, well so what? Anybody impressed with the cover is very likely to look up the original, and might even accidentally come across some great music, thanks to a shitty cover.

Those covers don't always work. Some covers do strike me as utterly unnecessary because they've done very little with the original except add a new color scheme, dance moves, or a different vocal style. But then, that doesn't only happen across cultures (original). And when it doesn't work, we can get rude and dismissive.

But then you come across Shin Joong-hyun's cover of In-a Gadda Da Vida (original by Iron Butterfly)... and I'm willing to forgive a lot of derivative works if every once in a while, something this magical comes across.

Play it through. Play it loud. Or don't bother. But... bother. It's worth it.


And ultimately... I have no problem with the idea of adapting things for a target audience. Why the heck wouldn't you? Italian food is so successful worldwide because pasta is easy, and sauces are infinitely flexible, and thus infinitely adaptable to available ingredients and local taste. And yes, there will be someone somewhere sniffing about authenticity, and they should just go to Naples. Ditto for music. You've got to use the available ingredients, and suit things to local taste. As long as royalties are being paid... all the power to ya!

The Pearl Sisters


Their live version of Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody To Love" made them famous.


Another thing I like about Korean music is the way certain songs keep coming up. There's kind of a repertory, and if you listen to enough music, you'll start recognizing them. Not all of them are even Korean songs anymore - somebody always wants to drop Nella Fantasia or "The Susan Boyle song" into the mix.

For example, any female who wants to show off her pipes chooses this one. (Kim Chuja is the original singer.)

It's an emotional rail spike, and it's effective as hell when a woman with a lower range pours her heart into it.

(If she wants to show off her pipes and her English, she picks Mariah Carey's Hero, or Let it Go.)

You can find dozens of versions of it, from darn near everyone. Here. Get started. It's viral video bait in Korea -- right up there with Nella Fantasia (aka Gabriel's Oboe)

I've been listening to more Shin Joong-hyun again lately, and I've heard him revisit songs with different artists and different arrangements a bunch of times, and I love how he brings out a different side each time. Numerous songs appear multiple times in his 8 disk anthology, which was generously shared with me by a reader. (Thanks, Adam.) It manages to highlight both his songwriting (to write a song that glows under so many different lights) and his musicianship (taking a song we know, and still surprising us).

He's done this song (떠나야 할 그사람 - The Man Who Must Leave) a bunch of different times, and each one is interesting. It started with the Pearl Sisters, one of his first proteges, and from there everybody did it, including Shin himself. My favorite might be this version by 김선 (listed as by Kim Chu-Ja by shazam, but that's a boy's voice). And more recently, In-Sooni took it in a totally different direction.



Another one is 봄비 or "Spring Rain" - which has been done by a swack of people, (Park In-Soo, Jang Sa-ik... but there's another song floating around with the same name, by the way) and has a very distinctive "na na" ending that you'll remember if you've heard it. This is another of those songs that makes everybody feel that happy kind of sad.

Shin's own version of this song is the saddest, in my opinion. As he got older, his voice just oozed some kind of disappointment. Fittingly.


Some people might argue that this kind of recurrence of songs is a minus in Korean music, but I have to disagree. First of all, the cult of the singer-songwriter is a culture and even a genre-specific phenomenon coming out of western (mostly white) rock and roll, where Rolling Stone writers got swept up in The Beatles, who made it a selling point on their artistic originality that they wrote their own songs. Now there's something really admirable about a great songwriter -- Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen are two of the artists that find their ways back on my playlist more than almost any other -- but it's also silly to take points away from someone just because the song's not an original. In jazz music, it's fine to sing the standards, and even preferred if the alternative would be a great singer or musician doing crappy songs, because they're limiting themselves to their own bad songwriting. In classical music, you're pretty much required to perform other people's compositions, and nobody rages on Glenn Gould for doing all those Bach cover albums.

If you take points away from Aretha Franklin for not having written "Respect" (she didn't) or Jimi Hendrix for not writing "All Along The Watchtower," then in my opinion, you're kind of missing the point. Learning someone wrote their own songs is great while I'm scanning the bio, and I often do prefer the original version once I find it, but as soon as I press play, it's about the music, not the origin story. In his "50 Greatest K-pop artists" series (which you should be following, by the way), The Korean talks about the role Kim Kwang Seok played in helping to develop the repertory of Korean songs, and that's important work, developing a sense of heritage from which future artists can draw inspiration. While the originality of some artists is great and praiseworthy, it's not the be-all and end-all for a great musical experience, even if your songwriter was some Swedish ringer. Furthermore, sometimes a well-placed cover demonstrates a sense of history, a sense of heritage and respect for the pioneers, that deepens an artist's repertoire, even as it honors what came before.

So while I don't like every new cover of an old song, and while I in fact think that "Hallelujah" has been wrecked (but not irreparably) by too many crappy reality talent show audition covers, I think it's great when artists nod to their past, and bring us a new look at a song we already know.




Sunday, 31 August 2014

News Rundown: Sewol Standoff, Dog Meat, That Pub, and Depression

A few news items have been blazing across my Facebook wall, and I'd like to weigh in briefly on a few of them. I'll be as concise as I can.

Sewol Ferry Law, Riot Police Overkill and Overreaching

The National assembly is deadlocked, as the ruling party and the opposition party cannot agree to the conditions for a special investigation into the Sewol Ferry disaster, and the opposition party are boycotting participation in any other parliamentary actions while waiting for the leading party to capitulate to their demands. Read up here. And here. And this one is my favorite. This longer piece at The Marmot's Hole looks into the motivations of the political players.

At the same time, the Gwanghwamun area, which I regularly travel through and around in my weekly schedule, is also deadlocked, with police buses and riot troops turning broad roadways into traffic bottlenecks. In my opinion, the number of police sent out there is overkill by a magnitude of order. There look to be 10 police for every one protestor I've seen. On the other hand... perhaps that mad overkill is what dissuades larger crowds from bothering to show up... and I can remember back to 2008 and 2009, when protesters would overrun police barriers and block traffic all weekend in Gwanghwamun, just because they could, misguidedly thinking that snarling the entire downtown would gain sympathy, rather than turning every driver against their cause... and well, at least the police keep one lane open.

I'm annoyed by both situations, because both dumb deadlocks are based on one side presuming that the other side will go nuclear - protestors getting violent and destroying police buses and attacking police, and politicians headhunting the president at every opportunity - given the tiniest shred of leeway. The problem, in both cases, is that in the past both protestors and opposition politicians have done exactly that, given any opportunity, so while I really hate all this recalcitrance and stubbornness, I see where it's coming from, and while I really hope the Sewol families get justice, and a full accounting for what went wrong, and they don't seem to be getting that from the ruling party, it's a shame they have to align with the political left, who come across (as usual) as if they're in it more for the damage they can inflict on the ruling party than out of any actual concern for the families devastated in this tragedy. I knew this Sewol thing would get politicised eventually, but I'm disgusted by how it's happened.

I keep going back and forth, like Louis CK.


On the one side... when a party acts as if it's hiding wrongdoing (perhaps simply out of habit), after a while people start guessing it's because there is some serious wrongdoing just waiting for the right rock to be overturned.

On the other side, it makes sense that they are acting defensively, trying to pre-emptively prevent the investigative committee from turning into a presidential head-hunting team, because the progressive party goes after the president whenever they can. Given their track record for overreaching, they've given the conservatives no reason to expect they won't do it again. Nor me.

Part of the story hinges on the formation, and composition, of a "fact finding committee" -- and the formation of special committees has always been fraught in South Korea, where everyone suspects everyone has an agenda, and/or has something to hide. The sordid track record of politicising Truth and Reconciliation Commissions is a good place to start for the way grievances never seem to get resolved in South Korea, especially when they involve powerful people.

It's a mess. It's a quagmire. It's the reason Korean people don't have faith in their government. It's the reason Korean people latch onto newcomers who promise to "change the way politics is done" -- as if it could be done, when every politician except that one person has something to lose in the case of actual change. Koreans seem to expect the worst of their politicians, yet Korean politicians have repeatedly lived down, and then sunk below that expectation.

Could the president have done something to make the Sewol tragedy unfold differently than it did? Probably, but not on the day it happened. There are heads that richly deserve to roll, and people who did get away with stuff. Who have covered up their shame more cleverly and subtly than the Sewol captain, and who'll probably get away with it. Shit is still happening that shows that actual concern for safety hasn't been impressed on the rank and file, those to whom we trust our safety (Saemangeum seawall workers were out having dinner instead of warning boats not to approach the seawall while the gate was open).

Dog meat: On the way out

I wrote about dog meat a few times before. Here. And here, with ruminations on the nature of online debate.

A recent article in Yahoo Finance, of all places, discusses the closing of a famous dog meat restaurant -- where presidents themselves ate -- and the slow decline of dog meat consumption, in the absence of young people eating it. The comment I put on my Facebook page was this:

Dog meat is a generational thing, and if foreign lobby groups had ignored it in 1988, causing certain people to cling to "our culture" mainly because "dem furriners" were telling them not to, and screw them! I believe dog meat would probably already be nearly extinct.  
Humanity and cruelty aside, it's economics that will do dog dishes in, and there just isn't a future in the market for it, when nearly every consumer is grey-haired. It'll go the way of bbundaegi (which is also slowly vanishing, with much less fanfare, because foreign lobby groups never convinced a group of Koreans it's part of "their" culture).
An academic paper I came across while researching the '88 olympics, discovered these outcomes from global pressure to ban dog meat in Korea during the buildup to the olympics:
The goal of this paper has been to assess the world polity perspective for one empirical case: the debate surrounding dog meat consumption in South Korea. In this case, global cultural scripts rejecting dog meat consumption did not translate directly or in a predictable fashion to conforming Korea’s practices into the world system. In this case, integration of world cultural norms has transformed existing cultural practices into something not quite resembling what came before (traditional dog meat eating practices) nor what the adherents of the world polity perspective might predict (the abolition of dog meat). Rather, dog meat eating practices have transformed into a more widespread cultural activity legitimised by greater protections against animal cruelty and greater awareness of the role of dog meat consumption within the discourse of South Korean national pride.
*Minjoo Oh & Jeffrey Jackson (2011) "Animal Rights vs. Cultural Rights: Exploring the Dog Meat Debate in South Korea from a World Polity Perspective." Journal of Intercultural Studies. 32.1, 31-56.

That is to say, by trying to ban dog meat, global animal rights groups created a backlash, causing a practice that had been dying out anyways on its own, to be practiced and cherished as a site for practicing and celebrating cultural identity. That cultural pride association had become strong enough by 2002 (World Cup) that anti-dog lobbyers were met with resistance that used the language of respect for cultural uniqueness. If international animal rights folks had said nothing in 1986-7, I think dog meat would probably have died away on its own before 2000, lacking any wind in its sagging sails.

I said in previous posts -- meat is meat, and I have trouble accepting arguments that it's OK to eat one critter, but not another, and I've always argued that Korean society will age out of dog meat in its own sweet time. Interesting to see I'm being proven right.




The Pub Thing



The offensive sign in the pub, and the outraged response, has been beaten into the ground on Facebook, and was blogged about at Asia PunditsAdam R Carr's blog (which tries to sniff through the (in?)sincerity of the proprietors' initial responses and denials), and Korea Observer, who attended the "apology" night, where the owner got too drunk to apologize (yikes!). A surprising number of people have come out on Facebook to defend or pooh-pooh outrage over an action that is indefensible in any way.

Mostly this summary was an excuse to share this
funny image from the Dokdo is Ours post.
For the record, the signs were only up at the location for about an hour, but the same article by Korea Observer that mentions that fact, seems also to give us a clue as to the real motivations for putting up the sign: a group of bar patrons from ... um... a country that would be excluded if all Africans were banned... who were bothering females in the club. Even Dokdo Is Ours (hey hey!) got in on the feeding frenzy, ending with a joke about the way so many people have trouble naming more than a handful of countries in Africa, and talking about Africa as if it were a single, undifferentiated country.

If I were the bar owner, I'd close down for a week and re-open under a new name. But honestly, given now many people attending bars in Itaewon either aren't tuned into expat facebook activism anyway, and how short expat memory is because of high turnover, not to mention how many people drinking in Itaewon aren't even foreigners anymore these days, I doubt a Facebook activist run boycott (if anybody bothered to organise one) would even have a serious effect. The location probably matters more than whether the proprietors are or aren't racist, but next time we suggest a sign saying "the management reserves the right to refuse service to any customer at any time" instead of "No Africans because... um... Ebola, I guess."

You can hear more of my thoughts on that issue at the Cafe Seoul Podcast -- some of my blogging energy has been going into the Cafe Seoul Podcast lately, and I am rather pleased with it. It's put together by my friend Eugene, and a couple of other pals, and our last few episodes have all made me happy. Maybe they will make you happy, too.

Here's the Ebola Pub episode. IBlug won't embed for some reason, so you'll just have to click on the link.

You can also search "Cafe Seoul Podcast" on iTunes, or click here.

Robin Williams and Depression

I, like everyone else of my generation, was staggered by the unexpected passing of Robin Williams: we were raised on his movies. There were conversations about which Robin Williams movies we loved (Hook, Aladdin, Good Will Hunting, The Fisher King, Dead Poets' Society, are my top five), the ones we not-quite-loved (Death To Smoochy, What Dreams May Come, and Jakob the Liar were two of the movies that taught me that even actors I like can make bad movies), and who can forget his appearance on Whose Line Is It Anyway, topped only by Richard Simmons' "Possibly The Best Five Minutes On The Internet", or his stand-up.

And the conversation veered into discussions of suicide. Cracked had the subtly titled "Why Funny People Kill Themselves", and my sister-in-law wrote this beautiful bit on her blog, which I'm copying but not linking, because I didn't ask permission, and if she wants my readers on her blog, she can put the link in the comments. Perhaps she doesn't.

Cancer, and diabetes, and kidney disease, and strokes, and fatal heart attacks, and Alzheimers are all horrible illnesses.  But you know what happens at the end of them?
The person dies OF the disease. 
We say, "Shirley died OF cancer,"  "James kidneys failed him," "Bonnie had a horrible stroke."  The disease killed them, got them, attacked them.  The disease was not associated at all with WHO they were, quite the opposite in fact, the disease got them.     
I don't know why it is that this isn't the case in with mental illness.  We likely won't speak of Robin Williams "dying of depression," or being the victim of "brain failure." Forever his death will be tainted with the tag "suicide," and in that, just so many complicated and avoided issues.  
...When people commit suicide, they are sick.  End of story.  They are sick like any dying person laying in a hospital bed, only they are likely getting far less comfort, love, and compassion in the hours leading to their passing. 
They die OF something.  They do not choose to die.  The disease has killed them, at least any shred left of who they once were. 
Similar sentiments here. Fact is, depression and mental illness still face a stigma other diseases don't. Nobody goes into the cancer ward saying "Why don't you just... not have cancer any more?" and if they did they've be acknowledged without debate as an ignorant asshole. But people do that for depression. "I'm getting tired of you and all this leukaemia shit. Snap out of it!" Said no-one, ever. "You know, maybe a little exercise is what you need for that liver failure." "Some volunteering might help put your muscular dystrophy in perspective." "I think you're just having tuberculosis for attention." So... it's terribly sad we've lost another hero of my childhood, particularly for his family and the people around him. Hopefully it will start more conversations about mental health, which will have positive outcomes in the end. But if that happens, to be clear, it doesn't mean it was worth it that even one more person, famous or not, lost the battle with depression. Every life lost is a deep tragedy.

Lest we miss an opportunity to share this information, you may have heard suicide is a pretty serious social problem in Korea. Here are some Korean suicide resources: http://www.counsel24.com/  http://www.suicide.org/hotlines/international/south-korea-suicide-hotlines.html and some other international suicide help lines. http://www.reddit.com/r/SWResources/comments/17gu7g/hotline_numbers/ Share others you know about in the comments.

Those are a few of the things floating across my brain-dar these days. Hope it was interesting for you to read, and that the thoughts are mostly well-formed, rather than half-baked.

That is all for now.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

You'll Never Guess the Top Five Things That Happened After K-blogs Got Too Self-Referential

Ouroboros. Source
This might be the worst K-blog list infection since that CNNgo troll article prompted a spat of countdowns (links to others at beginning of post)

Lists are the thing again. And posts about bloggers who make lists. And lists about bloggers who make posts about bloggers who make lists. And this is a post about a list about a post about lists. If others write similar posts, we could make a list of posts about bloggers who write posts about bloggers who make lists. And then the K-blogosphere will crawl up its own butt, die of auto-rhetorical asphyxiation, and probably not be mourned.

Listception!

Image belongs to this guy. Buy one!

However, when even a scholar like Cedarbough, over at her blog Footnotes, has made a top 10 list of how to Korea correctly, I guess my memo must have just been lost in the mail. And so, in obligatory clickbait fashion, lest they take away my K-blogger card, here are the topics we've seen so far. In list form, of course.

1. Perhaps Paul Ajosshi got it started with his "6 Dangers That Await You at the Boryeong Mud Fest" - a cautionary listicle that totally neglects the looming threat of a zombie apocalypse. (By the way, don't you love the word listicle? It sounds just similar enough to the word "Testicle" that it not only conveys that something is an article that is a list, but makes people go "uh... kinda ew." As listicles do.

What I imagine when I hear the word "Listicle"


2. Following Paul, Charles Montgomery wrote "Top 10 Newbie Mistakes in Korea" the most useful of which is #2, that if you're an HBC expat hipster... you're not actually rebelling when you dress the way everybody else in HBC dresses, and hang out in the same dives. On the other hand... Charles is hardly breaking new ground in making fun of hipsters, which even Mike Myers did, way back when he was still really really funny.

(So I Married An Axe Murderer (1993): people have been making fun of hipsters since before the latest batch of hagwon teachers were born.)


I wish they would get off your lawn, too, Charles!


3. William George answered Charles with "Noobs, You're Doing Fine"

I don't think we'd realized listicular circlejerkititis was the thing infecting the K-blogs yet with Mr. George's "Don't listen to the grumpy guy" response. But then, the ball was just getting rolling.

4. Epidemic status was reached when Sweet Pickles and Corn published "10 Things In Korea that I'll Never Ever Do" including things like "I'll never go on a temple stay" (fair enough). Mostly, I think he must be doing well here, if the worst thing he can think of to do here is overpaying shitty foreign food (10th on the list). Somewhere out there, perhaps on one of those blogs that got cancelled, there's a person who could make a much more sordid list with a much better grasp of "How Expats Hit Bottom In Far-Off Lands".

5. Cedarbough weighed in with 10 things to do if you live in Korea -- one of the better lists I've read, and wish I'd written myself. I especially like 4, 5, and 6, and I can only hope she'll follow up #3 - "Read Real Books About Korea" with a second top ten (or 15, or 80) suggestions of places to start.

6. Burndog takes the piss out of everyone who writes a list, or grumbles about those writing lists, with "10 things I'll Never Write a List About in Korea Something Something Noob"

7. Finally, Dom and Hyo have, in cartoon form (squee) "9 Different Types of Expats You Will Come Across in Korea" -- a list I like, because it seems to be written neither to vent unhappy expat rage, nor to ingratiate themselves to an imagined Korean audience. However, they missed the "know-it-all" of whom I am one.


Now that I've done a list about lists, let's include it in a list of your favorite conglomerations of lists, like Cracked cannibalizing itself, until we have a list of the best lists about lists about collections of lists. And put each item of the list on a separate page, to squeeze out extra clicks. Ads in the sidebar, all hail google ads revenue!

Pertinent to all this listification is the fact that every week, I go on TBS radio and present a list myself, in a segment titled (by my predecessor in the spot) "The Lone Ranker" - I do little countdowns about whatever topic I like that week, ranging from heavy stuff like "6 ways Sports Mega Events Helped Create The World We Live In Today" to frippery such as "The Five Most Annoying Things About Spring" (both actual topics I've done). I may start turning more of my topics into posts for ze blog (especially given how sparse posting has been lately.

Stay cool my loyal readers.

And now, here is a video of Kim Jong-un dancing, that went viral in China.

Looking silly is the worst thing possible for North Korea (hence the report that a Seth Rogen movie will be considered an act of war) - no nation has ever screamed louder "Take me seriously" in all its policies and actions, than North Korea. I guess if you can't walk softly and carry a big stick, the next best thing is to wave your wet noodle as threateningly and loudly as you can in everyone's faces.


Put your list in the comments if I forgot yours!

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Culturalism - You Keep Using That Word 2: Some Q and A on Culturalism

I'm just going to assume that readers have all read part 1 of this series: What is Actual Culturalism? I'm tackling the idea of "culturalism" - which The Korean discussed, but has also been discussed by others in social sciences and policy discussions for a while. This comment points out that it isn't really taught as a method or framework in anthropology. Which is good to know. Thanks, commenter Nora!

So what are some other concepts related to culturalism?

Last post, we talked about Culturalism and Multiculturalism as it plays into policy discussions - particularly in Europe. Here in Kblogland, most people talking about culturalism are going on The Korean's definition, which mostly resembles the one used in Europe, but applying it to the area of cultural engagement rather than public policy. He defines it these two ways:
Culturalism is the unwarranted impulse to explain people's behavior with a "cultural difference", whether real or imagined. Because the culturalist impulse always attempts to explain more with culture than warranted, the "cultural difference" used in a cultural explanation is more often imagined than real. (source)
and as
...the impulse to explain minority people's behavior with a "cultural difference", real or imagined. (source)
Along those lines, here are some other rhetorical and philosophical concepts that The Korean and others might find useful in discussing "Culturalism". Rather than long descriptions here, I strongly encourage you to read the explanations I link. I also glossed over this in my previous post, "problems with citing culture"

  • Fundamental Attribution Error - we tend to over-emphasize internal causes, and under-emphasize external (systemic or sometimes even random) causes of a phenomenon.
  • Cultural Determinism - we tend to believe that culture determines our behavior...probably more than it actually does.
  • Essentialism - we tend to think that there are certain traits that are fixed and unchangeable for certain groups - "Women are all like this" "Koreans are all this way" "White men all do this"
  • Orientalism - a type of essentialism that focuses on other groups and cultures. When we look at certain cultures, we tend to make them out to be so different from us that we could never understand them (implied: so we may as well not try) - they will always be exotic, strange, and inscrutable to "us." Any time somebody uses the word "exotic," watch for this attitude.


Culturalism as The Korean defines it is bits of the four above in one, intellectually sloppy modge-podge, with a little ecological fallacy thrown in for flavor. And I say "intellectually sloppy" because people over-using culture to explain things are being sloppy, not because The Korean has been sloppy in describing it.

Meanwhile, commenter Dylan suggests we read more about Communitarianism -- which is another concept used by human rights scholars in discussing the ways people organize into communities.

So, is culturalism racism?

Not necessarily.

For one, racism has been discredited - the variety within members of each racial group is so great, that the variety from one racial group to another fades to insignificance. And we've all heard racism deniers tell us that "race is a social construct, therefore it doesn't exist"... As if social constructs don't exist. But society is also a social construct, so as people living in societies, we still have to talk about race sometimes.

Abstraction confuses me.
Culture has the benefit of being recognized by everyone as a social construct from the get-go, so at least we don't have deniers herp-derping that it does not exist because humans made it up (unlike all the other things humans made up, that DO exist, like the language they're using to make that argument). Anyone who's agreed to talk about culture has already agreed to talk about social constructs, so that's at least nice.

And race is hardware -- your pigment and bone structure are in your dna, and unchangeable, but culture is software - programmed patterns of behavior which can be changed. Culture is changing all the time. That's a crucial difference.

Strictly speaking then, culturalism isn't the same as racism.

Lemme tell you 'bout race, butthead...
However, if you take a person in the habit of lazy or sloppy thinking, and give them a phenomenon they don't understand, the same sloppiness that might have caused their 1955 self to explain it with race, might today cause them to explain it with culture.

It's all about culture, butthead!
Racism has been discredited, but while intellectual laziness is still in style, even most bigots generally realize you're not "supposed" to be openly racist anymore. So culturalism isn't the same as racism, but they are used in the same way by lazy thinkers and bigots. They are born of the same desire to generalize about those who are different, both are worsened by the same lack of curiosity and unwillingness to admit the variety and humanity of others, and both lead to the same kinds of sweeping and ignorant statements. And those are ample grounds for The Korean to call culturalism "racism of the 21st century"

So is culture off the table entirely?

No. Because it's human made, and learned, culture is changeable, and changing all the time. This means that, as long as we discuss it in terms that don't overestimate its usefulness as an analytical tool (which is easy to do), yeah, it's fair game for discussion, but even kept in perspective, it's still easy to get it wrong when talking about culture, because when talking about culture, you're also talking about the way a bunch of people live, and those people deserve to be approached with respect, and in a way that recognizes their humanity, intelligence, free will, and so forth. And there are lots of ways to talk about culture that does not do those things. Be respectful, and don't be a dick.

Beep boop beep boop! Why am I not surprised the politically correct police have shown up to stop me from expressing my free speech?

OK. I'm going to write a whole extra unplanned post in this series to talk about this, because the more I think about it, the weirder it is to me that somehow political correctness has been framed as a bad thing... so if you're champing at the bit to start arguing about that, kindly hold your horses and save it for the comments under a future post.

Coming up next at Roboseyo: some ways to talk about culture without coming across as a shit. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Culturalism - You Keep Using That Word 1: What is Actual Culturalism?


Last summer, when The Korean from Ask a Korean! wrote his bit about Malcolm Gladwell, the Asiana crash, and culturalism -- a tour de force piece that managed to get Malcolm Gladwell himself over to The Korean's site to answer criticisms, one of my friends who's in Anthropology got very frustrated with the whole thing.

Because before The Korean started using the word "culturalism" with the meaning he gave it (in this post)... it was kind of already an actual thing.

It happens from time to time that academic terms get co-opted, or re-"coined" or re-conceptualized by someone who isn't part of the conversation where it first came up (for example, Soft Power has suffered a lot of meaning creep since being co-opted by China's "Peaceful Rise" narrative, and now it can mean anything from all non-military nation-to-nation bullying, to nation branding) or a word gets so much baggage piled onto it in the public imagination, that it's hard to use it academically anymore. (For an example, look at The Metropolitician's attempt to re-explain racism in such a way that it's possible to discuss it again without knee-jerk defensiveness.)

And here's a definition of culturalism, as per Jens-Martin Eriksen and Frederik Stjernfelt, who are the two names that come up a lot when you search it on Google Scholar and stuff: 
Culturalism is the idea that individuals are determined by their culture, that these cultures form closed, organic wholes, and that the individual is unable to leave his or her own culture but rather can only realise him or herself within it. [One type of] Culturalism also maintains that cultures have a claim to special rights and protections – even if at the same time they violate individual rights.
Basically, to develop public policy, or understand social structures, as a bureaucrat or anthropologist might want to do, one must decide how to group together the subjects of your study, and class, income, age, region, education -- these can all be useful. But if you decide culture is more important than all these other groupings, that, in its broadest definition, is culturalism.

Jens-Martin Eriksen and Frederik Stjernfelt back away from the definition above by separating culturalism into two kinds: hard and soft. (explanation in this summary)

Hard culturalism is the one above -- where culture is constructed as the be-all and end-all, and cultural lines are imagined to be rigid and impassable. I can't define myself outside of the culture I was raised in. Taken far enough, Hard Culturalism is the basis of arguments that cultural groups should be allowed to put their community's laws above the laws of the land they live in, or that anybody unwilling to assimilate into their host country should be sent "back where they came from." This is where Eriksen and Stjernfelt's critique lies. Hard culturalism becomes politicized, and they describe it in places as an ideology, arguing that individual and human rights should always come before cultural rights.

And where exactly to draw those lines between respecting a cultural or religious group, and ensuring the human rights of members of that group? Does a doctor violate one's religious rights by saying, "I respect your religion, but I'm still giving your child a blood transfusion!" What if it's not the child, but the parent?

Soft culturalism, according to Eriksen and Stjernfelt, aren't incompatible with a modern cosmopolitan society. In soft culturalism, we can find our identity or self-expression in a culture, but the standards and norms of a culture don't supersede the values of a modern secular society -- human rights, rule of law, etc..

To over-simplify, Eriksen and Stjernfelt would probably say that you should be allowed to wear a cross or a hijab in school as a symbol of your identity (soft culturalism), but would reject a domestic abuse defense that "where I'm from, it's normal for parents to hit their kids," and oppose Muslim communities in Europe following Sharia law.

If you take Eriksen and Stjernfelt's definition of culturalism above: "that individuals are determined by their culture, that they have no free will to influence the course of their lives," I don't think The Korean would take issue with it. The difference is how each applies it: E&S explain how putting people into overly rigid groups leads to problematic policies and "culture wars," and The Korean explains how that same conception of culture causes problems in cross-cultural personal experiences and judgments, where it results in "Racism of the 21st Century."



It's just too bad they're giving different meanings to the same word, as they discuss two different, but interesting and important ideas.

If you're interested in Eriksen and Stjernfelt's concept of culturalism, here's more reading material:
This excellent article by Milan Vukomanovic hits most of the important points.
This is another good summary be Eriksen and Stjernfelt themselves.
This article, and the six recorded interviews below it expand on the key issues.
This article about the Anders Breivik verdict (that Norwegian mass-murderer) also talks about the tension between culture and human rights.
And if anyone wants to send me a gift copy of Eriksen and Stjernfelt's book, "The Democratic Contradictions of Multiculturalism" I'd be thrilled.

Culturalism's place in the history of ideas is kind of mixed: one of the earlier cases of culture being used as a level of analysis was among colonizing countries, which used academic rhetoric to justify colonizing civilizations they had deemed "primitive," in order to "civilize" them. (cf: The White Man's Burden). Culturalism is usually not used in quite such a patronizing way these days. Arguably.

Culturalism is also a required prerequisite to multiculturalism: you can't construct a policy of respecting cultural differences, if you don't first imagine that cultural groupings exist, and are important enough to warrant specific policies and programs.


So while I have to take issue with The Korean using the term "Culturalism" because that's already a thing, the thing that he wishes to describe with his term is something very much worthy of discussion, and I'll talk about that in an upcoming post.