Friday, 2 May 2014

Sewol Ferry and Problems with Citing Culture

In the last post (part 1 is here) I wrote a rundown of the (large large) number of articles that use the Sewol Ferry tragedy as a jumping-off point for discussions about Korean culture.

(A few newer articles I liked, and one overly masochistic one:
Jae-ha Kim's culture post
WSJ's Korea Real Time blog - Blame and Shame
A journalist, on the ethics of overcoverage and media treatment of the disaster. One of my favorite takes on the story so far.
Letter asking the president to step down goes viral.
A discussion of "parachute appointments" - where retired government ministry workers move into leadership positions in the private sector, such that personal relationships rather than institutions drive public/private relationships, and cronyism gets entrenched
When self-flagellation goes to far, you see this from the official government website.)


In this post, I'd like to talk specifically about why the culture angle is troublesome. A few things:

The Various Meanings Thing

It doesn't take much exploring to see that even when culture is under discussion, people have different ideas of what culture means, what aspect of a culture needs to change, and how to do that. This is the first problem with citing culture to explain phenomena: when somebody says "culture" it could mean any of the following:
  1. Arts and media, overall
  2. Arts and media of the elites. Or of the common folk, specifically.
  3. Arts and media of the elites, or the common folk, in an arbitrarily chosen and usually idealized time in the past
  4. Patterns of behavior in very specific contexts, among specific groups, sometimes even in specific locations (Korean test culture, gamer culture, rape culture, Portland hipster culture)
  5. General, broad patterns of behavior, communication, and so forth, in a society
  6. The framework of generally shared beliefs and values in a society, which contribute to the patterns of behavior in #5
  7. Anything that happens that someone likes/dislikes, wants to preserve/change, or is similar to/different from how things happen where (or when) the observer is from
  8. Anything someone who's "not from around here" notices more than once, the cause or purpose of which they can't easily ascertain 
  9. A set of prescriptions (usually made by elites or fuddy-duddies) that young, or uneducated, or cosmopolitan, or provincial, or vulgar people should obey, and if they don't, they will be to blame when the country goes to hell in a hand-basket
  10. All of the above in a big undifferentiated lump, often saddled with an explicit or implicit judgment
With so many meanings, conversation about culture would clearly work best if people paused to clarify what they mean by culture, and any participant considers that two people working on different definitions will talk past each other. All parties should also be alert to anyone who's moving the goalposts, accidentally or on purpose.

More to the point, if someone hasn't really thought about, or clarified what they mean when they say 'culture', it's much less likely that a line of thought starting on a muddy and ill-defined notion will end in a place that's clear and illuminating: Mythbusters literalism notwithstanding, you can't polish a turd.

TL/DR: The word culture can be used to refer to a lot of different things, so it's helpful to specify what you and others mean when you start tossing the word around

The Broad Brush vs. Getting Specific Thing 

Culture has a lot of definitions, but some of them can be quite all-encompassing. It's fun to paint with a broad brush, but glossing over details is risky: it's hard to know which details not to gloss. Culture is often part of an event, an issue, or the decisions people make, but it's most often several steps removed from the actual, immediate causes. It influences history more in a Rube Goldberg sort of way, than in a smoking gun sort of way.



The risk is that by focusing too much on culture, more immediate causes get ignored, which would be irresponsible.

And even when there is a pattern, there is a high burden of proof on anyone asserting that it is a cultural issue before anything else. You have to first identify, then show that all those other factors are less relevant than culture. Even if you can show that something happens only in Korea, or in a special way in Korea, you still have to demonstrate that it isn't any of the other features unique to the Korean situation, but culture. Unless you've defined culture so broadly that everything is culture, in which case the term is uselessly broad.

In the Sewol Ferry case, safety standard adherence (protocols, corner-cutting and greed) safety awareness (education, training of staff and officials), regulation (government institutions), implementation (transparency, corruption, rule of law), and enforcement (institutional efficiency, rule of law, cronyism, corruption) are all areas to look at before the nebulous "culture," and are all areas that every society struggles to deal with effectively and efficiently. Can culture be an exacerbating factor in any of these areas? Sure it can. But decisive? The burden of proof is on you to show how culture is the most important factor, in concrete and specific ways that are actionable through policies and interventions. If you can, you've accomplished something really useful.

TL/DR: Apply Occam's razor before positing culture as the decisive factor in something. Or add some qualifiers.

The Identity Thing

Because the word "culture" can mean all kinds of things, all the way up to "the entirety of how a society organizes perceives, represents and perpetuates itself," even somebody speaking an a narrower, limited sense of culture (for example, 'dating culture'), can be misunderstood to be speaking in the broadest sense possible, or making implicit judgments about the broad culture, by the way they talk about the specific one. This sometimes causes defensiveness, because people often take their culture as an important part of their identity. I have witnessed people defending things they admitted, upon cooling down, were mostly indefensible, simply because they felt that an outsider was attacking their culture in ignorance or spite.

Interestingly, people tend much less to get their backs up when one speaks more specifically. Talking about institutionalizing safety inspections or removing corruption from regulatory bodies provokes the rising of many fewer hackles than talking about a culture that does not value human life, to take the Sewol ferry case. If you cannot tell the difference between talking about a culture of corruption and talking about a corrupt culture, you will have a hard time avoiding defensive reactions.

TL/DR: People tend to associate their culture with their identity, so either get ready for defensiveness, or use more careful and specific language.


The Agency Thing, The Arrogance Thing, and The Monolith Thing

Spend a minute reading what fundamental attribution errors and ecological fallacies are.

Sometimes, inlaid in discussion of culture, is the idea that people have a hard time acting outside of their culture's patterns - that their culture defines the limits of their possible behavior. This is "cultural determinism." It often comes with the attitude that everybody within a culture shares some unchangeable fundamental traits (Essentialism). Or that "those people" are somehow fundamentally "different from us" (Orientalism). These attitudes frame a discussion as if cultures were more powerful than individuals' decision-making abilities -- that the kids on that ferry really WOULD obey the captain's orders even to the point of risking their own lives.

By skipping too quickly past other causes in which human choice is more prominent, or focusing too emphatically on culture, we're treating people as if they don't even control their own decisions, and letting some off the hook too easily. Can we offer all sound-minded human beings the dignity not to put culture above personal agency? (That's a rhetorical question. Yes we can. And we need to.) Culture doesn't take away our power to make decisions, nor our responsibility for them. Using culture to try and get a free pass, or let someone off the hook because they "couldn't help it" because of their culture is dehumanizing, and either condescending or disingenuous.

One more thing (slippery slope warning): elevating culture to the point that it completely, or significantly, determines a person and a society's entire range of possibilities and potentials echoes an ugly period in history. The attitude that some cultural features put a ceiling on a society's potential for attainment or development was used a long time ago to justify "advanced" countries colonizing "primitive" cultures. Including Korea. (cf: The White Man's Burden). Even today, the words "traditional" or "indigenous" are sometimes code words for "backwards" or "uncivilized." Watch for that.

Cultures are not undifferentiated monoliths and hive minds, nor are they fixed and unchanging, nor do they appear out of an ahistorical vaccuum, nor are they rigid determiners of their members' abilities choices or potentials. Cultures contain diverse elements, they change constantly, in response to specific events conditions and stimuli, and people constantly stretch the definition by not fitting the mold. Muddy, vague, context-removed generalizations about culture deny all of this.

TL/DR: Saying culture took away someone's ability to make a rational decision is degrading. Humans have brains, and make choices, and are accountable for them.

The Silencing Thing


All those complex forces that influence cultural change? All those debates and discussion about identity, history, priority and future that, all together, comprise a society's conversation with itself about what kind of society it is? Those conversations are full of voices. Voices from people inside the culture. Who experience it first hand and know it intimately. Who are the very best source of knowledge and insight into the nature of a society, and whose conversations provide concrete examples of how cultural backgrounds manifest in actual social behavior. And whose assent is needed if anyone wants to create any kind of cultural change. And ignoring all that contestation, all those contradicting voices, all those ideas and values and conflicts, in order to fit some image, silences them.

There is no need to speak on behalf of the members of a society, as they have their own voices, and the best commenters start with references to those voices. Denying a society's members the chance to speak for themselves is another way of dehumanizing a group. And it's been done too often, to all kinds of groups, and every time it happens, we are poorer for the lost opportunity to learn something new. And this is what it looks like to people who actually know the conditions on the ground. Some of the cultural discussions regarding the Sewol disaster have reflected, and been reflected by sources written by Koreans, for Koreans. Others have not. Guess which ones I take more seriously.

A discussion of culture that is not in tune with what people in a culture are saying themselves, is woefully incomplete, and could never persuade them to affect cultural change anyway.

TL/DR: Societies are full of self-aware people who make good points about what their culture/society is, and what it needs, and they deserve your attention.

The Complex Text Thing

Because culture is such a big, messy, slippery, contradictory thing, it is possible to find confirmation of just about anything one wants to find. Wanna prove Koreans are backwards and provincial? Chat up some folks in the countryside or an old, low-income neighborhood. Wanna prove they're hip and cosmopolitan? Head to Garosugil.

You can conclude Koreans are incredibly polite or rude, loud or quiet, shy or ribald, moderate or intemperate, generous or ruthless, all depending where you fix your gaze, in the same way that the same bible was used to support the Civil Rights Movement and to justify slavery. Koreans slavishly obey authorities? That chapter in Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, the way public schools are generally run, something about North Korea's Cult of Kim, and this spurious "death by obedience" explanation support the narrative. Koreans mistrust authorities and have a cherished history of defiance? Donghak peasant revolt, March 1st Movement, 1961, 1980, 1987, and 2008 corroborate that.

Somehow everybody seems to find what they're looking for. (Source)


Yes, there are prevailing patterns, which can be identified. A culture is not a pure ink blot with no meaning or form at all, but the whole system is so complex, dynamic, and contradictory that anybody who wants to go there needs to step carefully and offer more than anecdotes.

TL/DR: Cultures and societies are so complex you can prove anything by focusing your gaze in the right place. It doesn't mean you've made a compelling case.


Conclusion: Enough Lecturing Already, Roboseyo!

So is culture off the table entirely? No. Of course not. But it should be clear by now that bringing culture into a discussion is a minefield: there are more ways of doing it wrong than doing it right, and it should be done with tact, rigor, or both. Both. Minefields are most safely navigated when you know where the mines are hidden, obviously.

It should also be clear that the person with the most credibility is the one who is in tune with the voices on the ground. Is a foreign correspondent the only one talking culture of obedience? Someone who doesn't even live here? Do your Korean friends shake their heads vigorously when you posit culture of obedience as a contributing factor, or do they nod sadly? Does the article you just read reflect the discussions actually happening AMONG THE PEOPLE CONCERNED?? Is their take gaining domestic traction, getting translated and forwarded among Koreans? Because the word coming through translation is talking about crony culture, of corruption and corner-cutting culture, not hierarchy and obedience.

Can we talk about safety regulation, implementation and enforcement in Korea without bringing culture into it? We sure can!

We could start with Heinrich's Law - Heinrich studied industrial safety in the early 1900s (in America, which also had to take some time to figure things out, and still regularly muffs it), and found that for every accident causing major injury or death, there were 29 similar accidents causing a minor injury, and 300 no-injury accidents -- close calls and such.

quick google search reveals that Heinrich's law is still being debated and challenged today... but the big takeaway is this: accidents don't occur out of the blue. Before The Big One happens, there are warning signs - minor incidents - that attentive and proactive leaders/inspectors/regulators/staff members can identify. There are measures that can be taken so that the big one doesn't come to pass. Big accidents aren't one-offs, in most cases: they're convergences of lots of factors. Fatigue and bad visibility and a rushed itinerary and mechanical failure and late response and lack of training and failure to accurately assess the situation and a badly timed hangover, and and and. The Sewol disaster has been dissected at least enough by now that it's clear this is the case here as well.

These direct influences must be addressed effectively. No discussion of culture is needed. Now... why has corner-cutting been tolerated? Why is there so much cronyism between national associations and government ministries? Why have so many warnings gone ignored? We're getting meta now, which is fine after the most pressing issues have been addressed. And maybe maybe maybe culture plays into that, and let's have a conversation about it! I'm sure the locals have lots of good things to add, and are hoping their leaders will be decisive and clear-minded enough to create useful solutions, systems that are designed for early recognition of problems, that have regulatory teeth to punish corner-cutters, and not just stopgap and politically convenient band-aid solutions.

Wouldn't it be nice if all the public anger got channeled toward such solutions rather than cultural self-excoriations! Would that this new enthusiasm for due diligence and safety awareness got extended to all kinds of other sectors... I'm sure you can guess which. One of them involves better use of traffic cameras.

In Part 3, I'll talk about Culturalism, as per Ask A Korean, and Culturalism, as per what it actually is.

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