Monday, April 21, 2014

Cultural explanations of, and reactions to, national tragedies

Something I never understood before I went to Europe, and something I understood even less after having gone to Europe, was the way people would debate personality traits of different European nations. The Dutch are so-and-so, someone would say, unlike the Poles, who are such-and-such. The interlocutor would respond by contrasting the Poles, who are such-and-such, to the Greeks, who are this-and-that. I never understood how having spent at most a few weeks in a country as many as several decades ago allowed somebody to make such declarations. I understood it less after having traveled through Europe, and I understand it even less when it comes to cultures that are inherently foreign to the West, Pakistani, Islamic or South Asian cultures, as well as Korean or East Asian cultures.

Let's take Koreans. Some English-language commentators on the Internet, depending on the day and the situation, declare Koreans to be overly blunt or treacherous backstabbers that will never tell you the truth. They can be mindless drones who follow rules, or they're yokels with no regard for the law. They might be vicious xenophobes who hate foreigners and all things foreign or trend-following suckers who are ruining everything that is good and holy about Itaewon. They love the government because they're rabid nationalists or they hate the government because they're secretly pan-Korean communists. They're either workaholics who have no lives, or time-wasting slackers who take hours to get anything done.

The truth, obviously, is in the middle of these pairs of absurd extremes, to the extent that you can even make declarations about a group of 50 million people. Try the same thing about Canadians, Americans or Pakistanis. Which part of a polarized country like America is representative of America, the part that gives us Fox News or the part that gives us the Fox network? Are Americans polite because they leave big tips or rude because they speak loudly? Are Canadians good at math? Do Pakistanis like computer games more or less than other cultures? Do Russians pay their bills on time? Would Koreans be fond of a national jai alai league? Is it docile Korean students who would do whatever they're told by authority figures or is it polite, line-forming Canadians? Or both?

Each culture has traits that are identifiable. I know that Americans tend to like football and discuss the state they're from while Canadians tend to like hockey and boasting about wind chills. Koreans will mention the year of birth, university attended and major of someone they're discussing even when it's not directly relevant to the conversation. Russians probably drink more alcohol than Saudis and Nepalis are less likely to show skin than Britons. Devout Muslims tend to wake up earlier than most people. I don't know how far you can take these traits, though, and this is probably the work of sociologists, not armchair theorists who know a few buzzwords.

This post is motivated, of course, by the horrific sinking of the ferry Sewol. Analysts and would-be analysts, based both inside and outside of the country, ask whether Korean culture played a contributing rule. These questions are limited to non-Western cultures. Seldom is it asked if American individualism played a role in some plane crash, or the Canadian preoccupation with short, intense bursts of work you see in hockey shifts contributes to some Canadian disaster, or whether French airplanes crash because the French give up easily in the face of adversity, as the American stereotype goes.

One way of looking at this is the national, collective response to this tragedy. I don't read everything written about the ferry, particularly in English, but I don't know if the way daily life has changed in Korea has gotten much international press coverage. The major South Korean networks cancelled all TV shows through Sunday, singers and entertainers cancelled appearances, festivals and events were cancelled, and baseball games proceeded without cheerleaders and even much cheering. So, you might want to ask, are Koreans over-reacting in cancelling events?

The tendency of those who explain the actions of Koreans as being explained by their Koreanness or, in other words, explain the actions of Koreans as being unique or different because they are Korean, would be to say that the Korean response, whether an over-reaction or not, is somehow unique. The collective mourning that followed for at least five days after, the presidential visit and oversight of the government response, the vast media coverage and the dominance of the event of public discourse, is fairly standard. The emergence of heroes and villains from the tragedy, of iconic imagery and of a backlash directed at the media and certain government officials, is also fairly typical.

To pick one example, running, a number of road races were cancelled in Korea. This could be termed a Korean over-reaction, but what about calls to cancel the 2001 New York Marathon, taking place two years after the 9/11 attacks? What about American restrictions on backpacks at subsequent sporting events and marathons? Is one an emotional overreaction while the other is a sensible response?

Cultural universals are traits shared by all human cultures, supposedly without exception. Donald Brown identified 67, though I would dispute the universality of some of them in that I can think of exceptions. The explanatory power of culture is not as great as we think, and I'm not even discussing cultural differences that are really just myths or far reaches. Korean honorifics and hierarchy don't cause plane crashes. The Afghan tradition of hospitality doesn't explain why the Taliban protected Osama bin Laden. The Spanish fondness for siestas didn't cause last year's train crash that killed 79 people. Rugged American individualism doesn't explain the 2007 bridge collapse that killed 13 people.

1 comment:

Shan said...

Good to see you blogging again and well said. I think this falls under the category of seeking simple answers to complex problems. It's commonly done and not usually helpful, but it persists because as far as explanations go, there's a process of natural selection whereby more logical or complete answers are discarded in favour of one-line mantras.