Racism follows tragedy

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Racism follows tragedy


A Tokyo correspondent of an American newspaper told me, as if he had made a big discovery, “When I visited a Japanese friend’s house, he offered me a pair of slippers. Perhaps he was afraid of a foreigner’s feet touching his floor. It succinctly revealed the Japanese culture that distinguishes inside from outside.”

In fact, the Japanese friend was simply trying to be nice by offering a pair of slippers so he would be comfortable in his home. The American said he had read many books on Japanese culture before going to Tokyo. But his overly analytic approach made him interpret every incident in Japan from some perspective he had read in a book. I realized that even an educated journalist could lose his common sense once he gets - let’s use the right word - biased.

Prejudice against another culture develops when you have partial knowledge of it rather than when you are completely ignorant. The American media are using their half-baked knowledge of Korean culture to diagnose the cause of the recent Asiana Air crash in San Francisco. They are reporting on some aspects of Korean culture, such as respect for seniority, authoritarian styles, hierarchy, top-to-bottom communications and honorific forms in the Korean language. They argue these aspects of our culture may have prevented a prompt response to the crisis in the airplane cockpit. Before investigating the objective causes of the crash, they are rushing to a very subjective judgement: “That’s how Koreans act.”

Then what about aircraft in the military, in which the culture is far more authoritarian and hierarchical? If Western pilots are free from authoritarianism, are they free from the risk of accidents? How about pilots in Japan, where the language has complicated honorifics? Blaming the accident on Korean culture lacks logic.

The temptation to explain a complicated phenomenon with a single theory often leads to cultural determinism. There are many examples in academia. In the 1960s, American political scientists Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba came up with a theory on political culture. They outlined three types related to it - parochial, subject and participant political cultures - highlighting that the participant culture of the West best suited democracy. They essentially made an academic argument that the superior are superior because they are born superior, and the inferior are inferior because they are born that way.

Similarly, some Western scholars want to find the secret of the development of the four Asian dragons - Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore - in Confucian culture. They claim that state-led economic development was supported by Confucian values. The unavoidable question was what Confucian culture had been doing all the time before abruptly accelerating state-led growth? If Confucian culture helped promote economic development, why had Asian countries fallen behind in industrialization compared to the West? The theory on Confucianism completely failed to answer those questions.

Of course, understanding cultural differences is important. But you cannot expect to find all the answers in it. Such a perspective could lead to ideas of cultural supremacy and even racial discrimination. San Franciscan television station KTVU aired a broadcast that included racially insensitive hoax names attributed to the Asiana pilots, which, amazingly, were confirmed by an intern at the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. When the hoax was uncovered, Americans claimed it was a bad joke, not racial discrimination. But making a mockery of Asian names - especially in an Asian tragedy - is nothing but discrimination.

Of course, it would also be a mistake to blame a deep-rooted habit of racial discrimination in America. The United States has elected Barack Obama as its president twice. In any society, you can find third raters. In Korea, a news anchor also made ignominious remarks about the fatalities of the crash being Chinese.

Trying to explain everything through culture is foolish and risky. It is truly unpleasant that some Americans are mocking Korean culture at a time of a tragic accident. The antidote I’d propose is a movie. I’d recommend “Django Unchained,” a 2012 American western directed by Quentin Tarantino. Let Django deal with these racists.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Nahm Yoon-ho
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