The danger of culturalism: An open forum

Take the horrific 6th July Asiana airplane crash in San Francisco. Such occurrences, though rare, are not without precedent. To avoid expounding on past crashes, I – and general media – will refer the reader to a pre-collected list in bestselling book Outliers by popular theorist-slash-journalist Malcolm Gladwell.

I read Outliers a year ago and found it interesting and well-researched: two prized qualities in a good read. This was my introduction to the writings of New Yorker journalist Malcolm Gladwell. He argues:

“The single most important variable in determining whether a plane crashes is not the plane, it’s not the maintenance, it’s not the weather, it’s the culture the pilot comes from.” [Salon, emphasis mine]

Admittedly, I did not remember at all the chapter on Korean airplane crashes and likewise failed to link Asiana’s accident to Gladwell or Outliers until stumbling across a recent post on Ask A Korean! (AAK!).

The author debunks Gladwell’s theory by steadily dissecting the chapter claiming that: “Gladwell carefully stacks the deck in favor of case by introducing ultimately irrelevant facts, and omitting potentially relevant facts.” One would do well to read it in full; his final dramatic comment is uncomfortably poignant:

“Culturalism causes real harm. It obfuscates the truth. It creates a diversion from fixing the actual problem. It “other-izes” a huge number of people and make human connection with them impossible. It wipes away individuality, and condemns people to an impossible choice: deny who you are, or suffer the disasters–plane crashes, nuclear meltdowns–for all eternity.”

His second update contains more detail and reader reactions. Finally Gladwell responds with his usual style, grace, and a tit-for-tat analysis.

Gladwell first refuses original credit for the theory connecting culturalism to avian crashes, then continues point-by-point until he has addressed most of the major charges leveled against his book. The AAK! author, feeling that too many questions are left unanswered, responds in kind.

I post this not to idly share an unresolved debate, to question the research of a respected journalist, or even to exonerate one party over the other. Rather I return to the original point about culturalism.

It is easy to generalize a culture by the actions of a few and through limited, though repeated, observations. In fact, I believe this is something we do in regards to our own cultures.

While not entirely convinced by Gladwell’s argument on culture and aviation, I found the subsequent quibbling between him and AAK! interesting, intelligent, and considerate at the very least. Moreover, I find the Gladwell-AAK! exchange to be a heartwarming display of open-sourced communication and academia.

As any number of respected minds have famously quoted, and which these posts corroborate, critical thought and constructive dialogue are key to progress.

A free press is a wonderful thing.


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