A good chunk of this book is about making generalizations about culture. And we don’t like to do that. And what I’d argue is, we ought to do that when we are… first of all, we should be careful, and I think the conditions under which it’s ok to do that are if you have a purpose in mind. – “Malcolm Gladwell on All Things Considered, NPR, Nov. 18, 2008
Malcolm Gladwell has created an industry in clever pithy books that seem to effortlessly draw disparate subjects together to produce dazzling insights. With two best selling books, The Tipping Point and Blink, and in demand to the tune of $40,000 per speaking engagement, the popularity of his works cannot be underestimated.
His newest book Outliers, has just been published to critical acclaim. Slate magazine has a four part review of this new addition and even the New York Times published a favorable review. What this excess of critical admiration shows is that the thinking establishment adores Gladwell. And his fans are not just limited to the literary world; his speaking engagements are often with multi-national organizations that hope to find some unrecognized wisdom that was right under their nose.
While academics have sniffed at his dilettantism or his lack of original research, Malcolm Gladwell’s appeal to the learned public is profound. So it’s particularly upsetting when an author of his popularity devotes a considerable portion of his new book to perpetuating myths about Asians and Asian Americans. The newest book, Outliers, dismantles the myth of the self-made man to give insights to the secrets of success. Gladwell’s larger argument is pretty straightforward and believable – ”he suggests that we like to believe that we achieve success solely on the basis of our own efforts and talents, but in reality, factors beyond our reach such as family heritage and culture shape our fate. What makes Outliers controversial is Gladwell’s embrace of cultural arguments to explain why certain groups are successful and others aren’t. Two chapters are particularly problematic – ”one, where he argues that Korean cultural deference to authority was responsible for Korean Air’s dismal safety record in the late eighties and nineties, and a second chapter where he surmises that Chinese, Korean and Japanese children are better at math because of an engrained rice paddy culture. By implication, Asian-American children continue to outperform their counterparts in math because their families persist in replicating a rice-paddy culture in the US.
Strangely, what he means by “Asians’ are just Chinese, Koreans and Japanese, though “China’ often just means simply Hong Kong and Taiwan. This is just one mistake he makes, but it’s an important one that tells us something about his mindset.
What’s distressing about Outliers is the seductive simplicity of its arguments. Certain facts are undeniable – ” Korean Air did have a statistically high rate of crashes from 1988 to 1998 and the flight that Gladwell examines, KAL 801, was a spectacular and deadly crash. In international math comparison tests, children from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea and Japan score much better than American school children. These situations are all “outliers,’ instances beyond statistical probability. Surely culture must be at the very least, partially responsible?
The problem is that culture is enormously complicated. As anyone who’s been alive during the internet revolution knows, culture changes and it changes constantly. Hence cultural arguments have to be extremely specific and deeply contextualized. Culture does not lend itself to being parsed into little static nuggets of quantitative data. And so, it’s immediately disturbing that Gladwell seems to be unaware of many important differences in cultural identity. Strangely, what he means by “Asians’ are just Chinese, Koreans and Japanese, though “China’ often just means simply Hong Kong and Taiwan. This is just one mistake he makes, but it’s an important one that tells us something about his mindset. The ability to substitute a Chinese case with a Korean one or a Japanese American instance means that everyone gets shuffled under some vague, undefined “Asianness’ that is only meaningful in how different it is from the West.
What’s great about cultural arguments is that they trade in half-truths that seem to make immediate sense. African-Americans are better at sports – ”and look, most professional NBA players are dark skinned and listen to hip hop! The new headline could be: Violent Rap Music Makes African-American Players More Aggressive and Better at Sports. Such easy beliefs save us the work of dismantling the mental compasses that make such generalizations so believable, and stop us from questioning the cultural stereotypes that make these kinds of inflated statements attractive. It’s fundamentally a lazy way to see the world.
I agree with Gladwell that culture informs our choices, but his arguments are so dangerously unsophisticated that they lend themselves to further stereotyping of Asians and Asian-Americans.
This isn’t the first time these kinds of generalizations have shaped American understanding of Asians and Asian-Americans. Let’s look at Confucianism. When China seemed to lag behind other countries economically in the late 20th century, a “Confucian disfavor of commercial activities” was blamed. But the miracle of rapid development in South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore was also attributed to “Confucian capitalism.” More recently, Confucianism has come back in favor as a cultural explanation for China’s growing economic dominance.
Have the tenets of Confucianism changed in the last three decades? Then how could it be a central factor in inhibiting and promoting Chinese economic development? Too often it seems that culture can be molded to suit whatever set of facts are before us at a particular point in time.
Confucianism has been responsible for other things too. In their analysis of the Virginia State massacre, revered newspapers such as the International Herald Tribune (part of the NYT stable of papers) would point to “South Korea’s Confucian steeped culture” in their analysis. Though the shooter had come here as a child and had spent his formative years in Virginia, it was easier to immediately look for the foreign elements that led to his crazed acts then ask the hard questions about domestic influences. The message was clear: this Confucianism, this way all those Asians think, is antithetical to our way of life. Alarmingly, this doesn’t sound that different from the blanket condemnations of Islam that one hears today.
I agree with Gladwell that culture informs our choices, but his arguments are so dangerously unsophisticated that they lend themselves to further stereotyping of Asians and Asian-Americans. Taken to their limits, such views favor culture over individual autonomy, and too often, culture becomes synonymous with foreign, irrational behavior. But let’s look more closely now at how Gladwell discusses the Korean Air crash in Outliers.
I’m not trying to make a generalization about all things Asian, or all things Western, or all things Black. I’m trying to answer a very, very narrow question, and in the case of the chapter I have on Koreans I’m trying to answer what is it about Korean culture that creates a problem in the cockpit of an airplane. Right? If you can ask your question as specifically as that, then I think you’re fine. – ”Malcolm Gladwell on All Things Considered, NPR, November 18, 2008.
KAL 801 left Seoul on August 5, 1997 and after an uneventful flight, crashed into Nimitz hill in Guam, while attempting to land in bad but not unusual weather. Subsequent investigation led by the NTSB revealed no mechanical problems. Though the flight crew was highly experienced, the glideslope, which was a beam of light that guided planes to the airport had been sent away for repair. However, other planes had continued to use alternative means of locating the landing strip and had landed safely.
But what’s interesting is that the linguistic markers of hierarchy, those syllables that would indicate a great distance between the lower ranked flight engineer and the captain are absent. The flight engineer does not speak with extreme politeness, but speaks as if he were talking normally to himself or to a respected equal.
Gladwell argues that Korean cultural habits of deferring to authority led to the crash of KAL 801. He points out that linguistically, Korean has six conversational levels indicating hierarchy – ”if you are speaking to your grandfather, for instance, you would use honorific endings. Anyone overhearing your conversation from the next room would instantly know the status relationship of the conversationalists. People of lower status, such as children or employees, do not bluntly ask for things of their parents or bosses without using proper hierarchical language. In this light, the first officer and the flight engineer could only “hint” at danger to the pilot, instead of directly challenging him. It was a linguistic and social problem. So in Gladwell’s view, the subordinates were clearly aware of the dangers, but because they were so constrained by hierarchy, they could only hint but not directly confront the pilot. In this picture, the fatigued pilot, as the leader of the crew, brushes away at the “hints’ and continues on his fateful course that eventually leads to the crash and to their deaths.
The NTSB report agrees with Outliers to a certain extent. The two year study resulted in 36 “findings’ or faults which had led to the crash; Finding no. 13 says – ””The first officer and flight engineer failed to properly monitor and/or challenge the captain’s performance, which was causal to the accident.” Here, the NTSB does not directly speculate on the reasons for this failure, but it’s clear that they do see missed opportunities for communication and cooperation.
Gladwell describes what he sees as a pivotal moment of muted conflict between the flight engineer and the pilot:
“”Captain, the weather radar has helped us a lot,’ he [the flight engineer] says.
The weather radar has helped us a lot? A second hint from the flight deck. What the engineer means is just what the first officer meant. This isn’t a night where you can rely on just your eyes to land the plane. Look at what the weather radar is telling us: there’s trouble ahead.”
Let’s refer to the full NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) transcript of the black box. The lines of conversation that led up to the comment above were:
Flight engineer: What are the conditions in Guam?
Flight engineer: Is it Guam?
Flight engineer: It’s Guam, Guam.
Captain: [chuckling] Good, Good.
Flight engineer: [several unintelligible words] … because…
Flight engineer: Today, the weather radar has helped us a lot.
Captain: Yes, it’s quite useful.
Unknown: [several unintelligible words]
Captain: Request heading one sixty
This conversation is taking place halfway into an uneventful eight hour flight from Seoul to Guam, and not when they’re about to land. From the tone and the chuckling, at the very least, it would be difficult to say that there was an atmosphere of tension where the engineer was hesitantly challenging the captain.
The fact that Gladwell did not consult a Korean speaker is clear when one looks at the NTSB transcript that shows the actual Korean conversation with the English translations. His argument links excessive deference to authority with language. But what’s interesting is that the linguistic markers of hierarchy, those syllables that would indicate a great distance between the lower ranked flight engineer and the captain are absent. The flight engineer does not speak with extreme politeness, but speaks as if he were talking normally to himself or to a respected equal. On the other hand, the captain and the first officer’s conversations show the expected status differences: the first officer often ends addresses him as “kijang nim,’ which is a polite title, meaning “Honorable captain.” It’s the equivalent of referring to a judge as “your honor’ in court. What Gladwell failed to notice was that cultural hierarchies do not always reflect occupational positions – ”the flight engineer was fifteen years older than the captain. While they had all learned their flight skills in their stints in the military, the flight engineer had also fought in the Vietnam War and arguably had greater military experience. Although the captain was the acknowledged leader of the crew, the fact that the flight engineer was so much older, much more experienced militarily and within the company gave him leverage over the rest of the crew.
Culture is at work here, but if we are to consider Korean ideologies, we have to also take a look at military culture. Gladwell attributes the key flaw, the inability of juniors to challenge seniors in the face of danger, to Korean culture rather than military experience. The fact that he doesn’t consider that these men together had over seven thousand hours of military flight time, and had learned how to behave in a cockpit in a regimented martial setting seems to be a glaring oversight.
Samuel Huntington, in his studies of the “military mind” has described an “inward-oriented’ tendency, where rank is equated with authority and decision-making responsibilities. In combat situations, junior personnel limiting their own autonomy prevents confusion and allows for clear direction. In a civilian aircraft, this meant a critical surrender of power to the captain that prevented legitimate challenges to his decision-making processes.
The NTSB analysis of Korean Air and flight 801 showed that most working flight crews in the fleet had been recruited after leaving the military. At the time of the crash, the airline was suffering form a shortage of pilots. So they had been forced recently to begin an”ab-initio’ recruitment, where they would accept civilians with no prior experience and train them to fly. The first such pilots trained in civilian rather than military settings began to graduate two years after the accident, in 1999.
As Malcom Gladwell notes in Outliers, since 1999, Korean Air has had a “spotless” record.
Gladwell is right about certain things. Excessive deference to authority most likely discouraged the first officer from assuming the kind of full responsibility that maybe could have prevented the crash. To be fair, there were thirty five other reasons why this plane crashed into Nimitz hill. But the ability to retain your own decision making processes and exercise independence comes with the comfort of being able to challenge a superior without repercussion. This kind of impulse would not have been encouraged in the military settings where they learned how to behave in an aircraft.
In a November 2008 NPR interview, Gladwell explained his thoughts for this chapter:
… in the case of the chapter I have on Koreans, I’m trying to answer what is it about Korean culture that creates a problem in the cockpit of an airplane. Right? If you can ask your question as specifically as that, then I think you’re fine. I think it’s important to distinguish between that kind of cautious specific probing and the thing we don’t like, which is when we tar an entire group with an accusation or a generalization.
What’s ironic is that the question itself leads Gladwell to “tar an entire group.” The question, “what is it about Korean culture that creates a problem in the cockpit of an airplane” frames the answer in its asking. We already know from this question half of the answer – ”something is wrong with Korean culture, and this resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people.
To imply that the flight engineer knew that the plane was in danger of an imminent crash yet deferred to hierarchy rather than listen to an innate sense of self-preservation is wrong. It’s cultural slander. This kind of reasoning veers dangerously close to simplistic, Orientalist thinking that seeks to promote views of an “Other,’ those who are not like “us,’ who are fundamentally different. Their behavior cannot be explained by common human traits but must be rooted in exotic culture, perhaps in the lack of civilization, or maybe Confucianism or Islam. Implicitly, this logic also privileges Western culture – ”the “Other’ is blinded by cultural demands to the point that they are helpless to even save their own lives if it goes against their heritage; while in the West, we’re lucky to have the rationality to see through such false premises.
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Caption 1 for Outliers:
Outliers: The Story of Success
By Malcolm Gladwell
Hardcover, 244 pages
Little, Brown & Company
List price: $27.99
Caption 2 for Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell is on the staff of The New Yorker and is the author of The Tipping Point and Blink. Hatchette Book Group
Having grown up on three continents, Sae Park often explores issues of social hybridity, loss and identity in her work. She is currently finishing her PhD in history and is working on a book on Eliza Bowen Jumel, the first scandalous socialite of American society. Most of the time, she lives in New York with her husband and cat.