No Culture in the Cockpit Please!

“It is a common error to attribute this irreducibility of difference to the influence of ‘culture’, or more precisely to the exclusive relationship each individual is supposed to have with ‘his’ culture.”
– Jean-Francois Bayart, The Illusion of Cultural Identity

When unfortunate accidents happen, like plane crashes, people sit on the edges of their (cultural) seats to await the official word regarding how the mishap took place and what could have prevented such a casualty from occurring. This may be especially true when fatalities are involved. Unforeseen mechanical errors are a bit easier to swallow and stomach than outright human error and oversight, although human im/precision is already involved in ensuring that equipment works safely.

After finding no hints of equipment failure after initial review, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) seems to be taking a more “cultural” turn with their investigation into the recent Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crash at San Francisco International Airport. Investigators are raising questions of whether there might be a possible correlation between a certain kind of Korean culture of “deference” and “subordination to superiors” and the crash. To further explore this, CNN sent reporter Kyung Lah—who might self-identify as Asian—to investigate whether or not “culture” and “cultural factors” played a role in the crash.

The “cultural turn” in the NTSB investigation is being touted as a look into “cockpit communication and culture” suggesting that a certain kind of authoritarian and deferential disposition might have caused the crash and possibly even others in the past (Flight 801 in 1997 and 8509 in 1999 are two suggested as possibilities). The clip notes that although Korean aviation today has safety standards that are rated among the highest in the nation, those standards might still be hindered and hampered by “a hierarchical culture” which leads subordinates to remain silent in the face of higher ups even when safety is in question.

Despite the fact that this was the co-pilot’s first landing with just thirty-five hours of experience in that type of aircraft, Korean cock-pit culture seems to be weighing more heavily for concern than other possible causes. In this segment, Aviation Safety expert from USC, Najmedin Meshkati, is interviewed and goes on to suggest that hierarchical culture can lead subordinates to remain silent in the face of superiors even when safety is in question, noting that these types of practices are part and parcel of the “unspoken rules of Korean culture.”

To further support this thesis, CNN interviewed flight attendant Lee Yoon Hee who notes that after the plane skidded on the runway she went to the captain and asked, “Are you okay, captain?” He replied, “Yes I am okay.” She then asked if she should perform an evacuation and he told her to wait.  Visibly perturbed, CNN’s Kyung Lah ends the segment with a word of caution, “it is important to remember that we don’t know what happened in the cockpit,” noting that this is a “black eye” for Koreans who feel closely connected to their products, like Samsung, and thus are feeling the global weight of this incident. Here, the dispatched journalist continues in the construction of Korean culture vis-à-vis conveying pride and disappointment on behalf of Koreans “back home.”

This story is representative of how the construction of identity is often given an appearance of naturalness through an empirical face. So much so, that the manufacturing of such illusions of identification largely go unnoticed and unchallenged by journalists, the viewing public, and the governmental bodies charged with investigating these tragedies. This news story’s effectiveness is maintained and achieved through the impression that a homogenous, stable and free-floating “Korean” culture is available to be cherry picked as evidence and further used to place blame. Here, Asian individuals, in this case the co-pilot, are seen to have some sort of exclusive relationship with their supposed cultural affiliation. Furthermore, we the public are fed a line of reasoning based on cultural manipulation, expressions, and constructions that particular things about Korean “culture” influence behaviors, actions, and decisions. Thus, culture is constructed as a system of totality that has causal effects on human practices.

One might ask, “How are we to know Korean cultural norms caused the crash?” After all, perhaps other things like religion, class, health condition, or what the pilot ate for breakfast that day could easily have been considered for evaluation. To give authority to the story, CNN sends out Lah as an Asian looking reporter to investigate. This has the effect of authorizing the veracity of the cultural construction as “real” in a way that overshadows the arbitrariness of the construction. In other words, the combination of Korean “culture” and “Asian” reporter reinforces the irreducibility of the constructed category of culture. Korean culture is manufactured in this moment so that a culprit for the accident can be assigned. This manufacturing is further strengthened by the interviewing of a USC professor/expert who studies Aviation safety, and just so happens to appear Asian. Who could know better about such cultural mores than those that make up a particular cultural group themselves, right? After all, individuals of this culture and that are thought to be, through the category of experience, experts on their own practices, customs, and rituals. Here, an Asian affinity is constructed through the re-presentation of homogenizing strategies, which produce an effect of an unchanging, closed and stable Korean culture. That culture then is blamed for the crash. NTSB case closed.

On one hand, what we witness here is not expert truth on Korean culture, but rather, a set of identity-based strategies used to achieve a certain kind of effectiveness for public consumption – the fabrication of identity at best. On the other, by isolating “culture” as the “thing” in question, there’s a presumption made that flying a plane safely and following aviation rules trumps and is disconnected from culture itself. So, rules outplay (and are void of) cultural sensibilities or individuals cease being the thing people tell them they are and who they think they are when they follow and enact the rules of their trade or careers properly?

What do we make of (Asian) culture being the constructed and then pathologized cockpit culprit? Was tradition and heritage the product of invention here in the story itself through a set of strategies of identification or was there already a unified Asian essence available for interpretation and malfunction?

In The Illusion of Cultural Identity Jean-Francois Bayart helps to sum up the operational acts of identity apparent in this story nicely when he suggests that there is no such thing as identity in and of itself, rather, only acts and strategies that serve to create the illusion of the coherence of what we might come to call identity or culture. So, did a certain “culture” cause the crash, or did those involved in the investigative discourse cause a crash of culture?

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