Metropolitician Gets It

Michael Hurt wrote a great piece on something that I’ve been up on these days.  Here’s a quote:

In the end, it’s quite arrogant to assume, as a foreigner and a newbie, that after 2 weeks of thinking about the subject, all social problems would be solved if people just thought like you. It’s also arrogant to keep stubborn and unwavering opinions without having done much thinking about the subject, nor any background reading, anything. You just sit there at the bar with your beer and have the answer.

In the end, what is more arrogant than a spot diagnosis by a naif?  This attitude, I suspect, is something we are hard wired for.  That’s how we’ve managed to adapt to so many modes of life in so many different places, we form assumptions about how the world works, which often turn out to be correct enough.  Not correct, but correct enough to get by.  We are the product of a million systems that work just well enough.  You get a bunch of educated westerners to come to Korea, an urbanized, industrial society that superficially resembles their own.  This limits the scope of differences and calls them into starker relief.  Then they apply their own perspectives to the problems they perceive in Korea.  The answers pretty much write themselves, which is why the solutions that these armchair sociologists come up with are so uniform.  No creativity required, and practically none brought to these questions.  Everyone’s simplistic, uninformed prescriptions conform to a facile approach to the world they think they know. 

Everyone’s simplistic, uninformed prescriptions conform to a facile approach to the world they think they know.

Of course the less you know about something the more simple it often looks.  And then you learn a little bit and you think you know a substantial amount, because you know a substantial amount more than you did before.  But you actually know an insignificant fraction of what there is to know.

At a certain point, if you’re smart, you come to the realization that you will never really know.  You never really stop trying to understand, though.  You just stop trying to convince yourself and those around you that you do understand.

Advertisements

~ by Joe on May 27, 2010.

3 Responses to “Metropolitician Gets It”

  1. One of the ironies being Mike has been one of the most vocal critics in the blogosphere the last five years. Sure, his Korean is good and he has advanced degrees, but that doesn’t make some of his criticms less hollow or less outlandish.

    He was one of the bloggers that motivated me in the beginning . . . but not in that way. I looked at some of the big bloggers and noted that for all their prominence and all their Korean language skills they were doing a lot of bitching but not a lot of action. I mean, what’s the sense of bitching about unfair laws or biased renderings of foreigners, AND WHAT’S THE POINT OF WRITING LIKE THIS when you have the tools to do something but choose not to?

    I agree with the sentiment, though, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about ever since spending a lot of time with non-ESL teachers in Korea in 2009 and 2010. It’s too simple to just say there’s something in western culture that encourages complaining and criticism, but I’ve wondered how much of our outspokenness (word?) is cultural. That’s not to say other foreigners in Korea don’t complain, but it’s true that half the time I’d get on a bus with other white people they’d be bitching about school or about Koreans. Maybe it’s cultural, maybe it’s inexperience, maybe it’s immaturity, but it’s there.

  2. Insightful post.

    As it happens, I’ve been thinking a lot about this matter recently and, unfortunately, Michael’s criticism extends beyond foreigners in Korea. With one foot back in the academic world over the past couple years, I’ve been troubled by a similar arrogance that permeates the atmosphere. Sometimes this is just a harmless annoyance, such as when a literature professor (or Noam Chomsky, say) feels himself qualified to be the arbiter of good taste. In this case, I’m content to just ignore the pompous SOB. The real problem with the haughtiness of academia – and this seems to be most prevalent in the social sciences – is when academics start to believe that anyone who doesn’t see the world as they see it must be either dim-witted or downright evil, and thus in need of enlightenment or salvation. What often follows from this mindset is a belief that one is qualified to tell others how to order their lives.

    And this, by the way, is an excellent point: “That’s how we’ve managed to adapt to so many modes of life in so many different places, we form assumptions about how the world works, which often turn out to be correct enough. Not correct, but correct enough to get by. We are the product of a million systems that work just well enough.” Reminds me of the Adam Ferguson quote about the many things in this world which are “product of human action, but not of human design.”

  3. The complexifying point, though, is that a lot of the Koreans close to me are saying a lot of the same things that I say, when I complain. All of those Koreans I’m talking about were raised here, and some have extensive experience abroad while some don’t. That’s because there are some pretty clear dysfunctions here — some things that in their opinion don’t work quite well enough, or could work better if more people just gave a shit. And the tragic thing is that many of the Koreans I know who see this potential for improvement, and this tragic need for it has given up and decided to seek out his or her fortune elsewhere, because, sadly, the Korean who thinks that things could be just marginally better if reasonable, sensible, and not-impossible changes were carried out (like things not all being disorganized and last-minute), is basically a utopian by Korean standards.

    I also find it ironic that Michael criticizes this tendency, though I won’t get into it except to say that some of his own writing on Korea evidences the same kind of analysis he criticizes. Don’t get me started, though…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: