September 28, 2013

False Modesty, Backpedaling, Damage Control, and Where Gladwell Went Wrong

"Good Writer, Bad Writer" on AAK!

Well, I thought the dust had settled on the matter. The Korean had posted a "final word" on the culturalism debate with Gladwell: "Until those questions are resolved, I am standing by what I wrote." This  was from his last post in his series of articles regarding Gladwell and his "culturalism". But somehow, the final word is not truly final. He manages to add more to the conversation by suspiciously writing about how readers ask him for writing advice in " 'Good Writer, Bad Writer' on AAK!". Because he had addressed this question earlier on his blog, it is rather strange and suspicious, considering the timing. I believe that it is a ruse to go at greater length about the Gladwell debate without making an official post about it, just a way to sneak it in while pretending to have moved on from the issue. I haven't seen the blog "Good Writer, Bad Writer" referenced on many other sites after doing a Yahoo! search for it, so The Korean probably found it by tracking links connecting to his site. Interestingly, the vast majority of sites that seem to mention it are Korea-related sites that note "Ask a Korean" and his article " 'Good Writer, Bad Writer' on AAK!". The remaining few  that don't mention "Ask a Korean" are an obscure site on education and a site administered by Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, where the author teaches, and perhaps a few others. The blog may be popular otherwise, but the writer teaches at a college that is not particularly well known, so I find it highly doubtful that The Korean would have stumbled upon it if the author had not written about him.

Luckily, Mr. Shawn Doyle, who is a writing teacher, has been generous enough to use my recent post, Culturalism, Gladwell and Airplane Crashes as an example of effective writing. At his blog, Good Writer, Bad Writer, Mr. Doyle has reproduced the post, and kindly provided a play-by-play on the rhetorical strategy that the Korean has employed as he wrote the post. If you happened to be one of the folks who thought the Korean's writing was worth emulating, the post at Good Writer, Bad Writer would be helpful. 

Self-praise disguised as appreciation of another blogger. This is really just a self-congratulatory post to make him feel better about what he wrote because I am sure that he is aware that he did not present the best argument.

You would have to be drinking a lot of Kool-Aid to believe that The Korean does not put that much effort into his posts or that he truly thinks that his writing is not "up to standard" or even "up to his own standards". Look, no one is forcing him to blog. And he blogs out of pleasure, so he is only going to post what he feels good about. His pride is too big to allow him to post anything that would make him feel inept. It is very evident through his tone and how he pontificates at length about his credentials that image is very important to him. He has constantly trumpeted how he has learned English to a level higher than most native speakers. I don't think he would be so bold in stating that if he did not take pride in his own abilities. Believe me, he does take A LOT of pride in his ability to speak English. A LOT. If you don't believe me, go read his posts on that. Unfortunately, I know that he has re-edited and deleted parts of one post that was particularly egregious in trumpeting his accomplishment after reading the previous post on this blog. Why, after all these years would he re-edit it? Damage control. So I don't believe in this false humility. It is just an attempt to do damage control to a situation that has escaped him.

He starts off his post  " 'Good Writer, Bad Writer' on AAK!" like this:
The Korean frequently receives questions along the lines of: "I think your writing is great? How do I become a good writer?" For a few times, he has tried writing a post in response to such questions, and felt too embarrassed to continue. To be sure, the Korean does have a number of principles and guideposts in his mind when he writes. He does strive to be a better writer each time. But the truth is that his writing is still much lower quality than he would prefer. Because this blog is a hobby, he never does put in the amount of effort that he feels sufficient. Consequently, a reader with sharp eyes can usually find persistent errors and rooms for improvement in the Korean's writing. So it felt a bit silly to talk about how to write well, when he was not even living up to his own standards.

Notice the woe-is-me, whiny, and self-deprecating tone and how wishy washy it is compared to his usual tone. Reading his later articles after this post, one can certainly notice a tonal shift. Now, if you have read The Korean, he certainly is not a wishy washy guy and has VERY strong opinions, so I know that this is not genuine. Why does he do this? To protect his pride and excessively large ego. To show what a humble guy he is, to garner the sympathy of readers. A far cry from his usual chest-thumping and braggadocio that he douses us with. There have actually been a few readers that have mentioned this aspect of his personality in his comments section in much earlier posts. But his last post did receive a lot more attention than usual as he was making accusations about the famous author Malcolm Gladwell. "Ask a Korean" was known before then, but not as much as after he had started the debate with Gladwell. Now, you are bringing in a whole new set of readers who did not know or care about The Korean until someone of interest, Gladwell, was brought into the equation. I haven't checked his comments lately, but I did notice that he did receive a lot of disagreement from readers at one point. So it is disingenuous to say that "based on the reception the post had, it appears that the strategy worked this time." Maybe for some readers, but definitely not all. He tries to make the reader believe it through that statement. Nice try, but I am not buying it. I really don't believe that he was trying to emulate Justice John Roberts unless he is as arrogant as The Korean. I have never read anything by Justice Roberts, but I find it highly unlikely that someone in his position would write something so ham-fisted and arrogant. Correct me if I am wrong. Regardless, we must judge The Korean based on his own arguments and not some false comparison to someone else. I did not find his argument "amazing" though I did find it "infuriating" because of the arrogance displayed.

So it feels amazing (and a bit infuriating) when he finishes reading an opinion by Justice Roberts, and feels halfway convinced of the Justice's arguments before snapping out of it. Accordingly, the Korean attempts to deploy this style when he tries to write a strongly opinionated piece. Based on the reception the post had, it appears that the strategy worked this time.

He starts off his post by feigning humility and insecurity in his own writing abilities, but in the above passage, his ego returns once again. He uses the weight and authority of a Supreme Court Justice to give credibility to his own argument, saying that it is his writing style that we need to be understanding of and not how he constructed his argument. He covertly tries to get the more discerning reader to change their opinion about his argument this way: Reader, if you felt put off by my argument, here's why: I try to emulate the style of Justice Roberts who writes in a way that could be construed as a chain of trains crashing down into a "conclusion [that is] undeniable." Nice dodge there. So his writing is not a bloody axe wielding against Gladwell, but an emulation of "one of the greatest writers that the Supreme Court has seen since Robert Jackson." So one should not be critical of The Korean because his writing emulates the chaotic and bombastic style of Justice Roberts who is a writer of great magnificence, so by extension The Korean's writing should be lauded so highly. Yes, no false modesty there.

One tip that the Korean would give about writing is: have an arsenal of several esteemed writers whose style you can emulate depending on the purpose of your writing. For the purpose of the Culturalism post, the Korean was consciously trying to write like Chief Justice John Roberts, who is considered one of the greatest writers that the Supreme Court has seen since Robert Jackson. I think Justice Roberts writes  like a freight train coming down a hill. At first, the train would be stationary, sitting on top of the hill with no freight on it. Justice Roberts would begin his writing by adding freight piece by piece onto that train. After a certain point, the train would start slowly rolling downward, unable to bear its own weight any longer. By the time the train reaches the bottom of the hill--i.e. the conclusion of his writing--it moves with such momentum and speed that makes the conclusion undeniable. 

The Korean is being disingenuous here. Instead of choosing to take responsibility for his own bloody axe and deeply flawed argument, he chooses to lay the blame on Justice Roberts. Look, if you really believe that it is important to imitate "several esteemed writers whose style you can emulate depending on the purpose of your writing", then you should choose them wisely and The Korean is smart enough to do that although he does not take responsibility for this. I don't believe for a second that The Korean tried to fully model his argument on the style of Justice Roberts. I believe that it is possible that he has studied some of Roberts' writings and that may have affected his writing somewhat, but no one is forcing him to imitate anyone. He chose of his own volition to write that way whether it was an imitation or not and for that, he has to take responsibility and not blame some writing style. If a style doesn't work for you, don't use it. And The Korean cannot blame his lack of English skills as he may be tempted to do because he knows that it is good enough to judge nuance and the like. So no, he cannot have his cake and eat it, too. You can't say how great you are at something a billion times and then, say that you are not good enough. The Korean is very arrogant about himself and his own abilities, so to pull the false modesty card is disingenuous. He does not care about truly being modest and respectful. He only cares about his image and ego and I bet, he is not so audacious offline because he has a reputation to maintain and an image to uphold. People who are so focused on image just don't get it. Instead of focusing on image, why don't you just BE whatever you want others to see you as? Then, you would actually BE it instead of PRETENDING to be it and you wouldn't have to try so DAMN HARD. Big difference. He just keeps digging his own grave and I believe that it will be a long time before he actually understands the magnitude of his actions and how they have affected other people. If Justice Roberts truly writes that way, he has a horrible writing style and I don't understand why anyone would try to emulate him, especially a lawyer who is paid to know better and prides himself on knowing better than everyone else. He must not be a savvy lawyer because he does not really know how to separate "smoke and mirrors" from making a strong, solid argument. He's just too caught up in the game.

The Korean ends his post with this statement:

Thank you very much, Mr. Doyle, and thank you everyone for reading.

"Thank you for buying my b.s. everyone" is what he is really saying. Thank you, Mr. Doyle, for giving me a way to validate my posts to readers who may be more critical. Thanks for giving me the "proof" to show that my argument was well reasoned. So even when he is wrong, he's still not. If you want to see the flaws in his reasoning, you can look at my previous post. His post is really just about distorting the reader's perception so that he or she will believe that his argument only appears flawed because of his own lack of effort and writing style and not due to any other critical errors in his reasoning. Yes, I may have erred a bit. But please forgive me as this blog is only a hobby and I was trying to emulate Justice Roberts who has a style that can be described as a 'freight train coming down a hill'. So even when it is my fault, it really is not my fault. Even when I make a flawed argument, I am not really making a flawed argument. It is all justified and should be justified in your head, reader. I see.

As a lawyer, he needs to be a "master" of discourse, but it really is not that hard to see where his argument fails if you actually look at what he is saying and how he is saying it. The only thing he masters is confusing sheep-like readers who hang on to his every word unquestionably as well as overwhelming your mind with so much verbiage that you may get confused and concede if you are not astute enough. Instead of arguing his point, he chooses to use a blowhorn so that you can't even reflect on what is being presented to you. He chooses to dominate the whole conversation so that you will be overwhelmed and give in to his "argument". Because he is THE Korean and so he must know everything about Korea. His "Good Writer, Bad Writer" post really hit it on the head and further confirmed for me that he is really not interested in the truth, but doing a shadow dance of smoke and mirrors. I did mention in my earlier post that he is not interested in the truth, but controlling the narrative. So he is not simply stating an opinion, but generating his own propaganda. This is much worse than the kvetchpats I have written about, which you probably know that I don't have great love for. MUCH WORSE. Because he is not some lost and confused English teacher muttering about his lot in life. He is a well-educated lawyer who is spouting off his opinions as if they are credible and legitimate. That is much more dangerous and much more worse than an embittered English teacher who is just whining out of his own self-inflicted misery. He is presenting his own opinions as if they are irrefutable fact and it is misleading to readers who buy it hook, line, and sinker.

The reason I decided to write about this debate even though I had long been aware of The Korean's style  is due to the sheer audaciousness and hubris displayed by The Korean, which was much more than he usually displays on his blog and that is A LOT. I really do think that he gets off on knowing that he has some influence over the media and the public because he has a well-known blog and believe me, he really does care about how many people read his blog despite his contrived and often unsolicited denials. He is able to be so audacious and arrogant because he is anonymous and able to say whatever he wants without any fear of recrimination and consequences to his own personal or professional life. On the other hand, Malcolm Gladwell is a well-known figure. His face and name are known. People would be able to recognize him on the street. Plus, he has made a career out of writing. That is his bread and butter. The Korean does not rely on his blog for a living though he has made professional contacts and connected to professional opportunities through the blog. So he gets all the perks of fame without any of the hassles. He can write whatever he wants without being held accountable to it. The most that can happen if he went too far is that his host deletes and shuts down his blog. He can still write and still blog if that happens. Gladwell cannot continue writing as before. His credibility is marred as a journalist and too many people lack the critical thinking skills to notice how flawed The Korean's argument is. At least, Gladwell takes responsibility for what he writes and is in the line of fire if it doesn't work out. The Korean isn't. He chooses to abuse the power of anonymity so that he can say whatever he wants without any sense of regard or accountability towards others. And that is why he is so open and brashly audacious and arrogant. It is highly doubtful that he would be that way in real life because he is smart enough to know how that will be perceived.

For all his braggadocio, The Korean fails to recognize that he isn't the best person to argue for his superiority based on his terms, which are about academic achievement and career success. Sure, he did attend some nice schools, but that was after he was having problems at a Korean high school and forced his parents to come to the U.S. to have a future. (He wrote a post about this where he bragged about how he learned English in two years and what preceded that. I have tried to find it, but he deleted and edited out that part.) He had mentioned that he had hated Korea at that time and had problems with the school system, which caused him to have difficulty adjusting despite getting good grades, so he had both failures and successes in his high school career. I'm sure that older readers of his blog will remember the difficulties he mentioned, but it has been edited out from his blog. I would not be surprised if The Korean had gone back and re-edited many of his posts so that they would appear more modest than originally. Because he did re-edit one such post. Success or not, one doesn't have to be a jerk about it. That's a large reason why some people don't like him. There are some people who make you feel like greatness is possible and inspire you. There are others who use their own success to diminish others. Obviously, the Korean is from the latter camp. I'm fucking amazing and YOU SUCK, little people. One would think that someone who has gone through their own humbling experiences would be more understanding of others. More like, so long, suckers!

As for Gladwell, I'm sure that he will continue writing books. I am not the biggest fan of his work, but I have enjoyed some of his writings. The main flaw that I see with him is that he sometimes oversimplifies things. I can understand wanting to create an elegant explanation for something that is easily accessible, but some things just aren't that simple. His writing is about elegant simplicity, but you can't always apply that approach to developing an argument. What Gladwell should have done is consulted with more Korean language and culture experts to get their input on it because culture isn't always so obvious to the outsider. He incorrectly assumed that he would be able to discern it as one would studying an animal or some other physical phenomenon, but culture is not that obvious. Even if he is good at understanding a lot of his own Western culture, he would have to understand Korean culture to determine what role it played in the plane crashes. He might have interviewed a few experts for the plane crash chapter of his book "Outliers", but it wasn't enough. I get that he was saying that it was the hierarchical ASPECT of Korean culture that interfered with communication between pilots. The problem was that he said that it was Korean culture that was the problem. That is what The Korean and some others had a problem with and that is why they labeled him "culturalist". I won't go that far, but as a writer he should have been sensitive to the error of overgeneralization or at least, the perception of such.

I felt that it was important to share my thoughts about The Korean because he was so audacious . I know that no one in his real life would have criticized him because he presents a different persona in real life. He really needs to understand what he is doing to others and has done for a long time. He is not just overly picky and critical. He outright bludgeons dissenters with a bloody axe until their voice is murdered. As an internet critic, he is a mass murderer worse than OJ Simpson. Strangely, he will allow people who openly insult him like calling his wife a "Mongolian" in the pejorative sense to continue commenting on his blog, but go on the attack with people who have granular differences in opinion. It is a twisted sense of libertarianism. It's like he hates and bashes you if you disagree with him, but will put up with a direct insult for some reason. Disagreement is a threat to his sense of being right, but an outright insult can be dismissed as wrong, so he doesn't care as much, never mind how civil the disagreer may be. It's totalitarianism of thought. The Korean is a totalitarian about his beliefs. There is no contradiction between his libertarian aspect because that is what he has deemed as acceptable and right. But for many things, his vision is very black and white. My way is the right way and there is no room for disagreement when it challenges my sense of rightness.  


TT Johns said...

There has been quite a few comments about the AAK/Gladwell debate on various sites. I've been reading the Korean off and on for about a year. I have to agree, he is arrogant, authoritative and dismissive. He's also an apologist and a cheerleader for Korean achievement. He couches much of this in humility but the more you read his opinions the more it is clear that he attempting to control the message as much as possible. I would say that you can take the Korean out of Korea but you can't take Korea out of the man. He's also a lawyer so he knows how to manipulate the message to his advantage. You pretty much nailed him but I don't think he's all that dangerous. Anyone that is genuinely interested in Korea and it's culture wouldn't use him as an ultimate source anyway.

itissaid said...

For me, the issue is not that he lauds Korean achievement. The issue is that he is too dogmatic about his opinion whatever that is.