Carts and Horses

I’ve got these students, smart kids, but you ask them a question and they can’t answer it. Not because they don’t know the answer, but because they don’t think the question is the question. They think the question is a trick, a distraction, from another unasked question. And what they’re trying to figure out is the answer to that question.

Maybe you don’t do the same. I know I certainly do.

Someone asks you a question and you respond to some other, imagined question. Not what was asked, but what you imagined was asked. And sure, some people are Machiavellian assholes all too eager to trap people and get them all mixed up. And yeah, some of these people are teachers, and they’ll boast about how clever they are and stupid/gullible their students are. But those folks are something else entirely. Very rarely is life like some deathtrap dungeon of spiked pits and pendulum scythes (at least it hasn’t been so far). Instead life is rather straightforward. Better to answer the question asked than respond to the one from the imaginary conversation going on inside your head.

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13 responses to “Carts and Horses”

  1. asakiyume says :

    I just had a case of this in my jail volunteering. People in jail get it (brow)beaten into them that peacefulness is the best thing, so when the topic was Nelson Mandela, and I had them reading a piece that was someone pointing out that Nelson Mandela was not a teddy bear but in fact a lion, they at first were trying, valiantly, to turn that into a statement that he was actually a man of peace and then, failing that, they were insisting that the person who wrote the piece was dissing Mandela–had to be so, they figured, because in jail the right answer is NEVER that sometimes violence is merited. And yet in this case, that was, in fact, the unspoken assumption behind the piece. So I had to backpedal majorly and explain that it would not, in fact, be “wrong” to find an epithet for Mandela that was *not* “man of peace”–that you could call him other things, or other things in addition, without denigrating him.

    And yeah, for sure I’ve had the same thing happen–where I was consciously or unconsciously trying to answer the question-behind-the-question.

    • Justin says :

      Wow. That sounds intense. And in jail or the correctional system maybe there is a preponderance of Machiavellian BS all around you, that it’s a defense mechanism. Or maybe _we_ have it backwards and Deathtrap Dungeon is the reality. But you can also make people expend all their energy looking for questions behind questions and distract them from what is in front of them.

      Maybe more later. Thanks for the reply.

      • Gord Sellar says :

        Well, I certainly do the same. Of course, I find half the time that answering what you think is the deeper question is the route to insight; the other half of the time, yeah, it’s just making things harder for yourself than they need to be.

        But I would add that for most of the [Korean] kids my wife and I tutor down here, it certainly seems like Deathtrap Dungeon is more like the normal, daily reality, and that anyone who is able to think otherwise is blessed with the luxury of being coddled and naïve.

        Seriously: kids being beaten for tiny mistakes in their homework, (church-going) moms calling and asking whether we can do make-up lessons on Xmas eve or Xmas day, kids who end up being shouted at when they say they would like to play outside for once this week, kids being forced to sleep five hours or less so they can study extra (and not even during exam time)… and, well, the general nonstop “You’re fat/lazy/stupid/a disappointment/horrible…” We’ve met a couple of families who treat their kids like human beings, and it’s kind of a shock each time. I used to think I just had a jaundiced view after living in Bucheon, but things down here have opened my eyes. These are well-to-do, “normal” middle-class Korean families, and just under the surface it’s more often than not a true horror show, of a kind that seems more extreme than I remember my middle class friends going through. And, as I probably have quoted back to you a few times, I always think of a Canadian friend of mine whose Korean wife, on meeting his family, looked at him in shock afterward and said, “They’re nice?!?!?!”

        I wish I could get at this article–which purports to systematically analyze recent epidemiological studies of child abuse in Korea–but the abstract alone says a lot to reassure me that what I’m seeing here isn’t just random bad luck: “South Korea has had remarkably high incidence and prevalence rates of physical violence against children…” And, I mean: as Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling put it back in 2007, “Yusin lives on–at school.” (Very highly recomended reading, if a bit old; not sure how dated it really is, though; the few freshmen I taught last year were quick to assure me violent teachers continued to be violent in the high schools from which they’d recently escaped.

        For my wife and me, our tutoring has become in part about helping these kids see that while this may be the reality for now, it’s not necessarily natural or the way it has to be… or the reality that they ought to take for granted down the road. That, in other words, other points of view are possible and permissible. Which is to say, we’re trying to cultivate a sense of the possibility of the subversive version of this–looking past the question put to one, to see the underlying or hidden expectation that is demanded of one, and then go one step further and question it. And the more this stuff comes into our lessons with kids, the more we both come to see how insightful and thoughtful these kids can be… they often can figure out what’s being implied in all kinds of comments or questions. But they don’t really know how to question it. I imagine some degree of not-questioning is normal in kids of a younger age, but with Korean kids, that reticence to question or reject the implied expectation seems stronger, and seems to linger much longer.

        Of course, to see any of this, I had to stop seeing the horrid things these kids were saying constantly–xenophobic or racist things, or money-obsessed craziness, or sexist crap, or nationalistic garbage,or even just the obsession with A+ grades to the exclusion of learning–as emblems of what’s wrong with Korean society. Once I started reminding myself that they were regurgitating from the adults in their lives, and that the regurgitation is what they’ve been explicitly trained to do (and in a lot of cases, even directly traumatized into doing), I realized they were just playing along with the game where one complies with the hidden assumptions behind each question.

        I can say it’s like watching a light turn on in the window of what seemed like an abandoned house, when these kids realize, like, holy crap, maybe my homeroom teacher or my mom or my dad isn’t omnipotent; maybe it is possible to disagree about this or that. The funny thing is, when we clue these kids into this–and warn them to be careful, as their parents may not appreciate their insights–it’s like, they find some new energy within them. The ironic thing is that they start being interested in studying, and–contrary to our expectations–their moms keep recommending us to other moms, claiming we’ve helped their kids a lot… which, well, we have, but if they knew how, would they be recommending us?

        Anyway, I say this because I get the sense the kids in your class are, on the contrary, searching for the hidden question so that they can give the “right” answer. Which maybe ought to be heartening: when I was a kid, I just took answers at face value, at least up to a certain age. (*) These kids are already hip to the idea that there’s implied stuff hidden behind the apparent question. They’re just not hip to questioning it, and it’s consequently less hard to show them it can be questioned. (Though it may end up being harder for them to act on it, even when they have it all figured out… though, as kids, it’s pretty hard to act on insight anyway. We focus on reminding them that they won’t be powerless forever, and to fight to keep their own opinions and critical faculties alive till then.)

        (*) Or, rather, up to a certain amount of traumatic experience. After logging enough time in various Deathtrap Dungeons–which were inevitable for the kind of kid I was, in the kinds of towns we passed through, I suspect–I started to realize lots of people out there were nuts and senseless and people, often adults in positions of power over me, as often as not just talked out their asses and manufactured “facts” or “truth” or rules as it suited them.

      • Justin says :

        I’m looking at this from a vocational English teacher sense. I’m trying to get my students to understand CVC, subject/verb/object, real basic stuff. My goal is to lay an as solid a foundation as I can for these kids (most of them lower class or working class). What makes me write posts like this is the kid worrying about the curtains in his third floor apartment, when we haven’t even finished pouring the foundation yet. And I agree, that tendency to search for the trap is likely generated by habits he or she’s had instilled in them by the culture, but it also serves as a snare and traps them up because they neglect the issue at hand and expend their energy trying to out-smart/discover the code to the question they believe is behind the question.

    • Gord Sellar says :

      Oh, and I didn’t say so in my comment below, but what you describe doesn’t surprise me, though, it is painful to hear, although, as Justin says, sounds like a defense mechanism. And going along with it also sounds like a defense mechanism.

      • asakiyume says :

        *nodding*–I’m just busy boggling at the state of society in Korea, based on what you’ve just posted. Sometimes a society can get into terribly, terribly pernicious habits and ways of being, and usually no one thinks this is a good thing (i.e., parents are not all, “Fun times, beating my kid!”), but somehow necessary–people forgive all sorts of things as being necessary, and fight attempts to rock the boat on the grounds that boat-rocking will only make things worse. But there must be some dissenting voices w/in Korea itself, no? Who in Korea is dissenting, and how are they criticized (because knowing how they’re criticized tells a lot about how society frames the issue…)

      • Justin says :

        The police just raided the striking transit union’s office. That’s one way dissent is criticized. Or it’s ignored. A lot of people have come to not trust the media in any way and simply exist in their own echo chamber of like-minded folks online, or they’re painting slogans on banners and hanging them from buildings.

        In the smaller, local sense, ostracization and marginalization seem to be the most common techniques of dealing with dissent. “You’re crazy.” “You’ll be all alone.” And even growing up where there would be misfit, outcast, and bullied kids – it doesn’t compare to what I’ve seen here. So from very early on there’s a fear of being _that_ kid instilled in people. And then later in life even if you overcome that fear, there’s a host of microaggressions you have to put up with from the people around you (not to mention other fears like you aren’t competing enough, you will be poor and die poor, etc.), because you’re doing something different gets seen as a criticism or attack on what they’re doing or have submitted to.

        If they can ignore you they will, and if they can’t they will sabotage you or drag you down. My favorite is, “Yes. This is a problem, but you’ve done the greater wrong by bringing it up, because SHAME.” So that also kills any urge to criticize and highlight problems.

        And, jeez, you all have depressed me right before I’m supposed to have a Christmas party with my students. No, chocopie for either of you!

  2. Gord Sellar says :

    Yeah, my buddy Insu just posted a question that puts it very succinctly: “Why do we in Korea always expect the weaker/less-powerful party to submit or give up in any conflict?” That’s the dynamic we’re all talking about, and I can’t say I’ve never seen it at play in Canada either, though it’s reined in. I suspect if Mad Men were a bit wider in scope, like The Wire–encompassing mining towns and steel mills and stuff–we’d see a lot of the same social dynamics playing out in America in the 1960s, too. You know, in that time before a certain tribalized diversity emerged in American popular culture and in how young people shape their identities.

    Which is to say, I’m sorry to depress you, though, you know, like I say, you’re working with kids who aren’t beyond hope yet, because all this crap isn’t really fixed in stone. Cultures shift, and they shift because the people in them see alternatives, and build on them. Maybe you can be–or maybe you already are–the crack in the mad buggers’ wall that lets some light in.

    (Which makes me realize, I’m pretty sure my wife has never seen Pink Floyd’s THE WALL. I’m dying of curiosity now to see it with her and hear her opinion of it.)

    You really should take heart in that, by the way. It’s much more disheartening when you’re trying to work with adults. Not that it’s objectively too late for them, compared to kids, but they usually have invested so much in the system of compliance and submission to all that, that they’re more inclined to feel it’s too late. (Those who were ever going to discover resistance to all that on their own usually seem to have done so already, by their 20s. Which means tutoring adults, you’re often just walking self-mutlliated victims through what they seem to only half-see as the shadowy, dystopian ruins of what their lives could have been. Kids, on the other hand, still have some kind of faint hope left.)

    Ha, my wife and I have a writing project on the backburner that I think you might find interesting, along these lines. 😉

  3. Gord Sellar says :

    Ooops, that was supposed to be a reply to Justin’s last comment. Er….

    Also, Asakiyume, yeah, the state of society is pretty rough there. Some people are eager to argue it’s just the growing pains of modernity, but things like the (top in the OECD suicide rate, top in the OECD working hours, lowest in the OECD workplace productivity, high levels of child abuse, etc.) just seem so much more extreme.

    (Some people I know, including my wife, seem to think it’s partly a reaction to the Asian financial crisis in 1997; suddenly, a nation with lots of cushy jobs and job stability and wealth went to a nation with PhDs fighting over cab-driver jobs. Living overseas, but in contact with the Korean community here, you meet a lot of younger Koreans who, once you get to know them a little, you start to realize, “Ah, another refugee from 1997.” Not literally refugee, just: a lot of companies went bankrupt in ’97, and a lot of people fled Korea then, mostly to Southeast Asia, either as legal or, sometimes, as illegal immigrants. Things seem to have been even harder for those who stayed behind, in some ways.)

    I find with the child abuse, well: you have a society very well-trained to provide justifications for things, without examining those justifications. You may think that’s true of all societies, but my experience suggests it’s not the same in North America, where people seem to be trained to at least gesture at reasoned explanations of their justifications when they get questioned. Personally, I’ve often said to people, “Wait, that justification doesn’t even make sense. Think about it…” and then talk about it for a minute, and the other person is quite willing to admit the justification is bullshit… but then will offer the justification ten minutes later, as if it hadn’t been shown to be senseless. Which is to say, logical reasoning is not a skill acquired in Korean schools. After all, who wins the argument is often determined on who shouts loudest, or who is oldest and decides to pull rank hardest. (Which is why Public Speaking courses are popular but Debate courses are very unpopular in Korea.)

    With child abuse, I found even university sophomores were routinely advocates of it. Not all, but I’d guess about 60% or more. They were usually shocked when I suggested that a teacher who is dependent on violence to maintain classroom discipline is probably (a) boring and (b) incompetent, as well as (c) psychologically unhealthy.

    There are voices of dissent in Korea, but for the reasons Justin mentions, there are huge incentives for those voices to find expression anonymously, or online, rather than in direct confrontation. From what I gather, people who are criticized are often told they have it easier than the older generation, who struggled to build Korea up from poverty… and so, shut up, the beatings are justified. Child abuse is getting a little more attention in recent years– and currently, following a horrifying case of a stepchild being beaten to death in Ulsan–but you know, the law proposed to protect kids from abuse has been stalled at the National Assembly for a year now. And going by what people talk about as if it’s normal, Korean society has a much more lax definition of what “abuse” is than we do, to begin with.

    (I mean… I’ve read reports that the cram schools that pay extra to teachers who hit the kids for making mistakes in their homework and mock tests are on the rise, since the rise in efforts to enforce laws that ban violence in public schools. You read that right: there’s a business model where parents pay more to have unvetted strangers hit their kids “for the sake of their education,” and that is apparently growing MORE popular now. Wish I could find the link for that article, but, well, it’s not very Xmasy reading anyway… My wife says they’ve always been around, and were called “Sparta Hakwons [Spartan Cram Schools]” in her day. But they are, bewilderingly, on the rise now.)

    Which is to say: some people are critical of it, but in my experience mostly in Korea, critical responses to what’s socially accepted usually happen online, and have more of a quality of pressure-valve venting. That said: candlelight vigil demonstrations are planned across the country for next weekend, against the President’s crackdown on the protesters, and the illegalities in the election.

    And Justin’s comment about it being ignored is very pertinent to what I’ve just learned. Facebook seems to have lost a lot of its Korean users lately: about the only Koreans we know who still log on regularly are the leftist-intellectual types who post stuff about politics or social problems. Everyone else has sequestered themselves to an even-more-closed-off software, Kakaotalk, which is basically IM/chat via smartphone text messages. People have whole ongoing, day-long group chats on it, they forward spammy email messages on it, and so on. It’s internet self-sequestration taken to a whole new level. :/

    Which is to say: those who do criticize, don’t get heard all that much. Which is why I think the message needs to get taken straight to the kids, frankly.

    • asakiyume says :

      Wow, trying to find my way to a response both to you and to Justin, but all I appear to have is inchoate feelings not rising to the level of articulation. I mean, it sounds pretty *awful*, from both your descriptions.

      Realizing that different ways of living are possible is a huge thing. In that regard, your being there (both of you), in itself, helps people, I think.

      • Gord Sellar says :

        Well, we’re not *there* anymore: my wife and I couldn’t really take it anymore (this stuff, but also other stuff), and left.

        So we’re only “there” in the sense that we’re still tutoring Koreans where we ended up, in Saigon. (Where there’s enough Koreans living for there to be a Korean Youth Orchestra, if you can imagine that…)

      • Justin says :

        They did away with corporeal punishment in public schools two years ago. It’s still filtering through the system, and I still see some punishments but it’s rare. The Sparta Hagwon stuff – I’ve never heard of. Wouldn’t surprise me though.

      • Gord Sellar says :

        Here’s a link on rising violence in hakwons (to make up the difference of a decrease in schools):

        And, like, the dystopia of being a teenager in Korea, and the obvious result: note the differentiated “causes” of the rising suicide rate for teens as opposed to adults, and how deeply linked they are to education:

        I could go on for hours on how physical abuse is only one of the types that one sees, and how many other kinds may even be worse, but hey, it’s Xmas, and all that. Happy happy to you both. 🙂

        I should note: I’ve only ever heard Jihyun call it “Sparta Hakwon” and that term may be dated: I think it was used when she was a kid. (She, luckily, was never sent to one; one of the rare instances where sexism’s lowered expectations ends up being a saving grace…)

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