In my last article, “The Narrow Mind of the Global Village”, I suggested that although postmodern relativism and technology have promised that the Global Village will make us more broad-minded, instead it’s often made us more narrow-minded than ever. That’s because, in the midst of so much choice as to who we interact with on the ‘net’, we must choose to limit those interactions, simply because of time. And inevitably, the main criteria we use for those choices is primarily our pre-existing assumptions, what makes us comfortable. Hence, we only hear what we want to hear. We remain narrow-minded.
One of the common suggestions for solving our narrow-mindedness is to “break out of our comfort zone”. Specifically, for affluent Westerners, we usually do this by becoming an overseas tourist, perhaps by backpacking across Europe or South-East Asia. It may even come in the form of missions or aid trips, where people go overseas for a few weeks to help the under-privileged. There may be many benefits from these things (as well as problems!), but if you’re thinking it will solve our narrow-minded problem, you might be disappointed. According to GK Chesterton, in the same essay I quoted in my last article, here’s why:
It is the whole effort of the typically modern person to escape from the street in which he lives… he invents modern culture and goes to Florence. Then he invents modern imperialism and goes to Timbuctoo. He goes to the fantastic borders of the earth. He pretends to shoot tigers. He almost rides on a camel… He can visit Venice because to him the Venetians are only Venetians… He can stare at the Chinese because for him the Chinese are a passive thing to be stared at.
There are several problems that Chesterton identifies here, all of which are about short-term tourism. Tourism fools you into thinking you’re broadening your horizons, but inevitably you bring your horizons with you. Having invented our culture – what we think “works” from our surrounding society – we use the parameters of our culture to measure the viability and effectiveness of another culture. Do we like the food? Do we like the smells? Do we like the rituals? Do we agree with their ethics? If they do not fit within our cultural parameters, often we experience “culture shock” – we assume there’s something wrong with the food, the smells, the rituals, the ethics. Indeed, there must be something deeply wrong with that society, because it makes us feel uncomfortable. Thus, we leave there with our pre-existing assumptions confirmed.
Of course, we might experience something that pleasantly surprises us, that doesn’t fit within our cultural assumptions but come to appreciate. But such experiences are rarely available for tourists, because often the tourists’ “encounters” with the visited culture are deeply sanitised. The elements of that culture that would dissonate most are often kept just out of reach. They are downplayed or omitted to avoid offending the tourists, and their credit cards. In Chesterton’s day, tourists almost rode a camel. Tourists still almost do a lot of things.
Finally, Chesterton warns us that tourism can dehumanise the visited people. We don’t have time to really get to know the Venetian or the Chinese person. We don’t learn their dreams, their deepest fears, their basic assumptions. Usually, we just take a photo with them and buy their trinkets.
On mission or aid trips, all this gets even worse. That’s because, on top of all the problems described for tourism generally, there can be an underlying implication that we’re fixing the visited society’s problems by giving them our society’s solutions.
I’ve travelled around the world, and I will admit that this has often been my experience. When in Malaysia, I bought KFC the first night, tried local food the next, got gastroenteritis, and from then on only tried “authentic” local food that my tourist guide suggested would suit my palate, and my stomach. When in Egypt, I was horrified by the way the locals drove their cars. When in Jordan, I looked at the street urchins like they were thieving parasites, because my tour-guides told me they were. I was shocked by culture shock.
And when I lived in Canada, I definitely experienced culture shock. I spent six months complaining about their bureaucracy. Then I accepted that I was going to be there for another six months, and so I learned to respect it, even if I couldn’t appreciate it. Which leads us to Chesterton’s solution to our narrow-mindedness, which we’ll look at in the last article of this series.
Matthew James Gray