“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”
I’ve seen this Mark Twain quote bandied about a lot recently, and it’s made me consider why people think the way that they do.
Someone said the other day, to my face, that “Muslims are murderers”. She said it in such a way that if I disagreed, I was wrong; in fact she cut me off before I even opened my mouth. So I didn’t argue, because it was clear that a little “well actually” comeback isn’t going to change her mind and we weren’t in a position to sit down and have a civilised chat. The problem is, the arguments go beyond those comebacks but often don’t make it to a civilised debate either. The amount of vitriol spat between people online is enough to see that it’s a problem from both sides. So how do we even begin to stop it?
Following both the US election and Brexit vote, it’s become more apparent than ever that people think very differently when it comes to other cultures, and it’s important to try to understand why. It’s not because there are good people and bad people; it’s predominantly down to ignorance, perpetuated further by the media.
Being brought up in isolation on an island meant I was totally uncultured when I was growing up; I didn’t go abroad until I was 13, and I didn’t leave the “Western world” until I was in my 20s. Even my first visit to London was a culture shock (and the second and third, too). Most importantly, all of my friends were like me – white, working class and no real understanding of “the outside world” either. Many of them still are.
But while I was ignorant, it didn’t make me bigoted. Not travelling does not mean you’re narrow-minded, and not being racist just means you’re probably a pretty reasonable person.
Yet even now, when the world is right on our doorstep and we can learn about cultures at the click of a button, too many people still find themselves in their little bubble, which is exactly what has led to the situations right now in the US and the UK.
And it’s fear. Not just fear of terrorist attacks or criminal activity, which is understandable but can happen anywhere and by anyone, but quite simply just fear of something different; fear of the unfamiliar and unknown.
That makes this point extra important: it doesn’t matter how different a culture is, how unfamiliar you are with a person’s customs, what religion you’re part of or the colour of your skin, the biggest thing I’ve learned about people is what should, in fact, be quite obvious:
WE ARE ALL THE SAME.
We want the best for our families. We want to laugh with our friends. We want to survive.
And I think travel is the absolute best way to realise this.
Now let me get this straight: I feel that going abroad is very different to travel.
It’s easy to be British and fly off to Magaluf and never even meet a Spanish person. Equally, you can fly to Cancun and never leave your resort. That’s not travelling. That’s not learning.
No, I think it’s very important to go out and observe other people’s way of life. Talk to locals, find out what they do or what’s important to them. Even visit museums and learn about their history and what’s shaped them and their country. Shatter any preconception you may have had.
Of course they’ll be different. There will be little things that will be entirely normal to them and strange to you. Like leaving shoes at the door, or sitting on a mat to eat, or even the things they eat or the transport they use or the music they play.
But it doesn’t matter if you’re in Thailand, Oman or Peru. You’ll see people working hard to feed themselves and their families. You’ll see friends laughing as they eat lunch or drink coffee. You’ll see happiness on people’s faces; you’ll see children crying. You’ll smile at someone and get a smile and a hello back, and you’ll realise that even if they don’t have as much as you, they have just as much to give. I think really, when you get down to the fundamental values, you’ll find they’re not actually much different to your own.
Do I think travel cures bigotry? No, I don’t. Bigotry exists within cultures; it existed when I owned a business and my rich landlord very openly judged my ability to run it based on my age and gender. It exists between Scotland and England even after 310 years of unity. Travel isn’t going to cure homophobia, which to me is a huge form of bigotry. In fact, I have even met racist backpackers. There will always be those types of people in the world – so why add to them?
So no, travel is not going to create an instant breath of fresh air for all the hate pollution we’ve been choking on for these past few months. And no, it won’t eradicate racism once and for all.
But it sure does help – to open your mind, to realise that there is no “unknown” to fear (no matter what the media frenzy tries to tell you) and, most importantly, to educate yourself on the lives that continue to carry on outside your bubble.