“Traveling Has Narrowed My Mind”
In anticipation of the upcoming launch of Escape Plan, I wanted to post a brilliant piece of writing. In spite of having been to almost 50 countries, the following piece actually inspired me to travel more and get even more involved in countries and communities I normally wouldn’t be interested in.
It is written by Christopher Hitchens, a writer of whom I am an unabashed fan boy. The excerpt below is taken from his book Letters to a Young Contrarian. Hitchens passed away last year. His was a beautiful mind and I encourage all of you to buy his books and read him.
In the piece below, Hitchens describes the value and process in which traveling widely can dissolve the borders we see between people and cultures in our minds. It’s the process of becoming an internationalist; a person who aligns their values with the benefit of humanity as a whole, rather than constrained by a special allegiance to tribe, nation or faith.
Without further ado, Mr. Hitchens:
I want to urge you to travel as much as you can, and to evolve yourself as an internationalist. It’s as important a part of your education as the reading of any book.
In the years of my upbringing, before I left for America at the age of about thirty, Britain was making the transition from being a homogenous and colonial society to becoming a multicultural and postcolonial one. I came of a naval and military family with a long tradition of service to the empire; my first conscious memory is of crossing the Grand Harbor at Valetta by ferry, at a time when Malta was still a British colony.
I won’t say that I was brought up to think or hear anything ugly — my parents were too intelligent to be encumbered by prejudice — but the prevailing attitude to foreigners was of the “watch out for your wallet, don’t drink the water” style and this attitude was reinforced by the British gutter press as well as by many politicians.
When I started travelling in earnest in my twenties, often to countries that had once been British colonies, I took along my convictions but often had to overcome a squeamish or nervous reluctance to go into the bazaar, so to speak.
(As recently as 1993, when I set off on a long tour of Africa for my magazine, not one person in Washington failed to wish me luck in “darkest Africa” “the heart of darkness” “the dark continent.” As you’ll find when you go to Africa, the first thing you notice is the dazzling light.)
In one way, travelling has narrowed my mind. What I have discovered is something very ordinary and unexciting, which is that humans are the same everywhere and that the degree of variation between members of our species is very slight.
This is of course an encouraging finding; it helps arm you against news programs back home that show seething or abject masses of either fanatical or torpid people.
In another way it is a depressing finding; the sorts of things that make people quarrel and make them stupid are the same everywhere.
Freud was brilliantly right when he wrote about “the narcissism of the small difference”: distinctions that seem trivial to the visitor are the obsessive concern of the local and the provincial minds. You can, if you spend enough time there, learn to guess by instinct who is Protestant and who is Catholic in Belfast or who is Tamil and who is Sinhalese in Sri Lanka.
And when you hear the bigots talk about the “other,” it’s always in the same tones as their colonial bosses used to employ to talk about them. (Dirty, prone to crime, lazy, very untrustworthy with women and — this is especially toxic — inclined to breed rapidly.)
In Cyprus, a place I know and love, almost all communication between the two sides is stalled and inhibited by a military occupation and partition. But there are certain areas of Greek-Turkish cooperation that transcend the local apartheid. One is the sewage system in the divided capital city, because sewage knows no boundaries. The other is a regional sickle-cell blood malady called thalassemia, which affects both communities. I was talking one day to a Greek Cypriot physician who was engaged in joint research with Turkish colleagues on this shared disorder. He said to me that it was a funny thing, but if you looked at a blood sample you couldn’t tell who was Turkish and who was Greek. I wanted to ask him whether, before he became a medical man, he had thought that the two nationalities were fashioned from discrepant genetic material.
We still inhabit the prehistory of our race, and have not caught up with the immense discoveries about our own nature and about the nature of the universe. The unspooling of the skein of the genome has effectively abolished racism and creationism, and the amazing findings of Hubble and Hawking have allowed us to guess at the origins of the cosmos. But how much more addictive is the familiar old garbage about tribe and nation and faith.
I make a minor specialism out of the study of partition — one of the legacies of the British Empire, by the way, though not exclusively to be blamed on it — and I have crossed most of the frontiers that freeze stupidity and hatred in place and time. The Ledra Palace Hotel checkpoint in Nicosia, the Allenby Bridge across the Jordan, the “demilitarized zone” at Panmunjom in Korea (uncrossable still, though I have viewed it from both sides), the Atari border post that cuts the Grand Trunk Road between Amritsar and Lahore and is the only land crossing between India and Pakistan, the “Hill of Shouts” across which divided villagers can communicate on the Golan Heights (which I’ve also seen from both sides), the checkpoints that sprang up around multicultural Bosnia and threatened to choke it, the “customs” posts separating Gaza from the road to Jerusalem.
I’ve stood in the sun or the rain and been search or asked for bribes by surly guards or watched pathetic supplicants be humiliated at all of these.
Some other barriers, like Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin or the British army’s bunker between Derry and Donegal or the frontier separating Hong Kong and Macao from China have collapsed or partly evaporated and are just marks in my passport. The other ones will all collapse or dissolve one day, too. But the waste of life and energy that has been involved in maintaining them, and the sheer baseness of the resulting mentality…
In some ways I feel sorry for racists and for religious fanatics, because they so much miss the point of being human, and deserve a sort of pity. But then I harden my heart, and decide to hate them all the more, because of the misery they inflict and because of the contemptible excuses they advance for doing so. It especially annoys me when racists are accused of “discrimination.” The ability to discriminate is a precious faculty; by judging all members of one “race” to be the same, the racist precisely shows himself incapable of discrimination.
Just as you discover that stupidity and cruelty are the same everywhere, you find that the essential elements of humanism are the same everywhere, too.
Punjabis in Amritsar and Lahore are equally welcoming and open-minded, even though partition means amputation of Punjab as well as the subcontinent. There are a heartening number of atheists and agnostics in the six counties of Northern Ireland, even though Ulster as well as Ireland has been divided.
Most important of all, the instinct for justice and for liberty is just as much “innate” in us as are the promptings of tribalism and sexual xenophobia and superstition. People know when they are being lied to, they know when their rulers are absurd, they know they do not love their chains; every time a Bastille falls one is always pleasantly surprised by how many sane and decent people were there all along.
I have a Somali friend who, during the Western intervention in her unhappy country in 1992, became a sort of clearinghouse for information on human rights. At one point, a group of Belgian soldiers lost their heads and fired into a Somali crowd, killing a number of civilians. At once, Rakiya’s switchboard lit up, with every Belgian news desk calling her at once. Alas, these correspondents and editors only wished to know one thing. Were the Belgian soldiers Flemish or Walloon? To this paltry inquiry she replied — I suspect not without relish — that her organisation took no position on the tribal rivalries in Belgium.
Anyway, what you swiftly realise if you peek over the wall of your own immediate neighborhood or environment, and travel beyond it, is, first, that we have a huge surplus of people who wouldn’t change anything about the way they were born, or the group they were born into, but second that “humanity” (and the idea of change) is best represented by those who have the wit not to think, or should I say feel, in this way.
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