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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22 Responses to “Traveling Has Narrowed My Mind”

  1. Jack says:

    Awesome post! :-)

  2. russ says:

    This is something that I’ve begun to notice in my short time here in South America. It hit me hard, sitting in the Mexico City airport, watching families eagerly awating a vacation, men in 3-piece suits waiting to be reunited with their loved ones, and those like myself, on their own traveling to who knows where. Sure, the details might be different – language, clothes, the music in their iPod, etc – but at the heart, all human, with the same desires and needs.

    Since then, my time here in Lima reflects the same understanding of this universal principle.

    Thanks for posting.

  3. Jeff says:

    Eh. Hitch had some great ideas but he proposed some shit sandwiches, and this essay was one of them. He’s implying that poor people (hell, middle class people as well) are mired in stupidity, since they canot afford to travel or simply do not want to. It’s the same shitty superiority that Mark Twain embodied.

    It doesn’t help that he has to inject his “religious people r dum hurr” attitude in here. It’s philosophical pandering that makes the rest of us atheists look like bigots.

    • Mark Manson says:

      I don’t see him implying that poor people or people who can’t travel are necessarily stupid. Just that travel is a great tool for removing prejudice and bigotry from ourselves. From reading the rest of the book, Hitchens had a lot of friends and a lot of respect for people in undeveloped countries.

    • Nicholas says:

      While I agree that Hitchens ocassionaly served up a turd – frequently on the subject of religion- this piece is not one of them in my estimation. The thrust of this article is that “…humans are the same everywhere and that the degree of variation between members of our species is very slight.” Not that non-travelers (for whatever reason) are stupid. He says merely that it is the traveling that has exposed him to the idea that people are people wherever one goes, and that holds true for their stupidities as well.

      • krv says:

        A militant athiest like Hitch claiming we’re all the same is just so strange. Wouldn’t Hitch in the next breath screech about the threat of Islam?

        I don’t think Islam is a threat and I hate our confrontational foreign policy, but I do understand the fact that much of the Islamic world is deeply, deeply different. People have very different ideas and motivations. It’s liberal fantasy to think otherwise.

        Anyway, I really dislike Hitchens. I basically think neo-cons and certain urban cosmopolitans wanted to hear their dumb ideas parrotted back to them in a toff accent with an oxford vocabulary. If he said the same things talking like Joe the plumber nobody would have given him the time of day.

        • Mark Manson says:

          Hitch is definitely NOT a neo-con. He hated the neo-cons.

          I think what he’s saying — actually, what he is saying, directly in the piece — is that one you get past “race or nation or faith” everyone more or less wants and needs the same things: family, validation, appreciation, food on the table, roof over their heads, friendships, camaraderie, and freedom.

          • krv says:

            He pulled hard for the Iraq war and to his dying day thought the invasion would be vindicated by history. He was definitely a neo-con, and also an ex-trotskyite like many of them.

            So you think he’s saying “Everybody poops!” Well no kidding. Bear with my stretch, but how does that relate to the paroxysm of ethnic nationalism the world world saw in say, 1918/1919? Dozens of new nations were born in Europe. These were peoples who all spoke eachothers’ languages and knew eachother well, lived amongst eachother for centuries, yet they started killing eachother for self determination and territory. I’m just saying there’s more to human nature than that we all like a good joke and sushi.

          • Mark Manson says:

            He supported the Iraq War but was highly critical of the neo-conservatives and the way the war was handled. The man was an unabashed Marxist/socialist.

            Did you read the entire piece? You have yet to diverge from what he said. He said all people succumb to their tribal ways. That we’re all victims of the “narcissism of the small difference.”

            His prescription for travel is to help us overcome those default prejudices and local rituals most of us fall to.

            I don’t think he’s making the statement that all cultures are similar or the same… I think he’s merely saying that humans are similar in that we attach ourselves to our cultures and petty divisions.

  4. Luis says:

    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.

    I like that line…

    Like Russ, this post aligns well with my own observations while traveling and living outside the US.

  5. Ben J Man says:

    Great writing Mark. Thanks for blowing my mind yet again.

  6. Matty says:

    I’ve always thought of Christopher Hitchens as a loathsome individual. Which is why I was genuinely shocked by the beauty of (most) of this piece.

  7. This was a great piece of writing and it’s amazing the difference between Christopher and his idiotic brother.

  8. Chris says:

    There is a very difficult to define quality certain people develop, where even when you disagree with them, you can’t help but respect them and their position.

    A soup of things; rationality, integrity, ethics, logic, principles….

    Jon Stewart has it, Bill Maher has it, Ron Paul has it,
    Hitchens took it to a new level.

    Watch his debates on youtube, or watch highlights if you’re impatient. The man was a giant.

    Bravo for Mark finding this out, no doubt it’ll subtlety influence his work for the better.

  9. Jammer says:

    Travel as often as you can
    Live in New York City once
    Live in northern California once
    Never live in Adelaide, it’s a hole

  10. Jammer says:

    “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. ”

    Echo your sentimentos here Chris, rest in peace.

  11. krv says:

    I really never understood this claim that “We’re all the same. It’s a small world after all!” I’ve been around the block and that has not at all been my observation when traveling outside of “The West”. My reaction has been more like: Whoa, we’re really fucking different once you get past the superficial similarities.

    One on one you’ll meet similar people, but the “jungian archetypes” in far flung places are very alien.

    • Chris A. says:

      I see some merit in your point. I feel like I agree with both you and Hitches to a certain degree as I have experienced both. I think Mark’s article on Indian falls reinforces your perspective. We are quite different. Culture matters. There is a reason that you can’t find a piece of trash on the street of Stockholm and why New Delhi has mounds of garbage the size of buildings and nobody seems to care. There’s reasons why some countries can have a peaceful transition of power from one party to another while the same in other nations will result in a blood bath. There’s a reason why you can’t bribe a cop out of speeding ticket in America or Canada but you can easily do so in Mexico or Russia. Yes, we may all want friendship, security, a job, food, etc but cultural differences(and experiencing them is one of the main reasons we travel), even small ones can result in entirely different standards of living. To the point that some nations can be virtual utopias like Scandinavia(clean, high standard of living, political transparency, democratic, lack of warfare, freedom), and other nations can be distopias, such as India.

      I guess the excitement of travel comes from experiencing these paradoxes. How people one moment in a different part of the world can seem “just like you”, but the second there is a transition of power, turn to violence. What I will say though is that great people and terrible aren’t specific to any part of the world. You will find the full range of humanity in all nations.

      • Chris A. says:

        Typo. “I think Mark’s article on Indian falls…” should have been “I think Mark’s article on India…”

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