“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Mark Twain (1835-1910)
Like Mark Twain suggested a century and a half ago, an absence of travel and exploration can have consequences. I wonder if his perception would be different today from that he expressed in the 1860s?
What lies beneath?
From the mainstream media to the various corners of the social networking cyber world, everywhere we look we can notice an increase in cultural geographic ignorance. Frequency of casual and superficial comments about people and places, skewing the reality, is almost overwhelming.
Intellectual laziness and overall complacency may seem to be the main causes for such conditions. But I disagree. The actual cause of ignorance is a prevalence of perception that learning about the world outside the sphere of our imminent personal needs is not needed or overly beneficial. Why spend so much time and energy on an effort to acquire geographic knowledge when it seemingly provides a low return on investment?
What people who feel that way fail to grasp is that better cultural geographic knowledge allows us to:
- Develop better critical and independent thinking
- Understand more about others, but also about ourselves
- Be able to analyze and compare past with contemporary events and be conscious about where they will take us
- See the world from different perspectives—as a system—to prevent being manipulated by special interests
- Exercise our freedoms
Absence of geographic knowledge is like allowing oneself to be continuously surprised that the Easter Island statues have bodies.
Figure 1. In 2016, many people were shocked with the news that scientists had recently excavated entire bodies of the Easter Island statues, only to eventually learn that such was common knowledge for decades. This photograph is of Thor Heyerdahl’s team from the mid-1950s conducting an excavation.
Faith versus Fact Based Intelligence
“The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.”
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
We can only understand contemporary conditions if we know how they have evolved to their present form. This is particularly significant in the context of political affairs and geopolitics. Pause for a moment and think about the depth of analysis that media provides on any geopolitical issue. How much time do the experts spend on explaining the causes of problems versus stereotypical bantering and rattling of viewers/readers’ emotions? Sadly and inexplicably, very little. This is not by accident. The key is to make people believe that the current conditions have long prevailed.
Another form of stereotypical bantering and emotion rattling is by skewing an image of reality to fit a specific narrative and agenda. I can remember numerous instances when I was in a country or a region, reading the American media’s news reports about the conditions there. What I read in the newspapers hardly matched what I witnessed with my own eyes. Or, contrarily, foreign media reports about issues in the United States generally failed to provide a clear picture of the conditions in this country.
Once people are conditioned to think and feel a particular way, their intellectual complacency will often continue indefinitely. They do not ask if the country’s educational system functioned before the creation of the Department of Education. Or how we, as a nation, managed to survive without an income tax prior to its implementation? Or why the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has decided to introduce an even more invasive pat down of travelers, fifteen years after beginning their airport screening? Or could it be just another way to control the population’s behavior like they did it in the Soviet Union (by controlling their freedom of movement)?
When people are pacified, their interest in geographic exploration diminishes. They begin to feel that learning about the world through travel is not overly beneficial, because it does not affect them more positively than does simply sitting at home in abysmal ignorance. But such ignorance easily contributes to a fear of everything “foreign.” Superficial knowledge then becomes “the knowledge,” ammunition for any commentary they are firing into the cyber sphere. The voices of genuine knowledge become overwhelmed, ridiculed, and feel like some characters in an Ancient Greek tragedy.
“Talk sense to a fool and he calls you foolish.”
Euripides (480 BC-406 BC)
Increased emotions are a frequent travel buddy to superficial knowledge and lack of geographic exploration, i.e., travel. When people talk about distant lands, they become more emotionally attached to their statements if they know less about discussed places, than when they possess above the average knowledge. It sounds counterintuitive, but it can be easily tested. Little knowledge about far away and/or foreign places generates negative opinions to a much greater degree than do positive ones—a condition that can lead to conflict.
Adequate knowledge about places first and foremost generates positive accounts, memories, and opinions—it leads to peace. That makes freedom of movement and travel an enemy of the State.