Those of us born before the Internet revolution can recall seemingly long-lost elements of public decorum.  Most prominent among them is try to remain silent and avoid embarrassment in public by shooting one’s mouth off from the hip.  Unfortunately, this is no longer the case.  An entitlement to shamelessly express one’s ignorance without any repercussions is now a norm in public behavior.

Personal annoyance aside, it is the actions that stem from cultural geographic ignorance—of particular danger to individuals and entire countries—that increasingly worry me.  Anyone can instantly become a victim of such ignorance, initiated by people unwilling to or incapable of understanding the outcomes of their own intellectual or moral limitations.

A story from Seattle this week is but one example of contemporary trends. According to the Seattle Times, a tip received from a well-known and popular true-crime author alarmingly noted:

“Hi. Suddenly there is a Confederate flag flying in front of a house in my Greenwood neighborhood. It is at the north-east corner of 92nd and Palatine, just a block west of 92nd and Greenwood Ave N. I would love to know what this ‘means’ … but of course don’t want to knock on their door.  Maybe others in the area are flying the flag? Maybe it’s a story? Thank you.”

After Seattle Times reporters scrambled their troops and went to Greenwood to investigate, they realized that the “flag of hate” proudly flying in front of a local resident’s house was, in fact,  the flag of Norway. Well, who has not made the mistake in identifying a Nordic nation’s flag incorrectly from time to time, particularly during the Winter Olympics? It can happen to anyone.

What cannot happen is that someone’s life can be potentially endangered as a result of misidentification.  This could have happened to the residents of the house in question if someone’s knee jerk reaction turned provocative (physically or in social media).

Let us return to the geographic aspect of ignorance by conducting an elementary spatial analysis.

Figure 1. Google Maps screenshot identifying Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood.

Seattle is a city of neighborhoods each of which has its own character.  Local residents are proud of these distinctions and work hard to keep and celebrate them.  In fact, the very first neighborhood to the southwest of Greenwood is Ballard, the Norwegian-American center of the Northwest.  Each year on May 17th, Norwegian Constitution Day is commemorated with a large festival and a parade that includes, yes, thousands of Norwegian flags.  Even the king of Norway tends to stop by around that time, as he did in 2015 when I, too, observed the parade.

Figure 2. The rebels of the 17th May faction group in Ballard.

It is almost impossible to live in this part of the Seattle area and not be familiar with Norwegian and Swedish flags in particular.  I am positive that the tipster to Seattle Times is well aware of the difference.  The problem is that people often see in a cultural landscape what they want to see, rather than comprehending the reality.  It is a trick that the landscape can do to a pre-conditioned mind.  In the Reflections on Landscapes of Fear and Love, I wrote:

“Cultural fear is not inherited; rather, it has to be learned.  We learn to fear landscapes, people, and places.  But do not mistake cultural fear as being the same as normal human fear!  The latter is undoubtedly an inherited human defensive mechanism, designed for the purpose of survival similar to that of other animal species.  Fear of cultural landscapes, however, is a learned human behavior and a product of cultural interaction.  It begins at childhood and lasts throughout one’s lifetime.”

It is remarkably easy to become conditioned to fear something or someone because of cultural differences.  Even the Greenwood tipster concluded her observation with “Maybe that’s the story … we’re so stressed by all things political that we see things that aren’t there.”

The statement reminded me of another period in American history, a period in which actions of our neighbors were monitored and reported, particularly in the West Coast and Pacific Northwest.  It occurred during the Second World War, when other types of neighbors were undesirable and projected the landscape of fear.  Incidentally, it was just this past week that Seattle commemorated 75 years since the forceful internment of the Japanese Americans in 1942.

Figure 3. Escort of a potential enemy combatant from the Puget Sound area into a concentration camp in 1942.

Ultimately, Seattle residents do not have to worry.  Any future flying of Russian (or some other Slavic menace whose red/white/blue colored flag may appear similar to the Russian flag), Chinese, Iranian—or even worse, an actual Confederate flag—depending on the enemy de jour, will have a neighborhood watch ready to jump into action and report to the world.

The Danger of Cultural Geographic Ignorance