If by simply visiting a place one could gain essential knowledge, truck drivers would be expert geographers. This does not mean, however, that by visiting places a lay person cannot gain an amount of knowledge that may become beneficial to his/her future development. Even the shortest of visits allow us to do something a book, an atlas, or an Internet browser cannot—to develop a sense of place through direct interaction with people residing in their own living environment. That seems even more important in places in conflict, or about to be in conflict; it helps us learn why people do things the way they do.
Inter-personal cultural interaction stimulates people to focus on each others’ similarities, rather than differences. It humanizes us and removes the curtain of ignorance. People who have not experienced a certain place are more apt to see it in a negative light than are those who have visited the “alien” location. This is an attitude quite opposite to the contemporary in which so much cultural interaction and learning about other places occurs within the cyber world, rather than by first-hand experience. Within the cyber world, as often as not, judgments about people and places are made off the cuff. Cultural observations tend to emphasize each other’s differences, a reality that is very evident when one considers many domestic and international affairs alike.
Figure 1. A typical southern Wyoming landscape. What to some of us may represent a desolate area that has nothing to offer, to people who are born and live in that state it may just be like no other place on Earth. It is always important to hear them articulate why they feel that way. (All photographs by the author)
“I Have Never Been to a Southern State!” (Or the Seattle Syndrome at Work)
A resident of Seattle, Washington, my current home town, recently uttered these words in a private setting as a part of a post-election conversation. A proud smile followed the statement. There was no reason to travel to “those” places. Still in his/her early twenties, which can be considered relatively young and inexperienced, the person was content to rely on indirect information about places never-visited, yet form a strong negative opinion about them. In essence, (S)he chose not to venture outside of the comfort zone of an intellectual package of convenience provided by someone else instead of personal observation and experience.
Such an attitude provides emotional ease, a feeling that there is no need to venture outside of King County—named and renamed after two southerners—and find out if the southern states are worth visiting. The only way to change an opinion like this would be to wait for a third party (media, etc.), upon which the original worldview was so heavily influenced, to modify the narrative.
From a cultural geographic perspective, the foregoing comment was made without an ability to define, or rationally delineate, the South—a vague area located somewhere “down there.” The South, other than during the War Between the States—the official name for the 1861-1865 conflict—is a vernacular region, one defined by perceptions of people who reside there. Like the Midwest or the Great Plains, the South is not delineated by administrative decisions.
Figure 2. After I wrote the above passages, I picked up my Rand McNally Road Atlas and its highlighted record of my travels across the United States. The routes highlighted are only the major ones; with inclusion of secondary and tertiary roads a good portion of the map would look much denser. Wherever I travel I seek to converse with the local residents about their way of life and try to learn from them.
As a result, we are stuck in paradoxical times; easiness and affordability to travel to foreign places is more possible than ever before, yet our general lack of interest in or desire to expand our cultural geographic knowledge by doing so has remain modest. It is as if the general lack of interest about the world outside national boundaries yields no negative consequences. The reality is opposite. Everything that happens somewhere on the globe has spatial consequences and affects all of us to various degrees.
Figure 3. A scene from a market in the Palestinian governed areas on the West Bank where a visitor can learn a lot simply by being there. Israel and its relationship with the Palestinians is a frequent topic of discussion in the United States. To what degree are most of us aware of the ongoing conditions there, based upon our knowledge gleaned from the media, rather than from personal experience? What we all share is an opinion about the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, an opinion that in most instances is rather difficult to change.
Fifty Shades of Culture
To illustrate the benefits of visiting places, allow me to use Europe as an example, specifically the eastern parts of Europe. At this moment in history, learning about Eastern Europe’s affairs can be valuable time spent, because the current geopolitical developments there will affect our lives and livelihoods in near future.
Despite cultural similarities and historical ties with the Europeans—for many of us in the form of personal ancestral ties—the American populace’s knowledge about this region is rather weak. Europe is considered, well, Europe, a monolithic unit inhabited by people similar to us, rather than a territory of fifty independent countries.
Cultural differences between the Europeans are subtle, refined, and do not stand out as they might elsewhere. To notice them, and evaluate how they relate to each other, one must first learn about the similarities between various groups. Travel is an essential aspect in this context. Even the shortest of stays and opportunity to see the land and talk with the people are important. This can give us a better understanding of why the (eastern) Europeans tend to enthusiastically emphasize one percent of their differences, rather than focusing upon their 99 percents of mutual similarities.
Many conflicts in this part of the world are between groups that share common history, land, ancestral ties, language, and other traits. Separation of “us” versus “them” is frequently a product of a sum of all cultural similarities. “Yes, we are almost the same people, but what really makes us different…” is how the statements defending separation usually begin, followed by often-trivial historical or cultural facts as supporting evidence. “And this is why we belong to the civilized world and they do not” is how the statement ends.
The key is that once aware of how the locals conceptualize their opinions and views, and why they do it in such a way, we are free to not rely on a third party to design our individual viewpoint. We can grasp the differences between manufactured information and cultural, including social and political, reality.
Hear no Evil…
Control of information exchange and freedom of movement are the two most important factors in preventing a population’s dissent against the governing system. Most restrictive countries, current and those in the past, utilize these two methods of population control to the fullest degree. When people cannot receive information alternative to that of the official mantra, and have their freedom of travel restricted, they will be less likely to question the official policies and revolt against them.
When a population is willing to know the truth and actively seek information, nothing can ultimately prevent them from acquiring it. The Former Soviet Union was not impenetrable to information flow from the outside, for example, despite constructing giant installations designed to serve as jamming devices to foreign electronic media.
Eventually it was exactly these measures that made people in the Former Soviet Union and neighboring communist countries reject isolation and demand change. This attitude greatly contributed to the ultimate demise of Europe’s dictatorial regimes. When better informed about conditions elsewhere, in non-totalitarian states, citizens of repressive states simply could not afford to be or to remain intellectually complacent.
In the United States, intellectual complacency appears to have established itself rather well. The main contributor to the current state of affairs in terms of the flow of information is a self-induced complacency (e.g., the “Southern States” comment), a lack of desire to seek what the Soviet Union’s subjects eagerly sought. The situation is almost as if we have decided to venture into the intellectual sphere from which the Soviets escaped not too long ago.
Figure 4. The view from above Varna, a city and tourist resort located at Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. During the Cold War, aerial surveillance would be the only way to visit much of the Black Sea’s shores, particularly the eastern ones. Today, access to the East is not a problem, unless we choose to make the eastern European region a distant and meaningless land.
The peoples of Eastern Europe have a strong individual and collective memory of the danger of past policies and conditions. They have no desire to go back, certainly not as a voluntary act, and can explain why. This is why even travel to Eastern Europe matters. The experience can allow one to gain a foundation of knowledge about people and places visited, and to utilize that information to help us make informed decisions as individuals for our own benefit and for that of a society as a whole. At this moment in history it is paramount that we do so.