Matt Harding's Moral Dilemma

by Ian MacKenzie May 2, 2007
In the vast desert ruins of Morroco, Matt ponders the mirage of his own motivations.

By now everyone knows Matt and his dancing videos. But I’m willing to wager not everyone has read through Matt’s compelling dispatches as he travels the world searching for the perfect spot to shoot the next dance scene.

His latest entry amid the sand dunes of Morroco struck a chord with me, as he delves into the question of pure intention in the face of what feels like traveler’s exploitation.

It’s possible you’ve been in a similar situation yourself; attempting to justify the obvious inequality of life situations revealed through confrontation with inhabitants of poorer nations. Did you feel guilty? Indifferent? Or something else entirely?

Here’s Matt’s excerpt:

As we approached the ruins, a band of children descended upon us like ambushing guerilla fighters. They wanted money. They followed us to the ruins, at which point I started dancing badly.

The kids found this puzzling. I invited them to join me. A few of them did. And once they got their heads around it, they became very enthusiastic. It was fun. It was the clip I’m going to use.

Afterwards, I faced a moral dilemma that is very common in Africa. The kids wanted money. I agree with the notion that handing money out to kids is a bad idea, as it creates beggars. If I’d simply ignored them, there would be no issue. But I’d invited them to join me. To boot, they were great dancers. They still wanted money, and I had a little bit of change handy, so I obliged.

To keep them from pouncing once they saw what I was holding, and also to prevent the biggest and strongest kids from grabbing everything, I threw the change up in the air. It seemed smart at the time, and it sort of worked, but there was also an air of degradation. It felt icky. Melissa, standing nearby through it all, got a sudden and overwhelming dose of what Africa is like. Even the best intentions turn out icky.

She was troubled. For a moment, while it was processing, she was a little upset at me. But what, exactly, was the right thing to do?

It would be unwise of me to dwell on this subject, but yes, what I’m doing has a large commercial aspect to it. The word ‘exploitation’ hovers over everything. Whatever is going through your head right now, please understand that I have considered it. The dancing video is something very simple, but it’s also complex. It’s sort of a moral prism; you can look through any facet and see it a different way. Suffice it to say, while I’m not a religious person, I am freakishly moral. I believe this video is, ultimately, a good. And it’s only a good if that’s how I make it.

What I mean is, by way of example…let’s say that acquiring each clip required me to strangle somebody and bury the corpse. Okay. Bit of a stretch. Nevermind how that would come into play. Let’s just suppose it was a necessary step. Even if the resulting clip turned out perfect, I don’t believe the final video would work. It would be tainted. It would ring false. People would say, “I don’t know where I get this feeling, but there’s something wrong here.” And they’d be right, because there would be mounds of dirt scattered throughout the desert marking the remains of all the people I had to strangle.

I just think that stuff shines through.

I couldn’t help but agree with Matt. There is a degree of exploitation that goes along with traveling through developing countries. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, most of the tourist industry thrives on perpetuating a global economy that is vastly un-equal.

Millions live on less than a dollar a day. It’s a reality. But what is the tradeoff? At what point can we say the benefit of one action produces an effect that outweighs the taint?

Another example: I hate filling my car with gas. I cringe everytime I have to pull up to the pump. As I insert the nozzle and squeeze the trigger, the ticking of the litres reminds me of the latest Iraqi body count in the news.

Luckily, I’ve been biking to work since last year. My fiance works from home. We only need to fill up every few weeks, if that. But the reality remains: with each fill-up, I’m directly financing an industry that perpetuates a war on the other side of the world.

What is the alternative? Reject the system completely? Sell my car and retreat into the mountains?

No — that would be a waste. And here’s why:

You must maximize how much of your potential you can manifest. Let’s say […] you move into the country away from civilization and spend all day working the farm just to stop yourself from being a consumer that harms the environment-sure, you’re no longer harming the world, but you’re also not applying your potential in ways that could help the world a hundredfold more.

If people like us moved into a wooden shack and lived off the land without electricity, we could save the earth for a year but ultimately allow tyranny on earth to prevail for the next thousands of years (if that were our destiny, hypothetically speaking).

To maximize how much you can help the world, you have to weigh the costs and benefits of doing or not doing something. The cost is between how much you help the world by doing it, and how much you hurt the world by failing to spend that time making better use of your potential.

This will vary from person to person, but one thing I guarantee is that the only way to know what’s right for you is to know what gives you enthusiasm, what is naturally in line with your drives, your skills, and the needs of the world.

It is by no stretch to say Matt, through his dancing video, has shown millions of people that the world isn’t such a scary place.

In fact, if you venture out of your comfort zone, you’ll likely find cultures and people that are very different from those portrayed in vapid tourist brochures and fear-mongering newscasts. The results of new connections and personal experiences ripple out into the world, regardless if that was the intent of the creator or not.

All we can do is attempt to act with pure intention. The rest is out of our hands.

Ian MacKenzie is editor of Brave New Traveler, and co-founder of the blogging community TravelBlogger. Aside from writing, he spends his time exploring the fundamental nature of existence and wishing he did more backpacking.

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