Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of Matador Network.
THE WORLD IS TURNING INWARD. It’s not just Trump’s America — it’s Brexit Britain. It’s anti-immigrant Europe. It’s Putin’s Russia, it’s Duterte’s Philippines. It’s not a particularly promising trend — nationalism has not been humanity’s friend over the past couple of centuries, and there’s no reason to think that’s going to change now.
But in the age of the internet, there’s one group of people that is uniquely placed to fight the fear: Travelers. Travelers are out in the world. They meet people. They learn things. What they gain from their travels, they bring home. They are a window through the border walls. And they can — in a very real way — save us from our worst impulses. Here’s how:
They can teach us how to listen.
The best travelers are good listeners. If you are to gain anything from going to a new country, you have to first learn to silence your own thoughts, and absorb the stories of another culture. It’s a lot harder to bring this back to your own country, though. Tens of millions of people voted for Trump. You can’t dismiss all of those people as bigots and loonies. Those are our family members. Those are our friends. And we clearly have not been listening to them.
Good travelers know that to listen is not to agree. Often, while traveling, you’ll meet people with extreme views. You’ll stumble across a bigot or a jerk. But even the bigots and jerks have stories to tell. They still have something to teach.
We need that now at home. If progressives, cosmopolitans, and global citizens are to survive, they must listen not only to foreign stories, but to stories at home.
They can teach us how to think.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” This is a skill that can be learned through travel.
While traveling through China a few years back, I kept thinking, “Man, communism is a trainwreck.” But then I’d meet Chinese citizens who had been dirt poor a mere generation before, and who were now living comfortably. They said it was because of communism.
This was difficult to reconcile at first, but gradually, I realized that I could put myself in Chinese shoes and see their perspective, while still being able to critique communism. Even better, it helped me understand why the Chinese aren’t so jazzed about democracy. Does this mean I don’t believe in democracy? No. But I understand where they are coming from.
Fitzgerald’s standard of intelligence is not one acquired at birth. It is one that is learned. There is no better way to learn it than to confront yourself with strange and foreign ideas. And there is no better place to find foreign ideas than in foreign lands.
They can teach us how to care about people who aren’t like us.
Cultural and language barriers can seem pretty impenetrable from abroad — the news doesn’t show people going about their daily business. It shows them when they are in distress, it shows them when their lives are unraveling. While this type of news is important to consume, it’s not particularly conducive to compassion. It’s hard to feel feelings for people you have nothing in common with.
This falls away when you’re in someone’s presence. A child is a child the world round. And it’s easier to feel compassion for a child’s difficult life circumstances when you’ve seen them smile and laugh than it is when you’ve only seen them cry.
Not everyone has the privilege of being able to travel. But travelers can take pictures of people living their day-to-day lives and share them with those back home. They can tell stories about those children. They can give their families and friends images of, for example, Muslims or Latinos that don’t involve anger, that don’t feature squalor and sadness, that don’t depict repression and hate. By sharing, the world becomes more human.
They can teach us restraint.
I remember a man in Buenos Aires shouting at me about how Americans were all idiots, and how we were destroying the world. Back home in the United States, if I engaged this man at all, I would have started shouting back at him. I would’ve been on my home turf and would’ve known how to exit the situation if I needed to.
But in Buenos Aires, this was not a choice. It wouldn’t have been safe. So I de-escalated the situation. I talked to him about my experience as an American. I told him what my country meant to me. I told him what I regretted about what we’d done, about what was justified in what we’d done. And the conversation ended as a pretty nice exchange.
Travelers are used to being in unfamiliar situations, so they know when and how to pull back and listen. This is something we could use more of in Trump’s America — and that goes for the progressives just as much as the conservatives. By quieting the shouting and engaging with each other, we’ll come to realize that we’re not so different after all. The world is not a place to be scared of. It’s a place to be explored.