It is not my impression that the act of world travel, in and of itself, broadens the mind. Rather, people who go abroad just tend to view the various places they visit through the same paradigm of the place they come from –they see what they expect to see through the lens of their own culture, [...]
It is not my impression that the act of world travel, in and of itself, broadens the mind. Rather, people who go abroad just tend to view the various places they visit through the same paradigm of the place they come from –they see what they expect to see through the lens of their own culture, through the looking glass of their own tribe. In this context, everything that runs contrary to these preset world views are either filtered out and blocked or twisted to fit neatly into the assemblage of opinion that is already taken to be fact.
If you think the world is poor and impoverished, you will find poor people everywhere. If you think that the world is fine and well fed, you will find this too. If you go abroad as a bleeding heart liberal you will tend to gain information, experience, and observations to build up this political stance. If you set out a staunch conservative, then there is much in the patterns of the world that will fit neatly into your arguments.
I do this too, I am ignorantly human.
Travel does not make people more worldly, it just adds more fodder experience and observation to their preset ignorances. Travel often has the weird effect of being able to show what each individual traveler expects to see. In this way, I do not believe that many people learn much of anything new just from traveling the world. They just seem to reinforce their own paradigms over and over again. I do not believe that visiting new places in the world changes the mind, rather, it just makes the skull ever thicker.
But I do know that the act of long term travel will eventually ease the clamps that keep these paradigms in place. I do not believe that this comes from exposure to the new, but, rather, from lack of exposure to the old.
I am not a different person now because I’ve traveled through 50 or so countries for over a decade. I am a different person now because I spent all of this time outside of my own culture, outside of my tribe, outside of the barrage of information that keeps my mind in its ideological place without replacing it with any other consistent line of information. I extended the distance between myself and my tribe, and the power that it held over my opinions wanned. This distance from the influences of your own culture is often enough to allow your mind to expand beyond the narrow confines of your tribe. Change in perspective only comes when the traveler is gone so long that they grow out of the cultural husk they started out wearing. The traveler does not grow into a new culture — going native is a pompous fantasy — but they often develop new approaches to life from not being force fed any singular world view.
Long term, multi regional travel often provides the elbow room to develop a particular brand of idealogical free radicalism. You are not hemmed into any one value set, any one political position, or any singular social tier. You are a social free radical, and can mingle with the high and the low of society — you are outside the lines of whatever pack you move through and are alloted a sort of freedom of thought and opinion.
Like many travelers, I have found myself comfortable with being the ‘other,’ it is only when I’m taken to be “one of us” that I find myself clawing for a social escape route. People say that travel is an addiction because of the thrill, the constant stimulation, of the practice, and this very well may be so, but for me, I know that the social free radicalism inherent to the travel is one of the prime factors that keep me on the road.
This social elbow room becomes very easy to get use to, and only presents a problem when in a situation where the social walls are hemmed in and you are expected to march in step, obstruct the path, or get out of the way.
The danger of disagreeing in a tribe
People tend to confirm their expectations. It is far easier to build up what you already believe to be true than to re-stratify an entire point of view. An object in motion tends to stay in motion unless another force acts upon it.
Being the force that acts against the motion of previously uncontested opinion is often dangerous — doing so means challenging someone’s view of the world, it means challenging them personally. I have often seen the fire in a liberal’s eyes when I mention that many NGOs are hoaxes; I am sometimes lashed out against for simply sharing my opinion that the bulk of the “developing” world does not need to be saved; it is easy to be verbally attacked for making statements that runs directly contrary to what a particular tribe of people have built up to be undeniably fact from within the walls of that tribe.
I pick on the save the world sect here, but the same goes for just about any group of people who operate in a social information vacuum — a group, a club, a community, a tribe. Whether this means the rich conservatives of the USA, liberal activists, various religious sects, or the jungle people of Peru it is all the same: challenging people’s world view — their expectations of what they believe the world is like– is dangerous business.
[adsense]There are many opinions thrown around the world, and where those opinions are contested they are safe to discuss. But in places where an opinion is wrapped up as a communally confirmed fact, disagreement alone is enough to put you on the chopping block — kicked out, your sociability withdrawn. For a conservative and a liberal to go head to head in a public debate is one thing, but for a Republican to enter a liberal’s home and start talking about the great deeds of George W. Bush is to insult. In the second case, entry into a tribe — a perceived ideological safe zone — has been commenced, a contrary point of view raised, and the harmony of perceived fact disrupted.
The pluralist community is a myth, people rarely recreationally associate with anyone who is not their ideological compliment.
Any traveler quickly learns that when inside the walls of a community confirmed opinion, you keep your ideas to yourself. Nod your head politely, act aloof, but disagreeing only leads to problems. Individuals can be disagreed with but communities cannot.
It is funny how the human animal tends to lose intelligence in exact proportion to how many people of their group are in proximity to them. Individual intelligence is always trumped by group idiocy. The tribe renders the individual stupid, or, more precisely, the individual must dummy themselves down to ideologically fit within the bounds of their tribe. Take a person and stick them out of their element, have the same conversation, and you are prone to speaking with a much smarter person — or at least someone who is more open to hearing other opinions. Take this person in the context of their group and any semblance of ideological pliability often dissipates.
When I am faced with group opinion that I really do not agree with, I realize that I have three courses of action:
1. Actively agree with something I don’t agree with or don’t really care about.
2. Directly disagree and challenge their world view, providing the necessary conflict which strong opinions often crave.
3. Act politely aloof.
The first option means shape shifting — something that I cannot pull off very well. The second second often means challenging the world view of a group — which is dangerous. While the third option is truly a lemminglike maneuver.
Which option I choose depends on circumstance.
To believe any position on this planet is to be an ignorant fool. For believing in one angle of truth is at the expense of all others. It feels good to stake a sharp opinion, it feels good to be hard line. Humans are naturally aggressive animals, and inter-group conflict feeds our R-complexes like nothing else. Ignorance is natural.
Perhaps travel does not really lead to a free radical world view based upon experiencing other culture, observing other ways of life, or having additional exposure to contrary facts and figures, but because there is a distinct lack of consistent social pressure to reaffirm any single angle on the world. This does not mean that travelers are passionless blank slates, open minded shape shifters — to the contrary, the long term travelers that I have meet tend to be fiercely opinionated. But their opinions often fall off to the wayside of any established tribe, group, or sect: they become lone wolves, singular entities of a pack animal — social free radicals.
The traveler moves through a world of absolute truth. Each group, each culture, each social sub-sector of the planet claims that they have the one and only supply of this commodity. Truth, as in world-views and iron wrought opinion, is everywhere. The blinders of culture cannot be removed from exposure to the new but from a lack of exposure to the old. Removing yourself from the deluge of opinion that you automatically take to be fact is what allows you to break out of an ideological niche. Travel does not inherently make anyone wiser — but getting away from the constraining forces of your tribe may.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3679 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Papa Bay, Hawaii
May 19, 2011, 9:37 pm
What a great post. So many different ideas very concisely written.
I wanted to add to it, but could not find anything of worth to add.
You wrote “I do this too, I am ignorantly human.” I, of course do this too. My question is, do you see this trait in yourself while you are doing it? I sometimes find myself doing it, and try to correct myself real time. Change is hard enough, but real time change is almost painful.
Another question, have you ever run into someone (that is not trying to get something out of you) that you caught adjusting their script to what they think you believe in right from the start of a conversation? I have occasionally (Rarely) run into people that read me (easy with me) who instantly start talking about subjects they are pretty sure I would be interested in and with a spin towards what they think I believe in. I have found this fascinating, and maybe a little creepy. I have run into this a lot of times with salesmen and scammers or business people that want to make you feel comfortable, but to meet someone who has no stake in the conversation that can do it and even switch seamlessly when they realize they chose the wrong side of a subject. A true shape shifter.
May 21, 2011, 8:29 pm
Wade, there is a fourth way, outflank them. If someone says something I disagree with I can begin by acting as though I agree them. But then continue on to push everything to its logical conclusion and then push a little bit further still. At that point I flash a sly grin and see how they react. So, if someone is promoting NGO’s my response is ‘yeah they do great work. Africa would be a real mess without them. In fact there’s simply no way those poor black bastards could ever look after themselves. We’d better resign ourselves to helping Africa until the end of time. It would probably be best if all young americans were required to do 2 years of volunteer service in West Africa so we can save them from themselves.’ But if you just want to avoid making waves then shape shifting is probably the best strategy; not as much fun though. G
May 22, 2011, 9:16 am
“Long term, multi regional travel often provides the elbow room to develop a particular brand of idealogical free radicalism.”
I believe that I fit into that idea. And I exist alone mostly cos I can and cos I enjoy it. My belief is that I’m always learning and no knowledge is set or fixed and that I’m open to new ideas as they seize me but aware that everything is forever changing.
That no one has definitive answers on anything in life cos there ain’t any – especially on the meaning of life, God, the way etc – so often best to avoid many people as they get repetitive across the world; seek out the interesting few, not the dull masses.
And, don’t take life seriously folks (it’s not the Olympic Finals nor a zillion-dollar game show, it is simply a bizarre joke; existence is empty of meaning; don’t waste time with nobodies who think they know it all. Smile, and move on …).
the candy trail … a nobody across the planet, since 1988
May 23, 2011, 6:17 pm
… I often wonder if / when my nomad-ism stops that I will then also get into the picture of belonging – in a geographical place; surrounded by things; having close friendships; and of course an “stable” ideology, which may mean belonging to a tribe, group, religion, simply cos it’s what one does as you get older; mostly you stop questioning and just get on with living/enjoying (or for many unfortunately, just existing).
This is the nature of life for most people – for many reasons – and this security of mind and the physical reality of comfort and a belonging in a society/tribe stops the questions and pointless insanity of pursuing the truth (when we all know that is infinite …).
the candy trail … insanity across the planet, since sliced bread became unfashionable
May 24, 2011, 2:40 pm
Nice insights! People simply cannot escape it’s own cognitive biases by traveling the world.
August 20, 2012, 7:30 am
I do have one thing in question, however i’ll see what you think…
This may come across as picky, but you appear to suggest “idealogical free radicalism” as a kind of answer?
I would have found this article to more satisfying if we weren’t left with an answer. Breaking out of ideological niches, doesn’t mean we should become radicals.
Radicals have a particular brand of their own.
These kind of people sounds like a group of intense, wise, slightly insane and wonderful people.
I think that is good, but what i think your article is ultimately asking for is to dive into uncertainty….
Here I will provide an example of what I’m concerned about. A person isn’t a ‘wise’ person. As if that is a fixed, permanent state. But rather they display characteristics of flexibility of thought. A monk can be just as bad at this as any of us. Just like an English teacher can have poor grammar. (myself included)
A quote that I think summarizes what i’m trying to say is: “To know yourself is to forget yourself, and to forget yourself is to become enlightened by all things.”
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