Not passing judgment as a traveler can be coercive in its own way

“Eighty years ago, the British traveled the world and found it almost entirely a source of satire and contempt. Now many a traveler (from Seattle, let’s say) is hungry to go to the Amazon, to Tibet, or the darkest parts of Africa, and find it a source of veneration. Here is life unspoiled; here are the ‘dirt and darkness’ that Greene had been so eager to deplore. The sojourner, now as likely to be a woman as a man, knows she should pass no judgment on the people. She comes as a student, not as a ruler. And yet, of course, she passes judgment in the scrupulous way she notices that indigenous ways are good, that the materially dispossessed are the spiritually advanced, that Africa or Tibet has a soul that’s lost in the developed world. This is a good-hearted and a humble way of approaching things, as befits self-questioning, eternally unsettled America — compared with regally self-assured imperial Britain — but it is a form of coercion nonetheless.”
–Pico Iyer, “Travel Writing: Nowhere Need Be Foreign,” Lapham’s Quarterly, Summer 2009

Posted by | Comments (7)  | January 24, 2011
Category: Travel Quote of the Day

7 Responses to “Not passing judgment as a traveler can be coercive in its own way”

  1. Leia Says:

    To Frank. I would like to note that, I’m Canadian, I actually come from a small and relatively poor place called St. John’s Newfoundland. Although Canada is very influenced by the states, there are some subtle cultural variations. That being said, in University, I do find that there is a lot of “save the world” mentality. I see it from a ton of International Development, Political Science and even Environmental Studies students. But, to be fair, I mean we’re all pretty young right? I’m nineteen, and although much of the “saving the world” stuff can be portrayed as colonialist I think it may more so be that well… We see all of this terrible stuff happening, I took a Globalization class last year that primarily focused upon how many terrible human rights infringements are happening world wide. Revealing stuff like how wonderful fair trade coffee/tea can be, and about how a lot of trash in the “western world” is exported to places such as India leading to disease and environmental problems. I think youth just want to help the world because they feel like many other people are not doing anything about it. Or not doing enough. Alternatively though, I agree with you that it is not the concern of the western world when a country differs from us. If a country doesn’t have democracy, but still has a system of government that works for them and has worked historically, it really makes no sense for the western world to try to enforce a democracy there (also, who says that democracy is the best form of government, but rather what works for us right now?). Honestly, the best thing for countries to do, in my opinion, would probably be to eradicate problems internally, although, I don’t think that that is always possible, and if it is, it might take a long time. I don’t believe that “American” culture is better than any others. I think all cultures are unique and in that sense, you can’t really compare them. I do think that Americans have more power than some other nations, and in that they (not as a people, but MNCs, politicians, etc) sometimes think that they know what’s best for others. Which isn’t necessarily true. Notwithstanding that, if a person like Pol Pot is massacring people someone should probably help; as my own opinion.

    To Susan, it is impossible to be objective. I know this, no matter what we will somewhat be influenced by our background no matter how scientific we attempt to be. That being said, I think it is a good think to try to think “out of the box” and when we see things that seem strange to us, to try to reflect upon them. In fact, post modernist anthropologists, as you may know, recognize our lack of ability to be fully objective and thus enforce the idea of reflexivity. Or at least enforce the idea that in our field notes, we should write down our initial reactions and our emotions. Later, when we read them we might be able to discover some of our biases and try to think of why we reacted how we did. I do know that I have different biases than others, and true, I don’t know what mine are quite yet. I haven’t travelled too much as of yet, but I am planning to go to Thailand (and possibly Japan) with my boyfriend this summer. I hope that that experience will help to open my mind more and maybe discover what ways I am closed minded or at least what views I am inflicting upon the culture that I’m seeing.

    Also, the fact that you’ve been to Mongolia is wonderful. It’s actually a destination I’d really like to visit. I do not want to imply that any culture is “pure” or seem colonialist in nature. I know from studying globalization this year, and last year that the world is swiftly changing. I also realize that globalization is not a recent phenomenon and has been occurring for centuries, maybe more. Recently though, the world is becoming increasingly “smaller” as technologies advance, as well as trade routes, etc. Conversely, I know that it is often the northern countries that benefits from this, not the southern. I don’t deny that countries around the world are being influenced by “the states” or whatever other countries. One of my few experiences with Mongolia was watching a movie called “Mongolian Ping Pong”. In it, things occurred how you explained them. Although families were living in traditional gers, they were sending their children to large cities like UIaanbaatar for schooling. Additionally, a man in a truck came periodically bringing goods such as coffee makers, and in fact a television. I also know from what my boyfriend has told me about the village he’s from “Ban Don Kirek” in Thailand. For instance, when he was last there nobody had internet and apparently now all the kids are trying to leach off one person’s wireless. Also, the house his family owns there now has air conditioning when before air conditioning was unheard of. I know that I may be talking a lot from what I’ve been told, but it is a step. I feel that by studying anthropology, I am gaining a better appreciation for cultures. After I graduate, I plan to travel for a long time, perhaps indefinitely, and when I do so, I’m sure I’ll form more of my own opinions, and although they may be slightly influenced by what I’ve been taught I’ll still continue to learn. Funnily enough, when considering doing my own field, if and when that ever happens, I’ve considered doing a comparative study… like for instance finding a study on rice farming villages in Northern Thailand done in the 1980s, and then conducting my own field work. That why I could discover how much the culture has changed and at what rapidity. Not trying to find a “pure” and “uninfluenced” culture. I’m not sure if there are any groups of people that have been in complete isolation up into present day, and if there are we might not even be aware of their existence.

  2. brian Says:

    Much of this discussion is the flip side of white man’s burden; the principle that the Western capitalism and democracy is the best system available and we need to spread it throughout the globe – by gentle persuasion if possible, force if needed. The truth is that we see the differences in other cultures far more quickly than the similarities, as novelty is always more easily noticed.

    I really don’t consider any human culture all that different from my own; human needs are all nearly the same, no matter what part of the globe. We’re all searching for friendship, love, meaning, with safety, security, and success for ourselves and our families. I may not agree with living under Islamic law, but I will say their banking rules would never have allowed the financial meltdown that occurred in the West.

    I believe when we declare a culture better or pure, we’re really expressing our own dissatisfaction with our home culture and world view. I live in Westchester County NY, where the rich people live and play. As one can imagine, materialism runs rampant in my neck of the woods, and though we trend Left, money and status are constant pursuits. When my friend bought a place in Binghamton, NY, he thought he found Shangri – La. People went to church, survived on much less money, voted Republican, etc. In short, he said it was perfect. I found it to be boring, poor, and depressing. The poverty repulsed me but attracted him. Is it better to live on less? Probably; gobs of money haven’t made my neighbors all that much happier. Do I believe poverty is commendable? No. Not being able to support yourself or your family is never a good thing. Even if I could pay all the bills while living up there, watching friends and neighbors suffer is horrible. Is going to church good? Yes, for both of us. However, there are plenty of thriving churches by me of all denominations; I don’t need to travel Upstate to find people of faith.

    The reality for my friend is that he lives almost as an aesthetic. He’s really not looking for a better way of living; he’s looking for validation of his present lifestyle choices. I believe the theory is social proof; if other people are doing it, it must be correct. He’s violating the social norms of our money obsessed area, so he’s looking for a place where he is accepted for his miserly ways.

    I like Westchester, though we have our flaws. Our schools are good, the place is mostly safe, and there’s a good chance to be successful and secure. There are lots of friendly people, and we have plenty to do. On the other hand, it is expensive to live here; the commute sucks, and we are most taxed county in America. Could we focus less on money? Sure. Do I wish we’d abandon our over-sized homes and live in 325 square foot summer cabins? Um, no.

  3. Scribonia Says:

    The more I think about this quote, the more I like it. It’s jarring and honest.

    I do think that it’s unfair to make a sweeping statement about American and British travelers, as there are always exceptions. However I find that the most prized virtue of the traveler (in many circles) is blind acceptance, as Iyer suggests. It’s OK to get angry and disgusted while traveling. I also think it’s OK to feel that your home culture does some things better. It’s all opinion and interpretation anyway. Objectivity is an illusion used to obtain funding in an academic atmosphere dominated by the “hard” sciences.
    And I think some of my fellow anthropologists would agree 🙂

    But if at all possible, anthropology should really be separated from travel. Let the experience stay between you and the places you’ve been. That’s a beautiful intimacy and anthropology will never have that.