See the world: it’s complicated

complexityI wish it were possible to ensure that more people had the opportunity to travel. And I’m not speaking of a winter trip to Florida or the Caribbean: I’m referring to what I would call life-altering travel, the type which can be jarring as you are forced to adapt to customs and practices which are outside your experience. This brand of travel requires that you escape the cocoon of North American reality which comes with so much of what we see on travel websites. When you opt for the cruise or the safari or whatever, chances are the objective will be to retain as many of the comforts to which the average North American with the means to undertake such travel is accustomed.

The stated objective of this blog is to argue repeatedly that things are not as simple as solutions offered in letters to the editor or through protests on any number of issues might indicate. Modern discourse is dominated by “positions”, even as the implications and subtleties in any position are seldom a subject for discussion. If you are branded as anything (think conservative, liberal, radical, misogynist, environmentalist, anything else you might want to label), images exist in the minds of most individuals of what such labels imply, even if no one is in any hurry to define such things explicitly. At some level, most people assume that such definitions are self-evident.

Implicit in such an assumption is the notion that human experience is largely shared; that habits, attitudes, foundational moral principles, etc., are a common heritage. In a certain sense, this might be true. I can’t think of any society which explicitly countenances murder, for example. However, if you are thinking about that statement, I bet you can summon an exception, in the sense that certain factions very obviously believe that killing can be justified. Today, we need only look to Paris for the most recent example.

I’m pointing to that extreme example to make a larger point. This “global village” that we share – and our attitudes toward and assumptions about it – is subject to the same oversimplification that so many things are. Even if we don’t spend a great deal of time articulating it, we all carry an image of reality with us. Currently, that reality seems to be more and more about “us vs. them” in so many arenas. The “us” includes all those perceived elements throughout the world that aspire to become like us: seeking democracy and freedom, wanting business modeled on Western examples, etc. The “them” are all those forces that oppose “us”. Please note that my definitions are necessarily vague. That vagueness embodies the aforementioned oversimplification.

Travel to parts of the world which are decidedly NOT North American, or generally part of the more developed world, reveals that nothing is quite that simple. Whether in Ghana, Thailand, Malaysia, or elsewhere, my personal travel has convinced me that while many parts of the world aspire to our affluence, they are not seeking to become us in any more comprehensive sense. Cultures with values and traditions thousands of years old can hardly be expected to imagine themselves as our poor cousins.

Internalizing this realization can lead to an appreciation of the subtlety inherent in any position or belief. Factionalism is the enemy to my mind. As soon as anyone settles on a fixed position as absolute, thought is banished. Allowing for complexity in virtually anything is the road to an open mind. An adage I’ve developed for myself regarding most things: if it looks simple, I’m pretty sure it’s complex; if it looks complex, I hope you’ve got some time on your hands.

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