Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.
This is a quote from Mark Twain. A wealthy friend from San Francisco tweeted this a few days ago. I think this quote has a little truth, but is more endemic of class arrogance than anything.
There is a rabbit trail of reasoning that goes along with this quote, which I think looks like this: 1) Traveling exposes you to new cultures and new ideas. 2) The only reason there is bigotry in the world is because people are ignorant to other ways of doing things. 3) If forced to mingle with other people, you’re to realize that people all around the world can be nice, wonderful, kind, interesting and filled with all the positive qualities you and your family poses. 4) Once you notice this, your bigotry will evaporate.
One thing I realized while chewing on this quote is that, if it is true, then only the wealthy can be tolerant, for traveling is expensive. Some people have come up with plans to travel on a budget, but for most of us, traveling by plane and staying in a hotel or home-stay costs a lot of dough. Therefore, rich people who can travel often are the most tolerant, middle-class people who can travel once or twice a year are moderately tolerant, and poor people who can’t travel are bigots.
Rich Bigots Judging Poor Bigots
This is a mentality that plagues the élite, coast-dwelling upper-class. We already have a pre-conceived opinion (read: prejudice) about people who live in the so-called ‘fly-over states’ (an expression that we can also read as prejudice). We think that they’re rednecks, ignorant, poorly educated, hate-filled, racist, bigoted, intolerant lumps of humanity. The notion that traveling produces tolerance is simply an extension of this class prejudice. Southerners and Midwesterners are bigots, goes the reasoning, because they are poor and, being poor, don’t travel.
Before I tackle the flaws of this reasoning, I want to say that I do think traveling is good for the soul. Meeting new people and experiencing new cultures makes life exciting and livable. Paul, for example, traveled all over and wrote letters to varying people in varying cultures. It was he who advocated being all things to all people and championed tolerance. The seed of truth in Twain’s quote is that your bigotry is softened when you get to know new people who treat you with courtesy and respect.
The flaw in the reasoning assumes how bigotry forms. It forms by experience, not isolation. A man trapped on a desert island for years can never learn to hate chocolate. But he can certainly learn to hate coconuts.
Prejudice vs. Bigotry; Irrationality vs. Rationality
Common sense teaches us that there are two forms of bigotry; bigotry formed by experience (rational bigotry), and bigotry based on hearsay (irrational prejudice). Most people have rational bigotry. If I meet a man who looks and talks differently from me, but acts like a decent human being, I will like him and form a good opinion of his land, race and culture. But if I meet the same kind of man and he steals from me, abuses me or breaks my trust, I will form a poor opinion of him, his land, his race and his culture. This, while not necessarily right, is certainly rational and not endemic of ignorance, being poor or the lack of world travel.
Irrational prejudice based on hearsay is the only form of bigotry that travel cures (and this, only if the bigotry is incorrectly held). If someone tells me that mangos taste bad, I will avoid them. I am now prejudiced against the mango, not because I have experienced it, but because I believe the hearsay. If I taste the mango, my misconception may be cured — unless, of course, my personal taste is averse to mangos, in which case the prejudice is vindicated and I become a bigot towards the taste of mangos. It follows then that the act of travel—experience — can either foster a negative bigotry or a positive bigotry, but it cannot cure bigotry.
Travel Has Nothing to Do With It
Of course, the proper response concerning people would be to make decisions about them on an individual basis, and not extend them to entire swaths of people. The reality is that all men do this anyway, regardless of race, culture or class. That doesn’t make it right, but it does make it reality. The world spins on popularly held bigotries. Are old people really bad drivers? Believe what you want. I can tell you what the man whose car was totaled by the geriatric believes.
I’ll end by pointing out that the notion that people who don’t travel are bigots is, in fact, a bigoted idea. Rich people rarely travel to fly-over states. Where do they go? France, Italy, Spain, Africa, China — that is, either metropoleis that are wealthy or steeped in culture and history, or impoverished nations that have a common characteristic; they’re not Western. This means that they rarely ever meet the tractor-riding, hard-working redneck who doesn’t travel and is, according to the coast-dwelling, upper-class person, a bigot. If they traveled to where the redneck lives and had a beer with him, then perhaps their own bigotry towards him would fade.
Oh yeah, and just for fun, here’s another Twain quote on travel:
You never saw a bigoted, opinionated, stubborn, narrow-minded, self-conceited, almighty mean man in your life but he had stuck in one place since he was born and thought God made the world and dyspepsia and bile for his especial comfort and satisfaction.
I’m half convinced he was partially describing himself there.