3 Inhuman Moments: The Power of ContextMarch 9, 2017
All this talk about love, compassion and respect for difference paints a pretty picture about the world. It’s easy to let yourself believe this is how things really are, but then there is reality. For all the hand-holding and kumbaya-ing, we all know that there are loads of jerks out there. People that make us shake our heads and wonder, “what is going on?!”
We could be talking about anything, from angry drivers to thieves or even ignorant racists. Where do these people fit into the Human Revolution that tries to envision a world where we can all get along? Do these segments of the population deserve the same inclusion? Our gut reaction might be to say no, and this is understandable, but cannot be accepted. At the core of all that I share with you is my genuine belief that people are fundamentally good. Perhaps “good” isn’t the right word, but in essence, I reject the notion that evil is part of our nature and that we do harm simply because we are “people.” Instead, my take is that what makes us act with ill-will toward others is not nature or just “us,” but rather the context that we operate in that teaches us to stratify and separate wherever possible and to defend what we believe or desire as ultimate truth.
This means our fight to end ignorance and promote acceptance should be focused on empathy and the understanding of all perspectives, instead of trying to convince others to adopt the “right” beliefs and ideologies. Knowing the context within which someone who acts and thinks so differently from you operates can provide a more pragmatic path towards love and respect. It is important to remember that you do not need to agree with what someone else says or believes to understand them. Assuming we need to all think the same way to get along is a dangerous thought that hinders communication and prevents empathy.
So, let’s take a step back for a moment to try and understand what causes us to act in ways that go against our natural disposition to be good to one another, or, in other words, to act “inhuman.”
As a disclaimer, I am not going to defend racism or bigotry in any way shape or form, but rather draw on some personal experiences, once again from my time spent traveling, to point to how perhaps things aren’t always what they seem, and to shed light on the value of trying to understand those that seem easy to dismiss.
Inhuman Moment #1: Ignorance in Laos
Traveling to the “developing world” was a jarring experience. It opened my eyes to some of the more glaring contradictions in our world, while also reminding me how happiness is relative and can be found in the most unlikely places. I won’t pretend to know what life is like for these people, but my time in SE Asia, upfront with real poverty and hardship, impacted me in ways I am still trying to assimilate.
This is the context for the first Inhuman Moment. Well, really there’s two moments. The first came shortly after we launched our Postcards 4 People project. We had been working largely at night, and on the first weekend decided to head out during the afternoon. This turned out to be a mistake because the crushing mid-afternoon heat kept everyone off the streets, but we still had some activity, from which would come a learning experience.
However, because things were moving slower, I had to be more of a “salesman” to draw people to our project. I remember this one particular exchange quite vividly.
A woman who was maybe in her early 50s was walking towards us while conversing with her friend. I stopped them and gave my spiel, something along the lines of “Can I interest you in some personal postcards to support a local NGO?” The woman paused and folded her arms, as if I had just stopped her to write her a parking ticket or to perform a survey.
“What is it?” she said, monotonously and rather coldly, like she was obligated to listen to me.
I met her harsh tone with a smile and an uplifting one, explaining to her the purpose of our project and the benefits of collaborating. However, before I even got halfway through my speech, she interrupted me and began asking me a ton of questions.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“Where did you go to school?” she said barely before I finished my first answer.
“What did you study?” again, immediate.
“History and Communications”
“What are you doing here?” she was getting a little testy at this point.
“Traveling and volunteering,” I replied calmly.
“Why are you doing this project?” Now it really felt like a quiz.
“To help and to learn about what we can do.”
“And how are you paying to be here?”
“We have savings and are doing some volunteer work that is giving us room and board.”
“And this money goes straight to the NGO and not any other expense?”
“Well, around 80 per—”
“Ah! That’s what I thought. No, I am not interested in funding your trip. Have a nice day,” she spat as she turned and walked away.
“Ma’am, that’s not what this is, I don’t think you….”
By this point, she was out of earshot, and I was left shouting to her back, horribly embarrassed. What I was going to say is that around 80 percent of the proceeds were going to the NGO with which we were collaborating. This was because it cost around $.20 to make each postcard, which meant that $.80 from each postcard went to the NGO (each one cost $1). We had done our homework and figured out we could raise more money selling postcards than just soliciting donations, but she never gave me the chance to say this. She was waiting for me to slip up and to have an excuse to shut me down.
The next part of this Inhuman Moment came either later that day or a few days later; I don’t remember. We were working in the night market like any other night and saw something that I still have frozen in my memory. A young woman, no more than 20 or so, had just taken a bunch of money out of the nearby ATM. The currency in Laos is a little strange with 1 USD equalling around 900 Kip, which means small, day-to-day transactions are performed with large bills ranging from 1000 (≈$1) to 100,000 Kip (≈$10).
After taking out what must have been $150 or $200, the woman decided to fan the bills out and pose for a picture, as if she was in a music video or goofy YouTube spoof. This in and of itself might not be such a terrible thing to do, but she did it right in the middle of the night market, where there are people doing all they can to sell you $10 handicrafts so they can make a living. There were Laotians nearby and I remember them watching her do this with a look of awe and bewilderment. It shocked me, so I can only imagine what others were thinking.
These two moments stand out to me as being particularly “inhuman.” The woman who accused me of using my charity project to fund my trip genuinely hurt my feelings (I know, boo-hoo!). But, I felt so misunderstood and her judgment of me sunk so deep that she almost managed to convince me I had done something wrong. In many ways, she was right to be defensive. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time someone used a good cause for personal benefit, especially in that part of the world, but it took some serious self-talk and reassurance to get over it and to move past her treatment. It is amazing how much we can be affected by the thoughts and prejudices of others.
As for the other event, the girl with the bills, I remember feeling ashamed. It reminded me of how money, something so useless and so material, really does divide us. I may believe deep down that we are all the same, but this woman’s actions reminded me that there is still so much constructed around us to hide this truth from us. It may sound silly to take this conclusion from such a small event, but I couldn’t help but wonder if I was that different from this girl fanning bills. I may not do it so overtly, but perhaps my very existence is nothing more than flaunting to others what I have and they do not. All the opportunities I have had and work so hard to take advantage of could be nothing more than me flexing the muscles my privileged position in global society has given me. I recognize I might be taking this too far, but it is a thought I have often from which I choose not to hide.
These two events are very different, but I think they speak to each other. The common language I can find is superiority. For some reason, we feel the need to tower over others. Whether it be physically, financially or morally, there seems to be something pushing us, both consciously and subconsciously, to stand taller than those around us. We may do this without even realizing it, which does nothing more than remind us of the awesome ramifications even the smallest, most “insignificant” actions can have.
I do not blame nor defend either one of these women. They acted according to their own set of circumstances and how they thought was fit for the situation, but I ask myself if this sensation could be attributed to something? What could be behind this? What can it tell me about how we interact in other, more day-to-day situations?
Inhuman Moment # 2: Robbed
Traveling around has opened the door to countless new friends and acquaintances. However, despite meeting people from all walks of life, initial conversations almost always go the same way, especially with fellow travelers; we love to talk about the places we’ve visited. Here’s a typical exchange:
“Aw, yeah, loved Germany! Can’t wait to go back.”
“Yeah, me too, but where I really want to go back to is France.”
“Really? Yeah, not a huge fan of France. Spain is great, though.”
This is a simplified, but typical conversation you might expect to have at a hostel or Couchsurfing event. Seems innocent enough, but after having quite a few of these I started to wonder what might cause someone to “like” a country more than another, and why two people could go to the same country, do almost the same things and have two totally different opinions about the place they visited. Well, to me, it comes down to the fact that the country you visit actually has nothing to do with your opinion of it. Experience defines everything. More often than not, when someone doesn’t “like” a country, it’s because they had some sort of negative experience. They were hollered at, ripped off, got sick or had whatever other stroke of bad luck you can imagine. This makes sense, if you associate something terrible like this with a country, your opinion of this country is likely to follow suit.
But this is a dangerous way of thinking when we consider the ramifications of “not liking” an entire country. If I say, “I don’t like France,” what does that mean for my attitude towards French people? Am I not putting up a negative point for each and every one of the 66 million people that live in France? Could travel be contributing to prejudice? Frequently in conversations amongst travelers you hear things such as “The Germans are…Brazilians are…Canadians are like….”
While I accept there are cultural similarities that can lead to broad understandings of how people perform life, making sweeping generalizations like this should be avoided and really just points out how little you know about the country you are discussing. If we spent more time in these places, we would be saying things like, “German culture tends to value punctuality, but I know people who show up late for things all the time, so I don’t think it’s a steadfast rule.” This is perhaps too long and nuanced for most casual conversations, but we shouldn’t discredit its validity just because it’s a mouthful.
All of this is to try and set up my explanation as to why being robbed in Laos has nothing to do with my view of the country. We left for a few-day motorcycle trip and left some cash in our backpacks at the guesthouse where we had stayed. Someone came in, either in front of or behind the back of the man who owned the guest house, opened our bags and took the cash. This was devastating as we were traveling on a tight budget and the $150 we had stashed away was meant to last us quite some time.
But I refuse to let this moment affect my opinion of this country and the people inside it. Was it a bad experience? Sure. But, are all Laotians thieves? Of course not! Is Laos a “dangerous” country? Of course not! If all it took to be defined a dangerous country was the existence of thieves, could there exist any such thing as a “safe” country?
In many ways, I don’t blame the person for robbing me. Westerners go to these countries and flaunt their money around pretending like we play on an even playing field and that all they are doing is expressing the freedom their hard work affords them. This would drive me insane, and I can see why this would push some to simply take from those who do not need. This is not to justify theft, but rather to contextualize what happened to me. Doing this allows me to remember that this was an isolated incident that does not merit extrapolation to the rest of the population.
Inhuman Moment #3: Tossed Out of Prague
Anyone who has had the chance to visit the capital of the Czech Republic probably fell in love. The architecture, the medieval charm and the untouched landmarks such as the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle bring you back to a more glorious age and transport you to another world.
My girlfriend and I spent about five months there living and working, but by the end of our time there, we couldn’t wait to leave and will probably never return. Why? For many reasons, but to sum up: it is a cold, cold place. And I am not referring to just the weather, but rather a culture and manner of social interaction that simply does not mix well with the person I am. I did not feel welcome there, not for one second. There are reasons why, but let me first give you an example.
It was March, so about a year ago. I was in the middle of doing an intensive teaching course and didn’t have much free time. However, one Sunday afternoon I finished up my work, so my girlfriend and I went out for a walk (in sub-zero temperatures) and ended up at a local bar not too far from our house. It was a small place that was clearly not geared towards tourists, but we thought, “a bar is a bar, right?”
So, we went in, ordered a beer and then went and sat in the corner out of everyone’s way to enjoy a beverage and chat. After our first beer, we decided to have one more before heading back to the house for dinner and to relax before the week was to start up again. I approached the lady at the bar and asked for two more beers. At this point, I had learned to the word for beer in Czech, but I likely ordered in English since the number “two” is almost impossible to pronounce.
“Finished,” she responded to my order.
“Sorry?” I replied.
“Finished, no more,” she said once again.
I looked around and saw a few people in the bar, but when I looked back at her she repeated “finished” once more. Message received. The bar is closing, so she’s not serving any more beer. No problem, I thought, we’ll head home.
After this interchange, I made my way back over to our table and explained to Aitana what had happened. We acknowledged that it was probably time to head home anyway, but we wanted to purchase a bag of potato chips from behind the bar as a snack for the way home—likely the culprit of the standard half-liter beer sizes in the Czech Republic. Again, I approached the bartender and this time I simply pointed to the chips and said, “Chips, please?” while reaching into my pocket for the money.
“No! Finished! Finished!” she said, but this time with a rather frustrated, almost desperate tone.
At this I was pretty taken aback. I assumed she must be trying to close the bar almost immediately and wanted everyone out. I tried again to explain we would be taking the chips with us, but she wanted nothing of it. So, we shrugged and made towards the door, but before we left, we noticed she had started pouring more beers for the others still sitting in the bar. Then, as we walked out, a few people entered, and we noticed that the sign on the door said they were open until 10 pm. It was only 5:30!
She had thrown us out!
We were appalled. Yes, we didn’t speak the language, but we bothered no one and had done nothing. Simply for being foreign, we had been thrown out of the bar. I had never experienced anything like this before in my life. This happened shortly after we arrived, but it occurred several more times during our five months in the Czech capital.
If there is one takeaway from life in Prague: foreigners, generally speaking, are not wanted. This is somewhat contradictory because the entire city moves with foreigners. Multinational companies use it for their headquarters because of its central location and lower labor costs, and tourism has taken over the entire central part of the city. However, everyday people do not want this, and they make it known.
This attitude, plus my life situation during my time in Prague, is what made me want to get out of there as fast as I could and is why I will likely never go back.
For me, to hate Prague and the people who live there would be very easy. But, if you know anything about me, I am not about doing what is easy. I’m not going to try and sugarcoat the treatment I experienced or the sensation I got from my time there, but instead, I am going to try and understand why this happened.
First, foreigners really are ruining Prague. They are drawn to the city because of its charm and because it’s cheap, and this leads to people going there to get really drunk for less money and to stomp around the city like they own it. But even those who do not engage in this type of behavior are having a larger effect than they might know. Lower prices at hotels and less-expensive food seem great, but consider that wages for service workers in Prague are dreadfully low and come with absurd hours. A typical waiter at a busy tourist restaurant in Prague will work from 8 am to midnight four times a week, twice a month and the same shift twice a week during two weeks in a month. Maybe doesn’t sound so bad since during two weeks you have five days off, but 16-hour shifts are enough to make anyone bitter, and when you add on top the fact that the typical salary is about $500-600 a month, it makes sense why foreigners aren’t greeted with a warm welcome.
This, plus the added stress that things like Air BnB and foreign capital have on inflation and property rates, should help to shed some light on why there is tension amongst these groups of people.
One might look at this and compare these attitudes to the anti-globalization movements we are seeing manifest themselves through Brexit and Trumps’s election, and this may be true. But instead of automatically hating, let’s take a moment to understand so we can begin to find a way out. Maybe if those who visited Prague left tips or if it wasn’t a drunken playground for Europe’s middle class, attitudes might be more warm and welcoming. I don’t know, all I am saying is that pointing fingers and placing blame gets us nowhere and that to get along in this world, we all need to be aware of how our actions affect others.
Context is Everything
The purpose of me telling you these stories is to try and illustrate some key moments in my life that have reminded me that while we must honor simplicity and the small things, this is not a justification for doing what is easy.
Everything has a context and everything has a reason. I look at those who supported Trump and continue to do so. Many point to these individuals and call them racists, bigots or fear-mongers, and in many ways they are. Let’s be real, supporting Trump means you are at least “okay” with bigotry, racism and sexism, even if you yourself don’t act in this way. However, let’s not use this to simply write these people off. Let’s take a moment to set the context.
Income inequality is a real thing and is a defining characteristic of societies around the globe. Now, after decades of policies favoring big business and financial institutions, a pillar of American life, the middle class and economic mobility, is crumbling to the ground. When the world appears to be falling apart around you, fear and hatred are bound to rear their ugly heads as people look for someone to blame. Unfortunately, the easiest ones to blame are those that are different. For the case of the white, aging population of the US, Mexican immigrants and Muslims fit this profile nicely and are making excellent scapegoats. Trump saw this, found a rhetoric that rang true to those most vulnerable to this shocking breakdown of the country’s economic order and used it to win an election and welcome in what could be the most terrifying presidency in the history of the US.
So, as the world seems to become darker and darker and allows more and more hate, I ask that we take a step back and that we set the context to try to understand. Those of us with open minds and with the perspective to understand what is going on in the world around us are armed with the ability to forgive, so instead of fighting a wrong with a wrong, let us take the high ground, determine the real enemy and spend all of our energy fighting it. Let us find the things that drive us apart and work on fixing them so that they can no longer have this power—so that they can no longer whitewash our natural human desire to do right by those around us
I ask that we start to consider income inequality as one of these drivers and that we start to consider what we might need to do to tackle this issue. Up until this point in time, all we have come up with to help improve the world is more of the same. More growth, more environmental destruction, more competition and more waste. On the sidelines, we address things like gender and racial equality, health care, poverty reduction, etc., but only when funds are available, and there is political capital to spare. However, if we look to what is going on around us, we can see the consequences of this line of thinking, and I ask that we start looking for another way. This will not be the last time I touch upon this idea—I have the feeling this is what will guide my life’s work—but I hope I have been able to convey how urgent this matter is.
If you are in favor of taking the high road and think that listening, understanding and communicating clearly can bring us to a better world, please subscribe to the blog and share this post. I am doing this because I know I am not alone and because I know that many of us have something valuable and worthwhile to say. The next step is to find people to listen. From there, words can turn into actions and we can truly make the world a better place.