Finding Nemo

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Why Travel, Part 2: Human Conflict

Travel Zen in Guilin
In part I of this multi-part series on Why Travel?, we explored the idea of what it means to Travel, and hinted at its mysterious ability to be a wonderful transformative experience. And also poked some fun at how one’s perspective changes (for better or worse) as one travels for longer and longer periods.

In future posts, I will muse on why traveling is very akin to a religious experience and even can give tantalizing glimpses of the meaning of life itself.

But before we get into themes of unification, I need to address something that instead tears our world apart. Today in part II, we discuss what some call "evil": the nature of human conflict. We see the global effects nonstop in the news, in the form of battling religious ideologies, bickering political parties, racial tension, up to the penultimate cause of mass human suffering: war.

Chechnya, 1996. This happened only 17 years ago, when I was in college.
But it also consumes our personal lives on very small scales. When I surf in the waves, I have witnessed at certain breaks the sight of someone on a stand-up paddle board sending regular surfers into a blinding rage. One time I saw a stand-up paddler, who has every right to access the public resource of the ocean as much as any surfer, get tackled off his board and beaten in the water for simply belonging to the wrong group. He had done nothing wrong. He had not even attempted to catch a wave. He had simply paddled out to the line-up. But it didn't matter: some of the other surfers instantly classified him as an “other”, an enemy. And that was all it took for him to get pummeled and nearly drowned.

There is a popular SUP hat that says: "Blame Laird"

My favorite example of this powerful human tendency to form strong bonds within a group, while simultaneously developing anger towards those outside the group, is the recent South Park episode, Goths vs Emos. The two clubs hate each other with a passion, with no recognition that to an external observer they look and behave identically. It is only members of these nearly identical sub-groups that can tell the slight differences, and it is these “small differences” that are the cause of enormous passion and conflict. I will come back to the idea of the small difference, which is an important one. (It was a root cause of the genocide in Rwanda.)

But first, I want to step back and re-introduce a powerful idea from the book Evolution for Everyone by David Sloan Wilson (brought to my attention by my brother’s fascinating all-things-science blog, Praxtime). The idea is this: all groups, surfers, goths, races, religions, nations, and even the Kardashians, can be thought of as “tribes.” We have a genetic urge to join Tribes, which provide a sense of belonging and identity to individuals. But more importantly, in the ancient world being a member of a tribe provided shelter and protection from the harsh environment, predators, and the most dangerous thing out there: other tribes. The idea of group selection mandates that evolution favored the tribes that could better organize, defend, and conquer other tribes. Yes, that's right, we have been genetically selected to be good at killing one another. One could even argue this makes us inherently evil. This behavior has been well documented in Jane Goodall's famous studies of one of our closet living relatives, the chimpanzee (we share 99% of the same DNA), where warring groups commit mass murder of other tribes.

Kiteboarding: clearly the next step in our evolution is flight!

When one steps back and looks at human history, one can easily view it as an never-ending sequence of conflict. What is the Old Testament if not a documentary of one tribe killing and conquering many other tribes (only to get destroyed by yet another tribe)? War was how the Roman Empire was founded, Islam spread throughout the Middle East, and how the United States itself was created.

Is it such a surprise, then, that even in this modern era we have living victims of the Holocaust, never-ending conflict in Israel/Palestine, and the threat of nuclear war itself still hanging over the world? We were programmed to fight, to compete as tribes, and to hate the "other." The other can be obvious: a different skin color, another religion. But it can also be so subtle as to be nearly non-existant! In the Rwandan genocide, the conflict is generally described as a massacre by Hutus of Tutsis. But research has shown that in fact the "Hutus" and "Tutsis" were both of the same tribal lineage. There was absolutely no way to distinguish between them except for subtle changes in dress and behavior. People will find differences, a reason to hate the "other", even when none objectively exist.

And I cannot help but think of my own life. The idea of the "other" being bad comes about from one thing: ignorance. Ignorance that is reinforced, distorted, and made stronger by other people within your own group. Harmless things such as how I identify with my beloved Ohio State Buckeyes and think other teams stink. How when I finally moved to California and met other transplants, we all patted ourselves on the back and looked down on all those left behind in "fly-over" country. And more harmful things, such as how Americans joke about the spineless French, or the humorless Germans, or the greedy Chinese. And of course, they love to call us "stupid Americans."

So we return full circle to the root of the problem: the infallible belief that your tribe is somehow superior to the others.

What, then, is the solution? One can read books on other cultures, or be forced to mingle with "others" during college (which is one of the reasons it is such a powerful tool for opening the mind). But there is nothing quite so shocking and revelatory as being swallowed within another culture. Seeing them in person eat, work, play with their children, sing songs, dance, cry, laugh. Seeing them as not the "other", but as fellow human beings.

The famously pure clean air of Beijing
My first impression of the Chinese was not a good one. I had flown through Beijing, where the air was so dirty the control tower was barely visible through the smoke. The airport security was rude, yelling at me and others in line. I was pushed around by mobs trying to buy tickets or board trains. An old lady even hulked up a loogie and nearly hit my shoe with it when she spat. I was constantly harassed for pictures and called a "hairy monkey" for my long hair and beard. Chinese even sounds harsh, with the sharp tones built into the language itself. And so it was, after my first week in China, that I found myself in a bar in the town of Lijiang, wondering how much longer I could take of these people. And that was when I found myself next to a table of drunken Chinese businessman. They had buckets of Buds, which were outrageously expensive (they were an import), mounds of delicious food, and were clearly out to raise hell. When they saw a foreigner, a laowai in their bar, what did they do?

They waved their arms at me, escorting me to sit down with them. Buds were placed in front of me, plates of of food, and soon we were introducing ourselves with pointing fingers and broken attempts at Chinglish. They showed me how to pound blocks of wood to show applause for the dancers on stage, taught me some songs, and even managed to convince a group of girls to sit down with us. One of the older men, with a big grin, clearly indicated that I should try to flirt more and get some kind of ... action. Somehow, they managed to get me up on stage to see if an American could out-chug a Chinese man. (I couldn't, much to the delight of the crowd.) By the end of the night, we were arm-in-arm, walking down the street to their hotel, singing and slapping each other on the backs. They hadn't let me pay a single kaui for the entire night.

One night in Lijiang. Somehow I ended up on stage in a beer-chugging contest
That next morning, the Chinese faces looked different to me. Instead of rude, impassive faces, I saw worried, hard-working people, stuck under an autocratic regime, uncertain about their future. And when another old lady spat out a big loogie, I smiled. What's so wrong about that anyway? Health-wise, it's better than swallowing. Maybe we were one the ones doing it wrong!

Seeing the "other" first-hand, the visual imprint of African girls in Tanzania joyfully dancing, the sounds of the bells of flowing Balinese dancers, the begging dirty desperate urchins of Delhi or Manila's slums, the Japanese college kids in Manga-style clothes partying, the sublime interior of the mystical Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the wonderful flavors of fresh Falafal off the streets of Aqaba, watching protesters face death to find democracy in Tahrir Square in Egypt .... these experiences shatter the barriers we erect in our minds of tribe. Of the other. Of the smugness that somehow my group, my religion, my nation is better than yours.

Go go Izakaya!! One Dumb Bum partying with the Anime crowd in Shinjuku
I firmly believe that if everyone in the world was given the opportunity to travel the world for a year there would be no more war. How could there be? How could a dictator rouse masses to chant "Death to America!" when everyone in the crowd had a chance to milk a cow in Ohio and learn the Texas 2-step? How could a white supremacist want to kill black people after spending a week lounging on a beach in Belize with Rastafarians smoking ganja and learning how to "go slow"? And I truly believe that even Palestinians and Israelis would be able to find common ground if, like brothers who fought their entire lives as children, they were able to spend some time apart, see the world, mature, and come home with a fresh set of eyes.

There are other reasons travel is an "inherent good." When it comes to realizing that we all live on Spaceship Earth, and that we are destroying it during this very generation, nothing is more shocking and convincing that seeing it with your own eyes. I have watched climate change at work in the melting glaciers of Nepal and Kilimanjaro, and the dying acidifying reefs of Indonesia. I have seen the last of the wild Orangutans in Northern Sumatra, as they battle to survive a forest being burned for palm oil plantations. I have seen Chinese smog so thick that is is unbreathable. How can one deny climate change when they are a 1st-hand witness? How can one not be motivated to action when one walks across the mighty Khumbu Glacier, fed by Mount Everest itself, and finds it reduced to a melted pile of boulders?

The Rongbuk Glacier, fed from Everest, 88 years apart
Thinking of yourself as part of a tribe is not necessarily a bad thing. Just as humans are group-selected to hurt the "other", we are also programmed to help the "in-group." We are capable of incredible generosity, of service, and even self-sacrifice to our close friends and family. Thus, although we are programmed to be evil and fight "the other," we are also programmed to be good to those within our group! The trick then, is this: you must expand your notion of "tribe" to all of humanity. The only way to do this is to open the blinds in your mind that you are not even aware of; to see the other nations, peoples, and races as they see themselves. To walk with them, eat with them, laugh with them, dance with them. That is when you achieve the realization, in a deep, visceral way that cannot be obtained from a book or movie, that we are all in the one tribe of human beings.

It is this transformation, this awakening, that long-term travel can make possible.

An odd thing happened to many astronauts who returned from space. When they looked back and gazed upon the Earth, suspended in the blackness of the void, they encountered a view that forever altered their idea of humanity. It was coined the "Overview Effect."

The Overview Effect: if you haven't seen this short film, you must watch it.

It is this idea of unity, of being one with all other people, of being one with all living things, that is the very definition of an enlightened being. And this is the subject of my next post.




  2. The first astronauts had alcohol problems and depression afterwards but now the space agencies have better support for them. I was reading a Chris Hadfield article and was surprised by that, since they are supposed to have nerves of steel.

    I'm not supposed to notice things (hmm can't sign in with account - guess I.T. doesn't want me on blogs right now) but I've noticed that Chinese speaking in English and Chinese sound like two different personalities. (But that could be due to audience, not -.) This is cultural information where I gain knowledge and become more adaptive to my world, not a shout of Jericho and all is one. But your way is more pleasant.


  3. One more link and then I'm seriously putting nose back to the grindstone, "Why Russians Are Not Smiling (2011)"


  4. You asked for some writing feedback. I'll split it into 3 parts.

    1. Overall. Really liked this post. You hit your points and explained something I wasn't sure about. Why you like to travel put into a larger context. With that said, I was a bit confused on what journalists call the lede, your single key point. Not sure if the lede is travel beats tribalism for greater society, travel makes you personally beat tribalism, or the last part about overview of earth and saving the planet. You could have broken this out into multiple posts, or found a version of the lede that held them more tightly together. But a nitpick.

    2. Writing style. Again, liked it. But felt you hit some of your points repetitively at times. For example the south park goths section could have been cut, since your history examples are stronger and then you have your China experience which is also great. One trick here which I like is a) write a quick outline, b) write your post, c) do what's called a reverse outline after the fact. A reverse outline is an outline of what you actually wound up writing. This helps you cut repetition. Sometimes the reverse outline also makes you realize that your lede turned out different than the one you started with. At that point you sometimes (if you have the energy) rewrite. In fact the most common flaw in writing is to "bury the lede". For me this happens because the lede turns out different than what I thought it was at the outset. If nothing else, I now proofread to make sure I know what the lede is in the finished post. Half the time it's mutated while writing and catching this helps when you edit, assuming you have the energy for it. Here's a link on reverse outline

    3. Homework. The foundational thinker with an evolutionary slant on morality and tribalism, and attempting to expand your tribe to encompass the larger world is Peter Singer. In particular his 1983 book The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress. I actually found it not as good as I hoped, but it's worth reading and citing. I think people like David Sloan Wilson have taken that idea and run with it further. In fact, Singer is probably best known not for this book, but for a later book where he expands the "circle" to include animals. So he's best known as an animal rights activist. Again, think you'll nod your head if you read him.

    Anyway, enjoyed the post. Take the reaction for what it is, my own narrow, tribal response.

    1. Wow excellent feedback Nathan thank you. You know i do like peter singers work and have read some of it but was turned off by his extension of consciousness to all living things. But yes my next post will get into this mystical stuff . Good tip on lede

  5. Agree with Nathan's points....I felt that the post started out with tribalism and mutated into save the planet and you perhaps didn't realize it.

    Glad to see you keep pushing forward on the blog.

  6. Part 1 of 2 (due to a limitation on allowed comment size) It's times like this I wish I were more ignorant, for I could give your post a thumbs up and move about my evening. But the boldness of your promise in part I, “I am about to attempt to explain the human condition, the nature of good and evil, and the meaning of life and death itself” largely precludes that.

    IMO, more travel would not eliminate war, for you are wrong on the true primary cause. Your post implies the primary cause is us, the common man, who hates our neighbors for no good reason and likes war, since it is in our DNA. If only this were as bad as blaming an addiction on one’s genes instead of a lack of will power. It’s far worse.

    Off hand, I don’t know the name of the logical error you made, I guess correlation = causation, but you attribute the end macroscopic effects to unimportant microscopic agents. It is like blaming bullets instead of criminals. The easiest way for me to show what is mostly wrong with the part of your post discussing the main cause of war is to ask how many pro-war politicians have ever gotten legally elected by the true majority? Not too many, IMO. I can’t think of many. Can you? What I see is politicians getting elected the opposite, pro-peace platform, but mysteriously going to war anyway after moving to office. That’s not just common, it seems to be a universal truth. Nixon was a classic example, getting elected to end the present war (viet nam) peacefully, only to keep us there and start new ones, many of which weren’t uncovered for years and which you probably don’t know about even today. Him giving his iconic peace/victory sign just shows how big the disconnect is. This data seems largely incompatible with your post, which places the blame for wars not only on the wrong entity, but an entity so conveniently distributed it cannot realistically be held accountable.

  7. No, IMO, it isn’t anonymous genes. And it isn't me. Please. The common people I know already love their neighbors. They already hate war. The question an intelligent person aware of this fact must ask at some point in their lives is as follows: if most people around the world hate war, why are there so many wars? Why does America especially seem to go to war constantly?

    A logical conclusion I can think of is that the common people aren’t really in power at all. A force of evil you promised to expose but conveniently omitted is. Within the field of your post, we can call it what Eisenhower did: the military industrial complex. It owns you, me, and us all. Every cell in our bodies.

    How? I don’t know. That’s the big question. But I have theories. Perhaps the first day in office, they tell a newly elected president to sit back and watch a nice albeit short movie. They give him or her a bag of popcorn with extra butter and salt. What film is it? The zapruder film. They explain how they’d be happy to make a sequel starring the new president if their orders aren’t followed to the letter. That’s even how you got your $$ to travel, working for a defense contractor. A little ironic. (Are you one of them, just playing dumb?) And can you think of a single member of your tribe who has amassed a good nice chunk of money but didn’t get it from an entity tied into the vast military industrial complex? I can’t, but it depends how you define “tied.”

    According to your post, violence is wanted, instead of imposed. You got it backwards, IMO. And are you really so naive to think it is by popular demand that that the top games are first person shooters involving guns, killing, and destruction? (That there isn’t any best-selling computer adventure game?) That our sports events have us hate and detest the nearby school in venues like homecoming games? That most of the top blockbuster movies feature guns, killing, and destruction? That the super bowls are kicked off with military aircraft flying overhead? Despite all this, most of us still love each other, because that’s our true DNA. It overpowers the forces of evil which by it’s glaring omission your post is arguably a part of.

    Have you learned nothing from your travels to know not to blame those who you met for the biggest evils of this world? You say that after the Chinese strangers welcomed you at the bar, *you* could no longer hate *them*. But who made the first move? *Those Chinese probably never visited the USA.* They already welcomed you. They don’t hate us. They never did! Can’t you see that?

    Does it matter? Yes. Completely. If you are right, we’re screwed. And isn’t that exactly what they’d want us to think? Since, from your view, our DNA is ultimately to blame, sponsoring youth travel would be like canoeing upstream. Might help, doesn’t hurt, and a reason to travel, which was a point of your post I agree with. But remember, the common people *already* hate war and want world peace. That’s really not the main problem; IMO, you are 90% wrong. But, if Eisenhower was right, we can do specific things to bring about world peace. Hint: for starters, we could legislatively overturn the decision summarized by thiscartoon.

    1. "Jonathan Swift: "Most sorts of diversion in men, children, and other animals, is an imitation of fighting." (1704, source.)

      Your post and writing style only serves to reinforce his point. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

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    3. I apologize in advance for going off topic to respond to Saber's off-topic critique of my comment, but, Saber, I would have thought that both Nemo's post and my original two-part comment were directed to solving the peace/war problem. So I would have thought it was NOT fighting. Saber, what, exactly, about my style makes you think that? Can you give an example?

      Yes, hypothetically I could have fully agreed with Nemo, but then, why would I post something so long? Indeed, to have cleanly avoided your alleged non-criticism, my comments would have had to been in full agreement with Nemo's post. Anything else is confrontational, at least to some extent. And since information is surprise (Shannon's law), such a “butt-kiss comment” would have had little information, and only some due to my well known unique outlook and extreme creativity. (Yes, I tend to disagree with more opinions than most.) Also, my comment was long, so to have cleanly avoided your "critique", it would have been a big waste of space, like many of the comments on blogs merely agreeing with what was already said.

      As best I can tell, your “critique” universally applies to all useful (i.e., non-redundant) comments on blogs. It just follows from Shannon's law. So, again, Saber, might I ask why, exactly, you are bringing it out here?

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