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Travelers' Debt To Strangers - With A Free Essay Review
Earth is shared by innumerable cultures. Many differ from one another so much so that they find coexistence inconceivable. Despite the fact that most people spend each day surrounded by similar faces, their actions can have an effect on those living on the opposite side of the world. Historically, humans are inherently self-destructive beings. What’s more is that their behaviors don’t only affect their neighbors and themselves, but, conceivably, can have an effect the entire population. Humanitarianism is also an intrinsic part of human behavior: second-hand shops are set up to make used clothing more easily accessible to those with lower income; soup kitchens and food banks take donations and volunteers to feed the homeless; numerous charities have been set up worldwide to aid Third World nations. Many can give with little or no hesitation. The giving that may stimulate reluctance and require additional effort are the intangible ways in which one can help another. Moreover, one can certainly help simply by consciously deciding not do something: By choosing not to litter, for example, one leaves cleaner streets for pedestrians and those who, unfortunately, sleep on them; by choosing to reduce one’s carbon footprint, one chooses not to melt the Arctic homes of the Inuit; and by choosing not to travel as obtuse tourists, but as virtuous multiculturalist with reasonable sensitivity to others, one chooses to assist in disintegrating barriers of coexistence. In order to determine how their—acceptable—behaviors affect others, ethical travelers must consider what they owe to strangers.
In his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah explores a cosmopolitan theory (from Robert Sibley) which essentially states that all people are one another’s global neighbors:
Cosmopolitan moral judgment requires us to feel about everyone in the world what we feel about our literal neighbors (a strength of feeling that is perhaps exaggerated by the suggestion that for them, at least we would risk our lives). We can’t be intimate with billions; ergo, we can’t make the cosmopolitan judgment…to say that we have obligations to strangers isn’t to demand that they have the same grip on our sympathies as our nearest and dearest. We’d better start with the recognition that they don’t. (157‒158)
Indeed, by recognizing that their behavior affects others—and learning precisely how that behavior affects others—travelers are more inclined to decent travel behavior. By the same token, they must be reasonable: The perfect multiculturalist cannot exist— perfection does not exist—and to attempt to reach that level of multiculturalism is futile and will only result in overexertion. But if travelers view inhabitants of a foreign land as they see their loved ones and neighbors, they will be inclined to behave in a manner that does that person no harm. The Golden Rule which states, “Do unto others as you would have done to you,” is therefore pertinent to travel.
So travelers owe something to strangers because their presence affects them. But what exactly do they owe? To begin with, as a human being, one should acknowledge that every human being matters. This includes those that one will never see. Next, as a traveler, one must recognize oneself as a foreigner in a foreign land, instead of a visitor surrounded by foreigners. This thought process inspires travelers to respect the customs of the land that they temporarily inhabit. Aspects of a culture such as accepted concepts and traditions that take place in that land, no matter how foreign they are, should be accepted for the time being. For when travelers depart from their homes and journey to foreign lands they become foreigners surrounded by natives. Running in The Family, Michael Ondaatje’s poetic blend of (family) memoir, fiction, and travelogue, is an excellent example of avoiding the tendency, in travel writing, to (mis)represent an entire group. Part of this was due to the fact the book recounts Ondaatje’s cherished family history. He also recognized that since he has separated himself from Sri Lanka, he is “the foreigner. [He is] the prodigal the son who hates the foreigner” (79).
Ondaatje was mindful of the fact that strangers aren’t only affected by physical acts. Travel writers—though the substance of their work may be done at home—have a powerful involvement with the foreign lands they visit, as their work requires (among other things) plot, characterization, and deep reflection. This means an assessment of that culture. This reflection is sent out to the people at home and therefore features comparisons with their native land. Thus travel writers lack the obligation to provide a favorable image of their subjects; additionally, travel writers are notorious for imposing their ethnocentric judgments into their work. This is part of the critique of Debra Lisle—in her book The Global Politics of Contemporary Travel Writing—who is reproachful of travel writers. She understands that while not all contemporary travel writers are fully aware of the consequences of their work—this unawareness is a true danger as it makes it more difficult for them to change—they do, however, play an active role in the perpetuation and reproduction of what she refers to as discursive hegemony. Her desire is not for travel writing to cease, but to cease as it currently exists. Lisle’s concern is that travel writers have the potential to do good:
It seems, then, that travel writing is faced with a profound opportunity: to successfully refute the charge that they are only ‘superficial’ texts that peddle the acceptable face of a continuing colonial mindset, travelogues must acknowledge, address and engage more explicitly with debates over cultural difference… by engaging directly with the difficult issues of cultural difference, travel writing has the opportunity to comment on, shape and intervene in the ‘serious’ events of global politics. (278)
But travel writers have long taken the opposite approach, and most contemporary travel writers follow the denigrating patterns of their forerunners. One of the chief purposes of travel writing is to tell others what to expect if they plan to travel to a particular place (or provide an image for those who cannot reach that place). But, the label of “nonfiction” motivates travel writers to justify their written observations as purely honest, objective work. In reality, their truths are quite regularly blended with fiction to provide an often judgmental account of the places they visit. Travel writing requires an authoritative voice which the author uses to engage, sympathetically, with readers. Just as travelers owe something to strangers, travel writers have an obligation as well. Theirs is a dual obligation. First, they must act as ethical travelers, as discussed above. The subsequent obligation lies within their work. When travel writers sit down to document their experiences for their intended audience, they insert—whether by convention or utter disregard for others—their narcissistic, disparaging, and (frankly) frequently racist views. In “A Girl’s Guide to Saudi Arabia” American columnist Maureen Dowd misconstrues the idiosyncrasies of Islam in Saudi Arabia as something to be despised. This creates a further rift between two nations that are already divided.
A major defect of travel writing is the trend of using representation as presentation. Travel writers should avoid representing an entire culture; it is erroneous to believe that one can represent a culture one is not a part of (I am unsure if one should be able to represent one’s own culture, and if one must, one should represent cautiously). If someone is an alcoholic, this does not necessarily mean that that person’s family and friends are alcoholics. Similarly, a lazy, disrespectful hotel desk clerk in Tokyo is not a proper indication that all Japanese are slothful and rude. If travel writers feel that it is absolutely necessary, they should represent a specific person(s) from a culture and avoid using that person to present the entire culture. American author Mischa Berlinski, in his travel essay “Venance Lafrance Is Not Dead,” avoids the sweeping (over)generalizations—commonly found in the work of his counterparts—of the Haitians by connecting with one particular boy in Haiti. In an epigraph of the Men’s Journal magazine, Berlinski indicated that this adolescent Haitian, Venance Lafrance, stood out to him as an individual: “The earthquake in Haiti interrupted my young friend’s life in progress, as it interrupted the lives of all of us in Port-au-Prince. It tore down a city that, for all its hardships, was the only hope for millions. In the weeks after, no one knew what to expect next. Venance Lafrance offered a clue.” The story moves along in such a way as to follow a single Haitian (Venance Lafrance—a new hope for millions), characterizing a few others along the way, but Berlinski avoids characterizing—hence avoiding generalizing—Haitians as a whole.
Forming beliefs is a healthy and natural part of human nature. As a result travelers will inevitably struggle with accepting traditions that surround them. Travelers should remain open to a transformation in their beliefs. Furthermore, there is a (fine) line between holding on to one’s beliefs and passing judgments. Travel becomes unjust when one does not consider one’s impact on a foreign society. When one travels to another country, one should attempt to embrace that culture. One encounters more strangers in one’s daily world than otherwise; during travel, conversely, one is completely surrounded by strangers. The people are strangers on two levels: They are literal strangers—unknown peoples; they are cultural strangers. Cultural strangers may contrast so starkly from a traveler that demystification can prove to be an arduous, nearly impossible task. However, so matter how much a traveler struggles to understand (their) strangers, they must recognize that they are encountering other human beings. All human beings, like themselves, are important—no less important than their own neighbors. They owe them the care and respect that they would show anyone at home.
When I began reading your essay, I stopped right away to make this note: ‘It has always seemed to me that it is not the cultures that differ greatly from each other that “find coexistence inconceivable” but rather, often, those that differ from each other only slightly (e.g., where the difference is a matter of pigmentation, or where it is a matter of the particular subsection of a religious sect to which one belongs).’ Making that note was a waste of time really because the point you were making and with which I was disagreeing was quickly dropped by you to make another point, and then another, and so by the time I reached the end of the paragraph, I would have struggled to know what you were intending to write about were it not for the paragraph’s last sentence. I think you need to take a less meandering approach to the task of arriving at the point. Talking, for example, about second hand clothes shops in the introduction to an essay about travel is really just a distraction.
The second paragraph also begins with what appears to be a distraction. You quote a long passage from a book about ethics without clarifying how it is relevant to your discussion about travellers. The significance of the quoted passage itself is not explained at all, and the passage appears, if anything, to be at odds with the point you want to make. The passage says we ought to “start with the recognition that ... strangers ... [don’t] have the same grip on our sympathies” as our neighbors. What does that have to do with your point that travellers need to recognize how “their behavior affects others”? What would make sense here, I think, would be to present the quotation as an example of the difficulty facing the would-be ethical traveler. I think, by the way, the golden rule that is really relevant to what you are discussing in this paragraph is “Love your neighbor as yourself.” In Leviticus this injunction was really just about the need to love one’s own people. After it reappears in Mark, in the Christian tradition it became for some time interpreted as an injunction to love everyone - the kind of universal philanthropy with writers like Hegel and Freud found objectionable, and which seems to appear again in this “cosmopolitan ethics.”
The next paragraph has some difficulty integrating its reference to Ondaatje’s work into your discussion. You begin the paragraph by announcing a specific topic (what does the traveller owe?) but you don’t return to that topic or clarify how Ondaatje’s work directly relates to it. In other words, you don’t wrap up the paragraph, which therefore seems open-ended. Generally, it’s considered good writing practice for a paragraph to be a complete representation of a single idea or topic.
Over the course of the next two paragraphs, you deal with travel writing. I think these paragraphs are pretty good, but you need to explain what you think “discursive hegemony” is, and you need, I think, to do more than simply offer Maureen Dowd as an example of a travel writer who is in some way guilty of misrepresentation after referring to the “narcissistic, disparaging, and ... racist views” of travel writers. I think you need an actual example or two of racist or disparaging commentary, and if you want to offer poor Dowd as such an example, you need to quote her (you need to be minimally fair, in other words, or you may end up being guilty of the crime you condemn).
You move on next to the problem of generalizing. This paragraph too is pretty solid. You do need a transition to the paragraph. You’ve just been talking about misrepresenting cultures, and generalization is one way of generating misrepresentations, so it ought to be fairly easy to create a simple transition.
I’m going to have to stop there. Generally, I think you write well. You certainly write sentences very well, and if you still need to work on things like paragraph and essay organization, and the appropriate way to incorporate evidence or quotations, the good news is that that is the (relatively) easy part.