What Did Mark Twain Know About Travel Anyway?

Stielers_Handatlas_1891_05

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness…,” wrote Mark Twain in Innocents Abroad. “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime”.

But if he were right, world leaders – who travel more than most – would never push insular, divisive, mean-spirited agendas at home. There would not, in any case, be much support for them in the age of mass tourism. History’s repressive regimes would have collapsed as soon as their rulers attended their first international summit and their diplomats got their first postings. Colonial types would have been well-known for their enlightened views.

He clearly overstated his case.

Just as you can understand how an aeroplane works without learning to fly, you can be sympathetic to the people of other nations without going there. Even someone vegetating in a little corner of the earth can work out that people are all the same at bottom. You can be tolerant and broad-minded without ever leaving your hometown. And you can be bigoted and narrow-minded after seeing the world.

They change their sky, not their soul, those who rush across the sea,” reckoned Horace. A racist will not stop being a racist in a country in which he is in a minority, any more than a liberal will stop being a liberal in a country whose dissenters are taken out and shot. Travellers carry their ideological baggage with them. (It is treated as part of their hand luggage.)

People hear what they want to hear, see what they want to see, fasten on things which fit with their worldview, dismiss the things which challenge it. If they have it in their heads that foreigners smell, they will notice the one who does and ignore the many who do not.

The world, for some, is one big funfair and the people in it are performers there to entertain the tourists. They cannot, or will not, see the locals they meet as people just like them, with jobs and families and social lives, and passions and worries and prejudices. It annoys them intensely when they come across someone who does not speak English, or kowtow to customers, or conspicuously hurry when going about his business. Every overseas trip reinforces their prejudices, proves – in their minds – that foreigners are rude or lazy or truculent, if not all of those things and more.

But, for those who are open to new ideas, whose minds are not defended by entrenched views, travel is as good a way as any to learn about other cultures, their own, themselves and people as a whole. It is a chance to debunk the lazy, and hysterical, everyday stereotypes of nations, regions, races and religions. It is, as well, a chance to see things back home from an outsider’s perspective. The customs, the practices and ideologies you take for granted seem a lot less self-evident when you find that the rest of the world does things differently. To this extent, Twain was clearly right.

© Richard Senior 2015

Photo: Adolf Stieler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

2 thoughts on “What Did Mark Twain Know About Travel Anyway?

  1. I completely agree with this sentiment! I had recently noticed one of my well-traveled friends boasting on their Facebook that travel is “essential” to understanding the world. I do not think that a person needs to see the world first hand in order to have an open mind. Being able to see the world is a privilege and if you are lucky enough to enjoy that privilege by all means travel! But in my life I have met some wonderful, open hearted people who had barely moved 40 miles outside of the place they were born.

    Personally, I am lucky enough to have traveled quite a bit but I do not discount those who have never left their hometown.

    • Thank you. That Mark Twain quote is trotted out a bit too smugly and too uncritically for my liking. As you say, some of us are lucky enough to be able to travel and its’s good if we make the most of it; but it’s very unattractive to make out that it makes you an inherently better, or wiser, person. Like you, I’ve met plenty of decent, thoughtful, generous-spirited people who have been hardly anywhere. I’ve also met the most narrow-minded bigots who have been virtually everywhere.

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