Why „having been there“ doesn’t make you a better judge

We all know them: Those self-satisfied hostel hoppers with their omni-content air of cosmopolitanism. The oh-so-alright and oh-so-relaxed, the pathologically mindful, aware, conscious, balanced – with a smile so bright and constant it makes you want to shake them. We know them all too well – because at some point or another in our millennial lives, we might have been one of them.

Don’t get me wrong. Generally speaking, I don’t have a problem with cosmopolitan pacifists, eco-tourists, or fellows of the organic cigarette. But there is something wrong with those who return and say: „I’ve been there, and I’ve seen what it’s really like.“ Ever had that unasked-for conversation with someone back from some two-week volunteering trip to Guatemala („Save local tortoises“) or Madagascar („Save local children“), or some other mango-producing poverty paradise? They’re just waiting to rub it in your face: That you can’t possibly know what it’s like, all the poverty and misery and, despite of it all, that happiness, that unbelievable happiness in people’s faces.

Globalisation, authenticity, and poverty tourism

It leaves an aftertaste of sweet racism and a kind of neo-bourgeois condescension that only us millennials are able to pronounce in a way that sounds „authentic“. What is this about? Globalisation. Our globalisation started in a Coca-Cola can, and now hangs out at hostels and with poverty tour guides. Our globalisation is us not really caring at all (about language, culture, history, politics) and yet being convinced to really have gotten to know that Other. Our globalisation is going from TripAdvisor-rated coffee shop to „authentic street food“ restaurant. Our globalisation is a quest for authenticity that is often just an impatient hope for confirming the convenient.

We tend to believe that getting physically closer to something or someone implies getting to know that place or that person more, and better. While it’s probably only natural to assume so, it isn’t self-evident; and when it comes to going abroad it can even work the opposite way. How much does one, for instance, really get to know as an exchange student? Depending on one’s initiative, language skills, and ability to really just be okay with how different everything is (rather than frequenting that one McDonald’s in town, because it seems a safer choice), that experience can vary a lot. But somehow it turns into this CV-stylised licence to judge the place – because one’s been there, and not just as a tourist.

Confirmation bias as cultural arrogance

I’ve done this myself, and it’s sometimes still difficult not to defend that personal experience against speculative prejudice. And still: It’s crucial to accept that speculative prejudice doesn’t vanish with „having been there“, and that we often (if unintentionally) walk around places with a confirmation bias. We chose what we see, and use that to illustrate or exemplify what we think is true anyway. We see a policeman having a chat with a civilian: „Typical case of corruption!“ We see laughing children in a poor neighbourhood: „See, they don’t have such a hard life after all!“ And this one person comes too late to an appointment: „They just don’t value being punctual here.“

Getting a sense of a cultural profile can be a helpful compass to getting your way around an unfamiliar place, and this is perhaps the one scenario in which stereotypes can be somewhat useful. But we shouldn’t forget that we choose what we see and what we don’t, even when we feel like we’re immersed in a profound, unique experience that no one else has had before. And when we remind ourselves of that, it becomes obvious that the high horse of speaking on behalf of that Other is wishful thinking at best, and neocolonial arrogance at worst.

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