Foggy from a long-haul flight, I wondered why so many people were on their way home from the dentist, as I was driven through Metro Manila after being collected at the airport. At stop lights, bus stops and taxi ranks, many of the people stood around clutching handkerchiefs to their lower faces. Maybe extractions all take place on the same day in the Philippines, I thought.
Then my driver enlightened me. The face coverings were an attempt by pedestrians to protect themselves from the exhaust fumes that clogged the city. I’d become a perfect example of G.K. Chesterton’s brilliant definition of a tourist: someone who laughs at everything—except the jokes.
Isn’t that so like us? We laugh at, ridicule or otherwise reject things because we don’t understand them. And then we don’t laugh at, or appreciate, what what we should because we don’t understand it. In both situations it is because we have content without context, information without insights, facts without familiarity.
The problem is that so often we then rush to judgment. We don’t just interpret something, we then assign moral meaning to it. Take the example of moms in some of Chicago’s worst old housing projects, who used to let their small children urinate in the stairwells. Disgusting, right?
Well, that practice discouraged prostitutes and drug addicts from using the area, social researcher Sudhir Venkates discovered when he spent extended time among the people living there. His fascinating Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets includes other examples of how a passerby snapshot may be interesting, but it doesn’t present a true picture of what’s going on.
Another personal example: before I moved to the United States, back in the pre-cell phone days, I thought teenagers here were pampered and overindulged. While there may yet still be legitimate evidence for such a view, my opinion was based on all the movies I’d seen, where the kids spent hours on the phone in their bedroom, or tooling around in their own cars.
What I didn’t realize was that, unlike in England where you paid every time you picked up the phone, local calls were free. And while there may have been a bus stop on pretty much every corner where I came from, over here there are many places where you are stymied without your own transportation.
Maybe if we mentally packed a passport each time we ventured out into the world, or online, it would remind us that while we know what we see, we also need to know that what we see may not be what we need to see, if you know what I mean. At least we’d be less likely to develop tourist’s syndrome, where sadly the joke ends up being on us.