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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Postcolonialism 101: Misery Tourism (or, How the Genre Community Still Essentializes Africa)

"What is misery tourism?" you might ask.  At its most basic, "misery tourism" refers to the ways peoples from wealthy, usually Western nations "tour" the "developing" or "undeveloped" world in order to "learn" something.  The process is almost always attached to an assumption of superiority, whether directly acknowledged or buried in the subconscious.  To partake in misery tourism is to justify the superior position of your culture by intentionally subjecting yourself to "lesser" cultures (as a means of justifying the bias embedded in the notion of "lesser" cultures).  To put it another way, misery tourism is what (mostly white) Westerners do to make themselves feel better about their own circumstances.

I bring this up because of the following, which is taken from Bryan Thomas Schmidt's blog post entitled "Broadening the Toolbox Through Cross-Cultural Encounters:  On Resnick, Africa, and Opportunity":

When I spent time volunteering in prisons, I came away telling people that everyone should go and experience that for themselves because “the inmates are a lot more like us than you’d imagine.” For me, it was a scary and yet sobering reminder that human beings no matter their backgrounds, etc. have more in common than different. The same held true of my experiences in other cultures. I tell everyone to visit a developing world country at least once. See for yourselves what you’ve only imagined from the pages of National Geographic or TV specials about starvation, etc. Go there and experience it and be forever changed. If you’re not changed, you’re doing something wrong. I don’t see how you couldn’t be. Don’t fear this kind of change. It’s the good kind–the kind that makes you smarter, wiser, more aware and more appreciative. It’s the kind that makes you a better person and inspires you to write better stories and live better lives. That kind of change can’t be a bad thing, can it?
This appears after Schmidt reminds us how important it is not to fall into the trap of stereotyping other peoples and cultures (by way of getting into their heads to push our boundaries).

Schmidt, unfortunately, falls prey to a number of common intellectual traps when it comes to the subject of the African continent.  For example, rather than trying to explore a particular African culture, he reduces them all to "Africans," as if talking about "Africans" actually means something.  He might have identified specific nations (Nigeria, Egypt, Morocco, South Africa, Mali, Chad, Sudan, etc.) or specific peoples (Igbo, Sua, Kikuyu, Tutsi, Oromo, Afrikaner, Egyptian, Bemba, Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi, Fulani, Yoruba, etc.), having spent so much time in Africa (says he).  But instead, he makes them all one.  They are Africans -- not in the sense that they are all "from Africa," but in the sense that they are all more or less the same, like Americans (except we're not all the same either).  Doing so allows him to make grand assumptions about what they are all like (they are communal and find joy in little things).  There are other traps, too, but this is, I think, the most obvious and most damaging.

What shocks me most about these statements is that Schmidt wants us to believe he has learned something both from his experiences as a traveler and from reading genre fiction written by people who are non-white, mostly non-Christian, and mostly non-American.  Yet in essentializing the plethora of African cultures, as so many people do, he exposes his own narrow view of the continent.  I suspect he does not believe this of himself, but most Westerners don't want to believe that their privilege blinds them to the narratives of neo-imperialism which control the discourse surrounding the African continent.  In fact, Schmidt obviously means well, and makes many valid points.  But this doesn't excuse the central problem, which Binyavanga Wainaina perhaps best explores in "How to Write About Africa."  His humorous-but-not-really "story" exposes many of the myths peddled about the African continent. Two quotes of relevance here include:
In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.
And:
Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering.
That pretty much sums it up.  Becoming better writers is simply a justification for misery tourism.  Its only purpose is to validate ethnocentric views of the world and the perpetuation of stereotypes and myths still held by so many Westerners today.  I'm not sure there's a way to combat this behavior, as we're all guilty of it to a certain degree.  One would think education about the history of the various now-countries of the African continent would do it, but that requires people to take the wax out of their ears and actually listen.  In other words, so long as you see the African continent as little more than a monolithic culture of inferior peoples, you cannot possibly challenge the ethnocentric assumptions that pepper our cultural perceptions of the world.

That's not to say genre fiction is hopeless.  Far from it.  But it's not enough to say "look, there are some brown people talking about different stuff over there" or "look, I went to Africa and learned stuff, which makes me culturally enlightened."  True respect of other cultures would look beyond the superficial; such a task may be difficult, however, once you realize that the linguistic, cultural, and political toolbox we have all been given in the West participates as much in the colonial project as colonialism in its most visible forms.  Perhaps this is why I have trouble finding Western aid, missionary work, and so on anything but suspicious.  These acts, like everything else, cannot be disentangled from the colonial project.  Just like language, ideology, and misery tourism.

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21 comments:

  1. While you make good points, I think that you are overlooking something very important, which is this.

    Going to a country is far, far, far better than not going to it, and I suspect far better than talking about it from a purely academic stance.

    Why?
    Because we're creatures of experience. Our human interactions shape us intrinsically - just like they give us our worldviews / lenses through which we view other countries.

    Genuine, personal experiences will shape someone's writing a way that, I think, is unique. Also - while the postcolonial viewpoint argument is a resaonable one, from the practical philosophy of 'improving the world with one's life', I suggest that visiting countries where the standard of living is 'lower' than your own can both benefit others and provide a much-needed eye-opener?

    For example: how many continents and countries have you travelled to? I'm lucky that I have been to a reasonable amount, and explored some of them fairly comprehensively. I make specific efforts to go to places that are suffering / repairing (the Fukushima region, for example, whenever I'm in Japan) - not to gawk, but to help in whatever way is possible, even if that's only observing and spreading consciousness.

    The same with writing applies.

    Obviously any country is going to be richer, more complex, amazing, terrifying and confusing than it seems from the outside.

    This is fantastic!

    I suggest that it's far better, for people in general and for writers, to travel and get a gamut of experiences - speaking from authority - if possible.

    Of course images speak louder than complex experiences. Of course Africans are one indeterminate race of proud noble starving savages...
    Of course everyone in jail is an unfathomable alien who would eat our babies and steal our cars if we closed our eyes for half a second....
    Of course America is a massive, polluting, greedy bullying country populated entirely by rich, white, heavily armed bigots and poor, black, heavily armed street thieves....
    Of course Australians are all rich, talented, handsome lovers who like nothing more than saving orphaned kittens and wrestling crocodiles :-)

    I agree with you that reading about another culture is going to come with a certain mental perceptive lens that's hard to avoid, or even be self-aware of.

    But I'm not sure how if the 'misery tourism' is relevant to what, I suspect, most writers want to do, which is to explore ideas and stories using interesting frameworks.

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  2. Pip: I think you are missing a crucial point that my post is trying to make, which is that the *motivation* behind a touristic function exposes the problematics that are associated with misery tourism. While I don't disagree with you that visiting other cultures and participating in them is a valid and useful experience, we also have to acknowledge that this is true of *any* type of tourism, however mundane. The problem is when the overriding function is not to "experience another culture" but to "visit another culture in order to justify a previously held bias or notion of superiority." The former is relatively mundane, and perhaps exists to a certain degree in any given situation, but the latter often shows its face when the rationale for such visitation is embedded in the very stereotypes we continue to peddle about other cultures (Africa as the land of the starving, as monolithic, and so on and so forth).

    For me, this is a fundamental flaw in Schmidt's argument. I understand what he is trying to say, but what is actually said doesn't actually disentangle tourism from its culturally appropriative, ideologically constructed cousin, misery tourism. What Schmidt is suggesting isn't to "visit some other culture so you can get first hand experience of how they live their day to day lives," which would be easily applicable to *any* culture. Rather, he couches that argument in terms of differentiation, understanding poverty, and understanding monolithic ideas of culture. This would not be the same argument made in favor of visiting, say, England or Western Europe; when people talk about Europe, they say things like "I'm visiting because of the rich history" etc -- rarely is this said about places stereotypically associated with "lesser," "backward," or "savage" cultures.

    It's also a flaw you provide in your own argument, in which you view visiting "lower" cultures as a "much-needed eye-opener." In other words, we're supposed to learn something by going to all those sad little places that aren't like us, that are suffering, and so on. Or, perhaps to put it most explicitly in what you've said here: your interest in visiting "places that are suffering / repairing" can be nothing more than to enlighten yourself with the first-hand experience of misery. You don't have to call it gawking, but that you identify most explicitly your personal mission to visit such places suggests less that you're concerned with their well-being, which would be understandable in the case of Japan or other spaces where disasters have occurred, but something else entirely (you call it "observing and spreading consciousness," which is a mundane translation of "gawking").

    I'm also unclear where you get this from:
    "I agree with you that reading about another culture is going to come with a certain mental perceptive lens that's hard to avoid, or even be self-aware of."

    I've never made that argument, and would suggest quite the opposite. There is certainly a gap in experience derived from reading about other places, but often actually reading quality material can give you a better impression of the contexts in which suffering (or not, depending on what we're talking about) occurs than fairly limited hands-on experiences can. This because most of us are not financially capable of spending years in other countries, as much as some of us would like to. I think the problem might be that you privilege lived experience over all else, whereas I only see lived experience as valid when it is coupled with adequate foreknowledge.

    Hopefully all this makes sense.

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  3. Good timely observation/essay about misery tourism.

    The truth is, the genre community still essentializes Africe (and Asia, as ell). Pip's comments remind me of the well-meaning comments by 19th century travellers (remember imperialism?).

    The fact that she uses 'lower', "observing and spreading consciousness' is indicative of the privileged viewpoint of many white writers. 'Spreading consciousness' reminds me of the white man's burden: it's the white man/woman's duty to spread consciousness/enlightenment whatsoever. No.

    Perhaps, it's high time that the genre community grows up. Wishful thinking (remember Racefail 09?)

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  4. Sorry, SMD, I'm with Pip on this one. It seems to me that you're dismissing the necessity of "misery tourism" as a stepping stone to move beyond it, to a truer understanding of another culture that is vastly different in its economic and/or industrial make up than one's own. Without racking up personal experience of such differing cultures, no one can advance beyond "misery tourism". To say that anyone can approach this, cold, from an automatic mindset of enlightenment is like white people who claim they're "color blind" by default simply because they're aware that they shouldn't be racist and are educated on the history of civil rights. No, they bloody well aren't, and it's a dismissal of the complexities of the issue of race (and the likely personal shortcomings of any given speaker to be magically so "enlightened") to claim otherwise.

    Likewise, it's a dismissal of the cultural dissonance between rich/industrial and poorer/pre-or-early industrial cultures to decry people consciously stepping out of their comfort zones as mere gawking, and believing that some sort of heaven-sent (or osmosis-sent) familiarity can emerge without such. An American visiting the UK to experience it's "rich history" is natural because we're confident that the general comforts and securities of our home country will be repeated there, and easily found. We know it's a similar culture, with comparatively minor divergences. It can be pure entertainment to "culturally educate" ourselves in such familiar environments.

    Other countries, such as many African countries, or those of the Middle East or the ever increasing complexity of the Russian Federation, as you point out are known to most of the wealthiest countries only in cliche, broad strokes. We don't know the differences between one city to the next, one people to the next. Notably due to the comparative instability/unrest/constant change within these countries' peoples and boarders, people from the wealthier and more "stable" nations, which tend to deal with interminably slow change in regards to even the smallest of cultural issues, can be even more out of their element and out of touch. We begin with little context for such cultures, and the fastest and most thorough way to learn is frankly to show up and interact first hand.

    (to be continued...too long....)

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  5. Part 2:

    Certainly, plenty will visit such countries, do little more than watch, and never return. This is far from useful in any significant way, yet Pip's point remains: it's one step better than never having visited at all. The worst biases, generalizations, and misunderstandings occur from people having no first hand experience with a subject or people. First hand experience is no guarantee at a reversal of opinion, but it is considered the best potential cure.

    Rich countries' citizens are not generally educated on other cultures that do not impact their lives directly, socially and obviously. Book learning is no substitute for first hand experience, and few non-academics have the academic's analytical ability with the written word. Some people will always approach anything with a "concern troll" attitude, but I believe it's equally a "concern troll" tactic to worry about people's need to approach a widely differing culture from a naturally ignorant position. It's also dismissive of the economic imbalance between countries to say that we shouldn't acknowledge that we have certain things that other countries don't, by either degree or in total. We shouldn't wait until we're philosophically convinced that we're all equal in all things. We're definitely not.

    Imagine re-couching your argument into different economic classes within the same culture. A "rich man" may visit the "poor" and believe the whole time that he's being wonderfully altruistic to do so. And sure, that's haughty, but the evolution is that such visitations help get rid of the worst and most extreme biases, such as believing all the "poor" are criminals, dangerous, or freeloaders. We can't delude ourselves: a large number of people STILL believe shit like this. As long as they do, we can't tsk tsk anyone willing to try and get past such biases simply because they're not as enlightened as a native or long-time traveler.

    As a wealthy nation, we do "have more" than others. It may or may not be anything others want. But we do have it while they may not even have the option. That's an imbalance that shouldn't be dismissed. We tend to have more options, money, property, and security. Why in god's name should we not acknowledge this? This doesn't make us "better", but it does make us powerful in certain ways. We have a larger allocation of resources. We have a comparatively strong voice in our government and freedom to use it. We can effect things due to our said resources and voice. That shouldn't be something that we easily dismiss when we visit countries significantly less showered in wealth than our own. Certainly we shouldn't dismiss them just so we can take some sort of philosophical "high road" of "not feeling superior". THAT strikes me as the most arrogant mindset of all: to believe oneself so superior that one can rise above one's own empowerment and feel "equal" and "knowledgeable" of those who have less and who you've never visited or interacted with before. This is how denial begins, SMD.

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  6. Joyce: That's actually a good point. A perfect example is James Anthony Froude's The English in the West Indes, in which he visits the Caribbean not to learn something about another part of the world (in an anthropological sense), but to remind himself of British superiority and the necessity of colonial intervention. Thus, Misery Tourism often also supports or serves blind narratives of "foreign aid."

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  7. Dave: Notice that, as I mentioned in another comment, that this is not an argument made about any Western country. Nobody would say "You need to engage in misery tourism so you can get over your failure to actually learn something about another culture and stop dealing in stereotypes" about England or any other wealthy Western country. This is *only* an argument made about places already identified by the speaker as lesser, weaker, lower, third world, developing, undeveloped, and so on and so forth. That you can so expertly repeat that narrative without recognizing its central problematic is also part of the problem.

    I'm also not decrying people for stepping out of their comfort zones, nor calling all visitations of other cultures "gawking." It is perfectly possible to visit Uganda without starting from the basic assumption that "well, they're in Africa, so they must be culturally backward, poor, communal, and so on and so forth." But you also say this: "n American visiting the UK to experience it's "rich history" is natural because we're confident that the general comforts and securities of our home country will be repeated there, and easily found. We know it's a similar culture, with comparatively minor divergences. It can be pure entertainment to "culturally educate" ourselves in such familiar environments." Can you see the assumptions you're making in this statement? Can you see why misery tourism is such a problem?

    I would also like to disagree completely with the assumption that book learning is no substitute for first hand experience. This is *only* true if your interaction with another culture is extensive enough to actually challenge your assumptions and re-educate you. In other words: immersion. Most people do not do this. They visit other places for a few days, or, at most, a few weeks. In almost all cases, they do not escape the bubble of tourism in any given place. And if you do not escape that bubble, you cannot possibly gain anything beyond a superficial understanding of a given culture. Reading about a culture will always expose more for an individual than these surface-level interactions.

    Beyond that, I think you misunderstand much of my argument. I never said we shouldn't recognize economic imbalance. I never said we shouldn't recognize cultural differences. I said it is a problem when those form our assumptions about a given culture, often from a stereotyped, inaccurate "reality."

    And then you say this: "Certainly we shouldn't dismiss them just so we can take some sort of philosophical "high road" of "not feeling superior". THAT strikes me as the most arrogant mindset of all: to believe oneself so superior that one can rise above one's own empowerment and feel "equal" and "knowledgeable" of those who have less and who you've never visited or interacted with before. This is how denial begins, SMD." And that pretty much collapses everything else you've argued. You're attacking my arguments by pointing to things I never said and tried to justify a position of superior reflection by arguing that the opposite is likewise a "superior" position. These do not follow logically, particularly since a cultural relativist, in the purest sense, would disagree with your notion. They would see each culture as equally valuable, equally deserving of respect (even if one disagrees), and so on and so forth. There's hardly anything superior or arrogant about *that* position.

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  8. SMD: Your assumption that understanding a difference between cultures equates automatically with believing another culture "less" or "backwards" is what I'm taking to task. Desiring to learning about another culture because you believe it will "better" yourself by expanding your understanding of people who live differently - and most importantly who are often dismissed by people within one's own culture - is not by default "misery tourism". Believing that I don't understand a culture because I haven't experienced them firsthand does not mean I look down upon them. Believing that a lot of the imperious biases of my culture can be avoided by visiting said other cultures is also not being this thing.

    YOU SAY: "Nobody would say 'You need to engage in misery tourism so you can get over your failure to actually learn something about another culture and stop dealing in stereotypes' about England or any other wealthy Western country. This is *only* an argument made about places already identified by the speaker as lesser, weaker, lower, third world, developing, undeveloped, and so on and so forth. That you can so expertly repeat that narrative without recognizing its central problematic is also part of the problem."

    My argument is that your calling far too broad a range of motivations "misery tourism" to the point that few could ever engage in shared cross-cultural interaction without your slapping this label on them. A lot of what you're trying to frame as "misery tourism" is necessary, and is not, in my opinion, any such thing. You're refusing any motivation that stems from a sense of empowerment to be anything other than imperious. My counter-argument is that you're risking the condemnation of positive personal motivations for the sake of philosophical perfection.

    Understanding that another culture is, say, industrially under-developed as compared to your own, is not the same as believing that it's "backwater". The former is objective, and shouldn't be dismissed, the latter is subjective and I agree can pose a problem. As you mention, nobody would claim that anyone was engaging in "misery tourism" if they visited England but that's the crux of MY argument as well - your definition of "misery tourism" seems to have as much to do with WHERE the visitor is visiting as it does with anything else. Why couldn't someone visit an ailing European country and not commiserate? Why wouldn't a Canadian visit the US right now and not think "the poor dears, if they'd only put away their guns and take care of each other with proper infrastructure..." Why DON'T we assume such "misery tourism" isn't a part of visiting any culture? In small ways, at least, I think it always is.

    (to be continued...again...sorry....)

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  9. YOU SAY: "Can you see the assumptions you're making in this statement? Can you see why misery tourism is such a problem?"

    The assumptions are material, not qualitative. I am making zero assumptions on the natives' quality of life, or happiness, or sadness, or suffering. I am not assuming what they think they may have that's better than others, or worse than others. What I can research in advance, is what I can expect in terms of material comforts, because they are in fact material and can be counted beforehand. If they exist or if they don't. If they do or don't, I have a certain fundamental understanding of what I'm walking into - what I'd be sacrificing that I usually expect in my day to day life, or what might be thrust upon me that I don't normally encounter (or can easily avoid) in my day to day life. If one culture will offer a difference in these things, I can know about them. The vaster the difference in material comforts that one is accustomed to, the more the trip will become a challenging one, personally. That makes such trips a different kind of experience for the traveler than a trip between materially carbon-copied cultures. Saying there is a difference does not equate with saying one is better than the other. That's relative and personal. The difference shouldn't be said not to exist, however, for fear of "misery tourism" attacks. That serves no productive end.

    YOU SAY: "I would also like to disagree completely with the assumption that book learning is no substitute for first hand experience. This is *only* true if your interaction with another culture is extensive enough to actually challenge your assumptions and re-educate you. In other words: immersion."

    Yes, agreed. But that's true of book learning, too. A large part of your argument is the casualness in which many authors treat these subjects. Readers and writers alike only gain from immersion in a subject - whether on paper or in life. If you read one short book on a place or visit it for one day and view it mostly from hotel and car windows, those are both pretty limp. But that still makes book learnin' and life equal in this regard, and considering that equality, I still argue that life is the more impacting to the greater number of people. That said, I do think that without proper book-learning-type analytical skills most life experiences offer people the wrong conclusions. So one way or another, such intellectuality is required.

    (to be continued...one last time...)

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  10. YOU SAY: "Beyond that, I think you misunderstand much of my argument. I never said we shouldn't recognize economic imbalance. I never said we shouldn't recognize cultural differences. I said it is a problem when those form our assumptions about a given culture, often from a stereotyped, inaccurate "reality."

    But you are saying this, at least in effect: for instance nowhere in Pip's comment is there any mention of him (her?) looking down upon another culture in specific. He mentions that some place require assistance at times, and that there are "countries where the standard of living is 'lower' than your own [and wherein your visiting] can both benefit others and provide a much-needed eye-opener". It CAN - there are places where the current suffering of some peoples are well documented and well known. A visitor CAN help here, and the judgment that they require help and/or that helping can help shake a more privileged person out of their blinkered view of life is true. This is not the same as saying another people should live like us, if only they'd let us shower our wisdom upon them. It is not the same as saying I like This is saying only that some visitation, depending on the specifics, can have an effect on both visitor and visitee in ways that are dynamic. None of this is neo-imperialistic, not at face value. It COULD be, but in itself it isn't damning. Yet by damning it you're basically taking to task any motivation that includes an acknowledgement of such differences/imbalances, even when it's free of moral superiority in specific.

    (to be concluded, damn man you've got to up the characters allowed per post, this is limiting)

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  11. YOU SAY: "And that pretty much collapses everything else you've argued. You're attacking my arguments by pointing to things I never said and tried to justify a position of superior reflection by arguing that the opposite is likewise a "superior" position. These do not follow logically, particularly since a cultural relativist, in the purest sense, would disagree with your notion. They would see each culture as equally valuable, equally deserving of respect (even if one disagrees), and so on and so forth. There's hardly anything superior or arrogant about *that* position."

    What you are saying, without question:
    1) "Misery Tourism" is "neo-imperialistic".
    2) "Misery Tourism" is roughly defined as people motivated to visit other cultures from a position of superiority.
    3) A "position of superiority" is visiting another culture with the express intention of offering aid and "bettering oneself".
    4) "Bettering oneself" is roughly defined as feeling yet more superior by being around the suffering of others.
    5) The "suffering of others" is not really defined (a problem) but we can probably agree to define it as objectively extant suffering (i.e. documented and affirmed), and not subjective.
    6) No one should visit any culture with the express intent to engage in "misery tourism".

    To sum that up into a single statement, you're saying: No one should visit another culture with the express intent to aid others or broaden their own personal horizons until they have set aside all sense of superiority due to non-subjective differences between the cultures, and they CERTAINLY shouldn't broadcast their self-congratulating hosannas to the act of traveling between cultures in this way.

    That is exactly what I've defined above: it's demanding a philosophical high ground, a zen-like triumph of humbleness, before we can act and call it anything other than "misery tourism". That's nice, but non-productive and all in order to combat a mindset that may or may not exist in any given instance. This is you defining every person motivated to do this, by default, simply because they point out the differences you say above that you're not arguing count, as "misery tourists". That's too broad a definition. And too knee-jerk to label all people who get a thrill out of pushing themselves outside their privileged boxes as such. They can bungee jump or go help people. They may not be as saintly or humble as they think they are, but they also aren't the true root of generic writing about Africa. That's just lazy writers, more in love with the pulp novels of proto-imperialistic times and homaging them instead of being original and sincerely intelligent.

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  12. FYI: I'm going to respond to each of your comments one-by-one, Dave. Don't feel sorry about multiple comments. At least you're trying to have an intelligent discussion with me. We don't have to agree, but you're not doing what half the people on G+ or YouTube do, which is resort short strings of illogical silliness :P

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  13. Part One:

    As I said, I'm going to explore your comments piece by piece. I hope this won't result in repetition, but I suspect it will just based on the discussion we're having. In any case, Part One refers just to your first new comment. Here goes...

    Part of the problem here is that you're confusing my argument for something it is not. First, misery tourism is not about general cross-cultural experiences, but the about motivations behind them. I am not suggesting that one cannot visit another culture to learn about it without engaging in misery tourism; this is possible and fruit for a different kind of argument. Rather, I am suggesting (as in this particular case) that misery tourism deals exclusively with visitation motivated by conscious or subconscious notions of superiority, in which the "learning experience" is not "I know nothing about this culture and want to learn about it" (something you could apply to any cultural exchange) but "I believe stereotypical things about this culture and I want to learn about *that.*" There lies the problem, and the thing that differentiates cultural exchange from misery tourism. The "that" does not refer to "an enriching experience outside of Western notions of the 'proper,'" but to "an enriching experience which arises from or solidifies Western notions of superiority, broadly defined." Thus, someone who might visit Egypt to learn about Egyptian culture and history could very well come out having learned something about Egypt, but someone moving towards the same scenario with a conscious or unconscious desire to see the "misery" that exists there, and, as such, solidify their previously held notions about why the West is better...that person may have learned something, but will have come to that experience through cultural exploitation and the perpetuation of stereotypes, myths, and cultural universalism. So, yes, when you visit another culture in order to experience its flaws, you are, in fact, engaging in misery tourism. This does not mean that all tourist endeavors are of this sort, but it does mean some of them are.

    It would also be a good idea for you to rethink terms like "difference," "undeveloped," and "empowerment," as you use them with the implication that they are politically neutral. In a Western context, perhaps, but from the perspective of non-Western peoples, less so. Edward Said is a perfect interlocutor here (see Orientalism). In particular, your argument that "undeveloped" is an objective assessment is already suspect. "Undeveloped" in comparison to what? The West. But why is it that the West serves as the medium by which all other cultures must be compared? If you aren't at the same X level as the West, you are not developed. It's hardly a neutral term.

    Likewise, your suggestion that we assume misery tourism is a part of visiting any culture (perhaps meant sarcastically, but I can't be sure) would only be relevant if that were actually something that occurred. It does not. There are no serious discussions about an economically depressed Canada, a culturally backward England, a violent Germany, or a tribal America. These things certainly crop up from time to time, but never as a gross generalization of an entire culture. In that sense, one cannot possibly engage, as a general rule, in misery tourism in these spaces. The assumption that these cultures are different, and, thus, lesser, in other words, is rarely a motivation behind visitation. Schmidt most definitely would not say "you should visit England so you can understand what it's like to be dirt poor." He would, and has said, essentially the same about monolithic Africa.

    (cont.).

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  14. Part Two and Three:

    I think you confuse the material and the qualitative as necessarily being distinct things, which your actual argument deconstructs quite effectively. If the material is not a qualitative assessment of a culture, then it would follow that what is not available would not fall into categories such as "sacrifices" or "challenges" or "comforts." There would simply be a passive acknowledgement that "X culture doesn't use Y." But "comforts" suggests a qualitative assessment, since the absence of such things would imply a degradation in one's experience. Likewise, the same is true of "challenges" and "sacrifices." Without even realizing it, you've essentialized an entire culture by compartmentalizing its material reality. These are not passive statements. So while you don't say, in explicit terms, that the peoples living in X country are suffering, etc., your terminology implies the opposite. While you might not accept how your terms influence a particular kind of perspective (in certain situations, but not necessarily all), you have to at least understand that they are not politically neutral when it comes to the long history of colonial objectification that many of the countries we're implicitly exploring experience, sometimes for centuries. (See Imperial Leather by Anne McClintock).

    In other words, alone, these little rhetorical flourishes might not point to misery tourism, but they are signs you should be aware of so you can avoid engaging in such practices.

    Now for your defense of Pip:

    Actually, my specific argument can be boiled down as such:
    "What Schmidt is suggesting isn't to "visit some other culture so you can get first hand experience of how they live their day to day lives," which would be easily applicable to *any* culture. Rather, he couches that argument in terms of differentiation, understanding poverty, and understanding monolithic ideas of culture."

    And:
    "It's also a flaw you provide in your own argument, in which you view visiting "lower" cultures as a "much-needed eye-opener." In other words, we're supposed to learn something by going to all those sad little places that aren't like us, that are suffering, and so on."

    Pip only talks about aid by implication, not in specifics. Rather, Pip says exactly this: "I make specific efforts to go to places that are suffering / repairing (the Fukushima region, for example, whenever I'm in Japan) - not to gawk, but to help in whatever way is possible, even if that's only observing and spreading consciousness."

    Sure, that might include aid, which would be interesting in another argument (foreign aid has a problematic history -- see Binyavanga Wainaina on this), but the argument is more particularly about visiting tourist-identified spaces of misery in order to "observe" and "spread consciousness." Those are code words for "watching the misery in action." Pip might mean something else entirely, but that's not what was written.

    (cont.)

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  15. Part Four:

    And here's where you really confuse my entire argument. I'll have to break this down point by point:

    1) "Misery Tourism" is "neo-imperialistic".
    It's technically an extension of colonial ideology, dating back to James Anthony Froude (and possibly earlier). See The English in the West Indes for one of the most insidious examples of misery tourism in action. You might call it neo-imperialistic today, I suppose.

    2) "Misery Tourism" is roughly defined as people motivated to visit other cultures from a position of superiority.
    Consciously or subconsciously held (acknowledged or ignorant of).

    3) A "position of superiority" is visiting another culture with the express intention of offering aid and "bettering oneself".
    And here's where you get me confused. "Aid" is not necessarily a part of misery tourism, and so does not belong in the definition. One can, of course, give aid while engaging in MT, but to suggest my argument pits aid as a constitutive element is a glorious misreading.

    4) "Bettering oneself" is roughly defined as feeling yet more superior by being around the suffering of others.
    In conjunction with these other elements, yes. On its own, no. But in this particular context, yes.

    5) The "suffering of others" is not really defined (a problem) but we can probably agree to define it as objectively extant suffering (i.e. documented and affirmed), and not subjective.
    Subjective notions of suffering apply, as it is just as likely that Westerners assume another people is "suffering" simply because they are not "as well off." This is not always the case and feeds into the problems I'm identifying here.

    6) No one should visit any culture with the express intent to engage in "misery tourism".
    No, they really shouldn't. There are plenty of other ways to be tourists.

    I think your problem with assuming I'm making too broad a generalization with "misery tourism" is that you frequently mischaracterize or misunderstand my argument. When you put it in the terms you've identified, it certainly seems to paint a broad brush, but since my definition does not actually suggest that is true, it's hard to make an argument to that effect. I've clearly identified misery tourism in the first paragraph of my post. There's some nuance needed, sure, but it shouldn't need to provide refutations for things it does not contain.

    Lastly, this:
    "They may not be as saintly or humble as they think they are, but they also aren't the true root of generic writing about Africa. That's just lazy writers, more in love with the pulp novels of proto-imperialistic times and homaging them instead of being original and sincerely intelligent."

    You do realize that this is so prevalent in publishing that it has more often than not forced African writers to fulfill the stereotype in order to participate in the English publishing market, right? The problem is that *a lot of writers are lazy* when it comes to writing about Africa (and here I use the monolithic term, because that's also sickeningly common among Western writers). This extends to ones who have visited other countries and had the experiences you cite. Just to give a contemporary example: Dinesh D'Souza has argued that Africa was not colonized enough. This from a man grew up in India.

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  16. A short two-parter this time, ha ha!

    Thanks for the thorough rebuttals, SMD. A few (hopefully) new thoughts, because I think these are the sticking points for me, the rest being largely on the same page with you, barring arguments in phraseology which we could debate for eons:

    -I was being sarcastic, mostly, about there being "misery tourism" in countries like England or the US, countries that don't suffer the same level of gross generalizations as others. But it was seriously trying to point out that the difference is of (extreme) degree, not purely black and white. We all generalize other cultures all the time, of all kinds, of all stations. We do believe unjustifiable notions about Europeans, or French Canadians, or the Japanese, etc. "Misery Tourism" strikes me as a specific and extreme version of this universal bad habit.

    2) I definitely do not think any words - or any THING, really - are ever politically neutral. I don't think they can be, as we're social and therefore naturally political creatures. I also don't think it's possible to erase the political from our thoughts, which is where we might truly disagree. We can control them - we can be educated and self-aware - but we can't obliterate them. This is a key uneasiness I have with what I think is where you see me misunderstanding your argument. I think you're asking for a kind of cultural exchange that does not realistically exist. Only as an ideal does it exist.

    3) Regarding a word like "undeveloped" (actually it was "under-developed" I was using, but that's a quibble) it's always in comparison to an individual's normative state. It's personal, and that's why it's unavoidable. We can be self-aware about it, but that doesn't change it. As I mention specifically in my argument about "comforts", it's not a qualitative judgment on another people, it's a qualitative judgment PERSONALLY - an individual can know what is "challenging" for themselves. It isn't (though it can be if the person is lacking in the proper understanding of cultural relativity) a judgment on how other people live compared to you, it's a judgement on what kind of adaptation you know you yourself will need to make. You could call it a judgment on one's own weakness, but I wouldn't call it that either: everyone has a normative state at any given time. Changing that requires adaptation no matter what. We're very adaptable (more than we give ourselves credit for) but we're also very resistant to change. This is a ubiquitous struggle in every individual. The fact that one can recognize this, shouldn't be condemned as an imperialistic attitude. I understand that "undevelped" and "comforts" have political underpinnings. But they are also exact words that have non-political meanings that are accurate to the situation. I also don't know if alternate words exist that are politically neutral. None come to mind that actually express a need to adapt.

    In this way, the benchmark (the "normative state" for any Westerner) will be the West. For any Wester clone states, it will be the same. For others, it will be different, it will be their own normative states. I'm don't think that's avoidable. Claiming that it is, pre-adaptation to another culture via some kind of immersion, doesn't strike true.

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  17. Final thought: one major point I was trying to make but never was very eloquent about, is that by making a distinction between motivation rather than action, you're basically acting as thought-police. I completely understand (or so I like to think) why you think it's humanistic to police this PARTICULAR thought. But I'm not sure it's ever in effect a worthy approach. Of course that's me policing your thoughts (wait, what? Oh... anyway). Imperialism is always at its core about exploiting other cultures materialistically/physically, not misunderstanding them on a cultural basis. Imperialists never CARE enough to understand other cultures but that's not the "act" of imperialism. The action is manifest exploitation. The motivation in the face of that is irregardless. Likewise, if a traveler isn't physically exploitative (less tangible exploitations are arguably in every human exchange of every kind) then it's premature to condemn them on the "misery tourism" basis. That's my primary unease with the MT accusation. I haven't yet decided if it's an honest claim, or an unreachable ideal. Obviously I'm leaning toward "unreachable ideal". I'd be supect of anyone who claimed they had achieved this ideal.

    That all said, what we do agree on is that people in general need to approach everything with fewer absolutes and generalizations and understand that any qualitative statement they might make should be (heh) qualified with a nod to the fact that it is of course very, very relative. The rest is questions of degree. Where does our ability to control this and our responsibility to show this begin and end?

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  18. Part One:

    I don't disagree with you that erasing the political from our thoughts is an impossible task (characterizing what I'm saying as "thought police," though, is drastic, as that implies, based on its literary reference, that I would sanction laws which govern how we think -- I don't). What I think differentiates a misery tourist from a different kind of tourist is similar to what I think differentiates a racist from a non-racist. A racist *acts* upon their racist thoughts; a non-racist sees those racist thoughts and interrogates them, not by "touring" the "other," but by trying to understand where they come from and rebut them internally. The same for a misery tourist. If you recognize that you make grand assumptions about other cultures and actually interrogate those assumptions (perhaps by deliberately trying to change them), I think you (usually) save yourself from the veil of misery tourism. People who don't interrogate such views, however, are trapped. It's a cultural thing too, of course, but we're all capable of getting beyond that if we get off our metaphorical asses and think.

    To your point about "under-developed" as a comparison to one's "normative state":
    One cannot actually separate these terms from their implication in a system of colonial ideologies. That is that those nations often deemd "under-developed" are rarely Western, and almost always compared *to* the "Western normative state." The very use of the term "under-developed" is always already implicated in a relation to the West, which is reductive and often intentionally ignores how many of those conditions are a product of Western Empire. In other words, only blindness to empire produces apoliticality in these terms. They are never neutral precisely because they do not arise out of a neutral environment (i.e., the discourses of (neo)colonialism which produce terms like "under-developed"). Thus, when we talk about "the normative state," we are also talking about "the normative state imposed by the West upon the world," as exposed by the words themselves (what they relate to, etc. etc. etc.).

    (cont.)

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  19. Part Two:

    That said, there is a huge problem that needs to be interrogated: how do we talk about countries with actual and legitimate economic imbalances without making comparisons to Western "superiority"? I think some of that can be alleviated when people that much of the economic growth occuring in the world (particularly during the recession) is taking place in a handful of African nations.

    Lastly, it needs to be said that you've completely mischaracterized imperialism. Specifically, in this statement:
    "Imperialism is always at its core about exploiting other cultures materialistically/physically, not misunderstanding them on a cultural basis. Imperialists never CARE enough to understand other cultures..."

    While imperialism is about economic exploitation, the notion that empire did not make a concerted effort to understand other cultures is patently false. You could possibly argue that empires misunderstood other cultures, since they were coming from a particular worldview, but not that they did not *try* to understand them. This is perhaps most obvious in the long and arduous history of colonial anthropology, which resulted in all manner of interpretations of indigenous cultures (including a number of pro-Empire texts like James Anthony Froude's The English in the West Indes, in which he engages in what I like to call "driveby anthropology" -- or other important texts like Lucien Levy-Bruhl's The Primitive Mentality, etc. You might also even look at Diane Lewis' compelling account of this very subject in her 1973 article, "Anthropology and Colonialism"). In fact, anthropology, as we understand it today, arose out of Western colonization, so its embedded-ness with the colonial project is, well, fairly obvious within my field. Basically, the cataloguing and exploration of other cultures (in the loosely anthropological sense) is quite literally as much a part of the colonial project as economic exploitation. For example, if you look at later empires, such as the United States pre-WW2, you'll find a lot of examples in which colonial agents explicitly tried to engage with the local culture in order for "conquest" (The Philippines, post-WW2 Japan, Palau, Micronesia, etc. etc. etc.). This is a fairly reductive history, though...

    I think that more or less covers it all :P

    P.S.: If you ever use irregardless around me again, I will kill you. :P

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  20. Erg, well, that does cover it, but I guess we're at a "agree to disagree" stage. The difference between a racist and a non-racist are levels of degree, not merely action. Everyone acts upon racist thoughts, unchallenged beliefs, and/or underpinnings, every day, albeit usually very minor and dismissed ones. There is no definitive divide in action and thought alone. That is far too biblical a set-up to withstand scrutiny. No one is clear of racist though or action.

    "...not by "touring" the "other," but by trying to understand where they come from and rebut them internally".

    You need both. If you don't, you're only assuming intellectual rigor with zero empirical anything. Calling for a purified mindset before touring, or else such touring will be considered "touring", is simply a different kind of superiority at play, which is my argument that you believe "tried to justify a position of superior reflection by arguing that the opposite is likewise a 'superior' position." It is, that does follow logically. It's a position that disallows any form of education besides internal and reflective, and until such is achieved, decries action if it (seemingly) falls into a particular camp no matter the effect. It's prejudgment with a preordained solution. That's as superior a position as any imperialist ever had. There's truth in all your argument, but it's too rigid to be anything but another argument as to why others' must follow a specific orthodoxy to find their way to an evolved intellectual state.

    I also entirely disagree that I've mischaracterized imperialism. The fact that imperialism allowed for an explosion of anthropological studies does not by any stretch tie anthropology to the impetus of imperialism itself. The social mindset of an established imperialist culture is what you're referring to, but not the motivation behind the imperialist drive pre-establishment, which is politically and economically driven. The imperialist culture's mindset is just as shaped by the aftermath of the imperialist motion as is that of the subjugated culture. Irrespective (0_-) of the fact that many within the imperialist culture may have a "pro-Empire" mindset, this is not sufficient motivation for imperialist actions to occur. No imperialism movement begins because a society sincerely believes they can better another. This excuse crops up as a buttress for an Empire's actions later, but there has never been a documented instance of a culture die-hard on improving the lot of another and ergo they take it over. Corporate takeovers are microcosms of imperialism: the argument may go that they took it over to "improve" it, but in action they strip-mine it and forget about it. Take away the economics/politics, you have no imperialism, or any of imperialism's aftereffects. Superiority complexes may still exist, but not imperial ones, per se.

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  21. Dave: For whatever reason, I never approved your comment. That was not a malicious thing on my part. I think I set it in there because I wanted to respond immediately to it...I don't know. In any case, I posted it and will just say this in response to your last paragraph:

    I also entirely disagree that I've mischaracterized imperialism. The fact that imperialism allowed for an explosion of anthropological studies does not by any stretch tie anthropology to the impetus of imperialism itself. The social mindset of an established imperialist culture is what you're referring to, but not the motivation behind the imperialist drive pre-establishment, which is politically and economically driven. The imperialist culture's mindset is just as shaped by the aftermath of the imperialist motion as is that of the subjugated culture. Irrespective (0_-) of the fact that many within the imperialist culture may have a "pro-Empire" mindset, this is not sufficient motivation for imperialist actions to occur. No imperialism movement begins because a society sincerely believes they can better another. This excuse crops up as a buttress for an Empire's actions later, but there has never been a documented instance of a culture die-hard on improving the lot of another and ergo they take it over. Corporate takeovers are microcosms of imperialism: the argument may go that they took it over to "improve" it, but in action they strip-mine it and forget about it. Take away the economics/politics, you have no imperialism, or any of imperialism's aftereffects. Superiority complexes may still exist, but not imperial ones, per se.

    A couple things:

    1) All modern methods of anthropological research and cultural studies owe their existence to the colonial period. The methods of observations, analysis, and so on are derived, albeit with more modern sensibilities, from the incredibly influx of anthropological work supported by colonial empires.

    2) Your perspective on imperialism and its motivations is overly simplistic. That many colonies were eventually strip-mined does not necessarily reflect the social or economic policy of empire as a whole. Most empires viewed the non-Western world as ideological spaces of exploitation. We get cheap labor; they get culture. The exchange was never equal, because that's not possible to do in an imperialist culture, but the end results of empire are side effects, not necessarily the motivations or purposes therein. Much of my research is on this very topic, and the picture is a complicated one.

    In many respects, though, you're right. Imperialism is a certain kind of mindset that influences, over time, the colonizer and the colonized. My problem with your characterization of imperialism is simply the notion that Imperialists don't care about the cultures they subjugate or colonize, and that the only motivation for imperialism is exploitative. This is simply historically, culturally, and ideologically false. You would be hard pressed to find any public declaration in favor of Empire that did not include both the ideology of exploitation and the ideology of cultural conversion (and its attendant "cultural understanding"). These are inseparable. Imperialism is a cultural movement as much as it is an economic and military one. See Said's Orientalism, for example, or Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks, or anything by Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Anne McClintock, or Mary Louise Pratt.

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