When I travel and film the world (or write about it), every so often I am quite critical of some local cultural phenomenon. Those of you that have been following Monkeetime for a while probably notice a pattern: it usually has something to do with religion, superstition, or some sort of irrational and counterproductive behaviour. The process is quite simple: I arrive at some far-away land, see something that I feel is stupid, and I point it out. Keep in mind that I also point out the good and the beautiful stuff as well, but since that is what “you are supposed to do” nobody gives a shit. And besides, there are plenty of travel bloggers writing about the pretty stuff… In fact, there are so many of them doing the same damn thing, most of the travel blogging “industry” has become a nauseating and completely predictable shitshow.
Well, that is not my style.
I think travel is about learning. Travel is about noticing the beauty of the world, but also about seeing the ugly. Travel is about noticing how things work and DON’T WORK in other countries. Travel, at least for me, is about catching these patterns of failure and sharing them with people in other places so that they may learn and, quite possibly, prevent similar things from happening elsewhere.
Whenever I visit a place, I try to pick up local papers. I try to get a sense of what is going on, what is pissing people off, what are these places struggling with. Many tourists do the precise opposite of that. Take India for example: hordes of visitors descend upon the country, blindly follow the Lonely Planet guide, get the requisite photos with the Taj Mahal, a monkey, and a saddhu, enrol in a 5 day meditation retreat for which they pay too much, and fill their free time with liberal use of mind-altering drugs. A good time? Most definitely! A learning opportunity? Most definitely missed! I have talked to countless backpackers who completely missed the fact that India is incredibly fractured along the lines of ethnic strife, poverty, and religion, and those are just three of the multitude of problems. Is India a beautiful country? Most definitely YES! Is it worth visiting? ABSOLUTELY! But is it worth pointing out some problems and learning/sharing some lessons? OF COURSE IT IS! Otherwise… what would be the point of travel? You could get stoned at home.
Well, this mindset runs me into trouble on clockwork basis. It seems like many people object to this style of travel, blogging, and video making. According to them, travel is all about showing up, doing the Lonely Planet circuit, going to a souvenir store, buying some stupid shit you don’t need, and, foremost, keeping your mouth shut. “You cannot criticize things in another country”, “You must have respect for other people’s culture”, and “You must respect other people’s religion” have become a dysfunctional set of mantras for giddy backpackers who get their passports, buy some tickets, fly to far-flung places, and then proceed to learn nothing, often aided with copious amounts of alcohol and random mind-debilitating drugs. If they are happy and unhurt, then good for them, but that is not for me.
In the last few years I have received a tremendous amount of hate mail as a result of my videos from North Korea, Brunei, and the most recent and infamous Malaysian trolling episode. The theme is exactly the same over and over and over again: you are a foreigner, you are a visitor, you do not get to say anything negative about “our” place. Well, I disagree. There are several reasons for that:
First, there is a tremendous amount of cultural dysfunctionality which in turn is responsible for a massive amount of suffering. Whether it is some local superstition, or the dominant religion, be it some sort of fad or fashion, people engage in a lot of illogical behaviour and they do not get a free pass just because I happen to not have the same passport as them. I find that spot where religion intersects government particularly annoying, as it is a very regular source of pain and suffering. Beliefs, religious ones and otherwise, much like any other “ideas” are not free from criticism. If your beliefs are demented, they should, and often ARE treated as such. I would never mistreat a person, nor would I ever advocate mistreating a person, but “ideas”… Hey… Anything goes!
Second, it is not “your place”, it is OUR PLACE, and if people keep fucking it up, soon enough the shit spills outside anyways, so as a human being that doesn’t identify with a flag or a passport, I think your point is invalid. Dividing the planet was fine 500 years ago, but today the world is too small for your fence.
Third, there is absolutely no reason to not share an opinion. You have every right to DISAGREE with my opinion, but you do not have the right to silence me. You are welcome to write about it, make videos, blog, sing, dance, protest… ANYTHING! But… You do not get to silence me. I’m waaaaay to stubborn to give up just because of your ignorance. You can call me names, (and many of you indeed DO), but freedom of speech is not a popularity contest. If you don’t get that, then you are a regressive asshole that should be wearing a brown shirt and goose-stepping around the neighbourhood, not writing messages about how offended you are by my fucking opinions.
Ok, so now that we have gone through the usual cordial introductions, let me get cracking on elaborating my points…
“Respect My Culture!”
Right off the bat, to save time, I will share this with you: your culture is not precious. Your culture is not off limits to criticism. Your culture does not get a free pass, just because it is YOUR culture and people have been doing “this stuff” for a hundred, a thousand, or ten thousand years. Like anything people do, there are plenty of maladaptive behaviours that range from stupid and pointless to sick, deranged, and murderous. And while one does not necessarily have to run in with a banner and let everyone know that they are assholes (more often than not that will get a head bashed in), people should speak up against whatever it is they see as a wrong.
There is a good amount of double-standard that I am seeing, especially right now, right after the stupidity that unfolded in Malaysia where some hikers who stripped down for a naked photo on a goddamn “holy mountain” were accused of triggering an earthquake. Because I speak my mind and liberally let my opinions flow, I received a huge amount of hate mail not only from Malaysians (as expected), but also from giddy, non-traveling, beer-chugging Canadians who suddenly felt like another Canadian criticizing a foreign culture is a sacrilege and a national shame. I find it particularly interesting how the same people who cry for some preciously cute and simple mountain folk of Malaysia would have no problem whatsoever bashing the American culture. Canadians (and many others) regularly take the piss out of U.S. gun culture, eating habits, or insane religious beliefs, yet they cry about some cultural insensitivity in Malaysia. Why is that? Why are you people so disrespectful to your neighbour?
If you REALLY feel like other people’s culture is off limits to criticism, then fuck off already and stop posting about the Chinese people eating dog meat, shark fin, and rhino horn. All these things are part of their culture, and an ancient one to boot! How dare you start up online petitions to shut down the Yulin Dog Meat Festival and to end the annual whale hunt in the Faroe islands!
Why did you create a stink and pressured the UN to adopt resolution A/RES/69/150 “Intensifying global efforts for the elimination of female genital mutilations”? Can you not see that this resolution is a direct attack on a local culture and custom of several African countries?
Why did several nations send their armies to Afghanistan and tried to get rid of the Taliban? Then they built schools and sent in countless girls… Don’t you people realize that the Taliban is simply a manifestation of a local culture that keeps women as second class citizens? Who are you to tell them to send their girls to school and to work? For centuries they were happy marrying 11-year-olds, treating them like baby machines, and here you are with your F-18s, destroying all that wonderful cultural heritage?
There seems to be a dividing line in there somewhere. It seems to be semi-acceptable to criticize culture if it is secular in nature, but a real no-go area if it is religious in nature. The luckily-already-dead pope J.P.2 proved himself to be a regressive prick who undid years of hard work by various NGOs in Africa which were trying to curb the spread of HIV. Mr. “Talks to God” successfully undid most of that work by consistently speaking against condoms. As far as I am concerned, that is murder, or at the very least manslaughter. In 2012 a series of deadly riots rocked the Rakhine state of Myanmar (Burma): dozens of people have been killed, hundreds of homes destroyed, thousands displaced, all because few Buddhist monks drummed up hate and jingoistic fervor against a minority Muslim group. In this part of the world, monks hide behind their cloaks, and their words are unquestioned, because, you know.. tradition, and religion… Well, the way I see it, religion IS culture, and if people cannot keep it out of their government or justice system, if real things start happening to real people because of imaginary “sky monkey gods living on a magic mountain” are offended, then fuck your religion and fuck your culture. Honestly. I cannot overemphasize the amount of fucking I have reserved for religious leaders jamming their “culture” into everyday life. There are some very simple explanations why gay people are getting killed in the Middle East (and elsewhere), why women are getting beaten up for showing their hair, and why rape victims are shamed and/or abandoned by their families. If your culture/religion is responsible for these things, then it needs to be held down by its donkey ears and skull-fucked until it stops breathing, because YOUR CULTURE, YOUR TRADITION… THEY ARE SHIT. It’s that simple.
“You are a guest, so shut up”
Despite our transport technology getting ever better and the planet seemingly getting ever smaller, tribalism still seems to rule the world. Most places you visit are plagued by it. Middle East is an excellent (and brutal) example of it, but it is endemic just about anywhere. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are all severely affected by it. It is killing people in Indonesia. It is rife throughout South East Asia. It is visible in Glasgow, Moscow, and Los Angeles. It seems that vast majority of the world loves to draw up imaginary lines and keep people separated, more than happily denying the folk on the other side of these lines their basic rights. In a world criss-crossed by these lines, people very quickly forget (or never even had a chance to learn) that it is all nonsense. We are not different. We are the same species, we all bleed red. Sure, some have more pigment in their skin, others less, and the languages change as you travel the world, but ultimately, these borders, passports, and flags serve no purpose other than keeping humanity divided.
“Us” and “them” are very convenient labels for shitty “leaders”, but they are very damaging for the rest of us. These labels may have had a function 500 or 1000 years ago, keeping some sort of remote tribe intact and safe, but now, in our globalized economy and culture, there is no space for this sort of thing. Social unrest or a disease outbreak in one part of the world very quickly spread to the neighbouring countries, and so what is commonly seen as a “local” problem very easily can stop being so. In 2003 I found myself in the middle of the S.A.R.S. outbreak as I was living in Beijing at the time. I saw amazing failures of logic, and I witnessed phenomenal mismanagement of the whole situation. What was thought to be a “local problem” very quickly stopped being local, and created a mass of drama for people all over the world. Just because you are a guest doesn’t mean that something you see on your trip to China, Australia, or Botswana doesn’t affect people 12 time zones away. So speak up, share your opinion! It IS everyone’s business!
When I write things like that, I get more hate mail. People threaten me. People plead with me to take down my posts. And my response is always the same… Well, there are two, actually. If people are being idiots, I simply give them an eloquent “fuck you”. If they politely ask to stop sharing my thoughts, I ask “why?”. Because, really, WHY would I stop sharing my thoughts? How weak would my thoughts and opinions have to be in order to delete my posts every time some anonymous Facebooker asked me to?
It doesn’t work like that. Or at least I don’t work like that. You are welcome to engage in a discussion, but you will not make me delete anything. From what I have seen around the world, most of the shitty places are shitty precisely BECAUSE of people trying, and succeeding in silencing dissenting opinions. You are most welcome to disagree with mine. I know full well how shocking my writing can be to your virgin brain. But these are the lessons I have taken out of my many years of world travel. And while my opinions are not necessarily popular, what would be the point of social media if we were only sharing popular opinions?
So, yeah. Your culture… Any culture… It’s not precious. It’s not off limits.