Contemplating Disagreement

I had the great pleasure of hearing Rick Steves speak about travel as a political act at BookPeople on Sunday. I’ve enjoyed his European low-budget and close-to-the-ground travel series on PBS since high school, but I couldn’t have guessed how passionate a speaker he would be.

His talk centered around his recent trip to Iran and travel’s potential as a political act. As the possibility of the U.S. going to war with Iran became louder and more insistent in our country, he realized that he knew nothing about Iran or its people. He wanted to go there, meet Iranian citizens, and learn more about them and their lives. At the talk, he said something like, “I’m of the mind that if you’re going to bomb a country, you should know about the people that you’re bombing. It should hurt you when you kill someone.”

His talk dovetailed well with something I’ve been thinking about a lot: relational activism. The night before the election, I heard Betty Burkes, a life-long educator and activist, speak about women and politics. She introduced this phrase into my world, “relational activism.”

She gave a powerful example of this activism: on her six-year-old daughter’s first day of school, another child on the bus called her a racial slur. When Betty found out, instead verbally attacking the other child’s mother, she approached the situation with a relational point of view. Instead of saying, “This is my problem,” she said, “This is our problem. What is going on with your daughter that she would want to hurt my daughter in that way?” Betty offered the perspective that it is not our ability to agree that makes change; it’s our ability to embrace those with whom we disagree. (Another beautiful illustration is this sentence from her website bio: “Betty and her partner Cathy Hoffman are working to find the ways in which their love partnership can nurture social justice work and social justice work can nurture love.”)

This theme is clearly resonant for me lately. When Steves was asked by an audience member if there were any countries to which he wouldn’t travel because he disagreed with the government, he said no. In fact, in countries whose governments are misinforming their citizens about the rest of the world (especially Americans), traveling as an American and making genuine connections with people in those countries is an especially powerful act — for both parties.

He also emphasized that the U.S. makes up only 4 percent of this planet’s population, and that the other 96 percent of the planet are coming up with different solutions to many of the same problems we wrestle with. By traveling, by opening ourselves to other people who think and live differently than we do, we can develop a much broader perspective that might allow us to contemplate another person’s disagreement, instead of disdain or dismiss it.

Of course, this activism can take place much closer to home, in our most intimate bubbles, as Courtney talked about yesterday. How we stand in respectful disagreement with our closest family members and friends can be deeply moving and revolutionary. I think it’s often the hardest kind of activism to achieve, but among the most rewarding, too.

Rick Steves ended his talk by describing the privilege of watching a dervish in Turkey whirl himself into a meditative trance. The dervish explained the movement this way: he raises one hand toward heaven, reaches the other hand toward earth, and plants one foot in his home land, while the other symbolically walks through the world, regarding with respect the traditions and values of the entire planet. This, to Rick Steves, is a perfect metaphor for travel. And for me, it is a beautiful metaphor for activism that can live in each one of us.

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Beauty in a Wicked World is a weekly column by Jennifer Gandin Le. It appears on Wednesdays.

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4 Comments

Filed under Beauty in a Wicked World, Career/Life, Relationships

4 responses to “Contemplating Disagreement

  1. Jenna

    What about the ecological impacts of travel? Those are profoundly political.

  2. Hey Jenna, that’s a great point to bring up. Air travel does consume a lot of fuel and put out a lot of exhaust. You’re right that that’s absolutely worth considering. I know that Rick Steves focuses on close-to-the-ground travel in Europe — using trains instead of a car, staying in places like hostels or B&Bs with shared bathrooms (instead of imported American-style massive hotels or resorts), and even renting bicycles in places where you can get around on them. His focus is more on the human-to-human connection, but I think that idea also works well with the ecological idea of living and traveling close to the earth.

    And, of course, relational activism does not even require traveling outside of your neighborhood or home. Some of the most powerful political acts can be discussions held with family members, friends, or neighbors.

  3. Gorgeous Jennifer. I love this term too and had never heard it!
    I find travel to be really complex from an activism POV, not just because of what Jenna brought up, but also the sort of parachuting in and out quality. After studying abroad I sort of feel like I can’t truly experience any place if I’m there for less then 6 months to a year. Very limiting perspective…

  4. I thought you might love the term, Courtney — it identifies so much of what is beautiful about your activism, too.

    I definitely understand what you mean about parachuting in and out of a place. Even when I was in Ireland, where there was no language barrier, I felt a bit out of whack for a few days when I got there.

    And because it’s not practical for most of us to stay in a place for six months, I think adjusting expectations of travel might help with the discomfort about the act of entering and then exiting. Rick Steves framed it as a travel writer, saying that he would never trust a guidebook where it was clear that the writers did not know anyone who lived in the place where s/he was traveling. I know that not all of us have traveled as extensively to the same places that he has, but there’s something very true about his advice.

    I think it’s rooted in the difference between traveling and touring. Touring is about seeing the sights, grabbing the photos, getting the souvenirs. Traveling — especially as a political act — is about opening ourselves to interpersonal connections, from the momentary shared glance to the longer conversations. If that is how relational activism happens at home, that’s how it can occur away from home.

    I’m also starting to think that it’s more important than it is problematic for people like you, like Jenna, like everyone I know to be traveling abroad if/when possible, because there are so many thoughtful, kind, compassionate Americans who could be acting as mini-ambassadors, simply by being themselves and being open to conversation with people in other countries. To provide an alternate to the tourists who might be less than interested in person-to-person interactions.