Why do we shy away from understanding foreign places?
Humans have a tendency to oversimplify things.
On numerous occasions I’ve heard friends say that some ideas are too complex to tackle and too complicated to address.
I don’t know why people have this aversion to complexity, this need to put labels on things they don’t know. And most of all, I don’t know why everyone feels the need to know everything. An idea can be complex, and that’s okay.
You can look over these remarks when the too-complex-to-deal-with ideas are so distant from your daily existence that you’ll never come across them again. But when they affect you and your identity, it can result in harmful stereotypes.
I first encountered this notion of oversimplification in a Harry Potter book. I don’t remember which one, but I recall reading the name of my native country in the pages of my favourite series. I loved Harry Potter as much as the next kid – I read everything I could and owned everything I could. I spent the day after its release at home, pretending to be sick so my mom would let me skip school, to read the book.
I should have been happy that the name of an obscure, southeast European country like Albania made it onto those sacred pages, but I wasn’t.
I put the book down and told my mom about what I had just read. I told her I would send J.K. Rowling a strongly worded letter. Albania is no place for the villain of the story to hide, I said. And it’s not just full of peasants, either. And, how dare Ron say that the entire country can be searched in one afternoon! It’s ridiculous, I insisted.
I was upset that a country as beautiful as Albania, with people as beautiful as my family, was portrayed in such a negative light by a book read by millions of children. As I was reading that line, I noticed myself create a dark, depressing image of my own country – one that I knew to be false.
For a while, this was my only encounter with Western society’s blatant stereotyping of distant places.
The lack of knowledge wasn’t what bothered me. A lot of people are ignorant about world geography, and I never cared that no one knew where Albania was located. That wasn’t important. I don’t know where a lot of countries are located, and on most days, I really don’t have a desire to learn.
When I moved to Canada and became engulfed in its culture, I heard the name of my country more times than I expected given its size.
I heard it in television shows and saw offensive caricatures of Albanians, clearly included to portray the broader “Eastern European identity” as perceived by the West rather than actual Albanians. According to these shows, all Eastern Europeans have the same accent, the same history, and the same culture.
I read about it in news stories about prevalence of blood feuds in Northern Albania which, unfortunately for the journalists who spend hours trying to unravel them, aren’t that prevalent. They certainly exist and they are certainly condemned, but they are not a morally accepted practice as so many stories would lead you to believe.
I read it in books about Albanian “mafia” that sensationalize crimes by coupling it with the country’s national identity.
Time after time, I heard the name of my native country used in oversimplified ways, associated with ideas rarely discussed inside its borders. Yet, the Western world is so fascinated by old cultural practices in its most isolated areas, things that even Albanian “peasants” would find disturbing.
Logically, these instances of stereotyping are ridiculous. No reasonable person would equate an entire culture with blood, crimes, and death. But readers, watchers, consumers of media are never given enough information to form reasonable views. And sometimes, even when given all the information, some choose to maintain a restricted view.
Stereotyping and sensationalizing are entertaining. They sell products. They get people to consume whatever information you’re selling them, no matter how narrow-minded it is.
The stereotyping of small countries isn’t always negative, and although my experience with it has been mainly so due to the uncomfortable relationship Western countries have had with Eastern European powers, countries and cultures can also be overly romanticized. Cultural practices are taken out of context and put up on a pedestal of beauty and romantic ideals.
While being a “positive” stereotype is definitely better than being a negative one, the act of stereotyping and telling only one side of the story is dehumanizing.
We know that there’s more to a person than their good or bad days, and to respect them, we recognize their broad range of emotions and behaviours equally. It should not be any different for people we don’t know.
Cultures and countries should not be literary devices, used to carry symbols of good or evil, nor should they be things to sensationalize for the pleasure and profit of those who choose to remain ignorant about the lives of humans in foreign places.
Places you don’t know have people you don’t know leading lives you don’t know. Their stories of their places, their pride of their cultures, and the dignity of their complex, human lives, should always come first.
(Ana Qarri is Managing Editor of McMaster University’s Student Newspaper “The Silhouette” in Hamilton, Ontario)