Some of the most interesting places in the world are beset by nationalists and extremists: minority groups wanting to break away and form an independent state; high levels of anger between ethnic groups and almost everywhere you go the people hate, and blame, the government.
It’s easy to become an avid supporter of whatever cause is being explained to you. Passionate believers tend to be convincing at putting across their side of the story. Often their cause seems totally right and it’s only human to support them – but if you spoke to someone on the other side of the fence you’d soon realise that both sides of the argument can be equally compelling.
I am open to different views and have often fallen into this trap, but I know it’s wrong to take sides in someone else’s conflict. After many years I realised that I could get a lot of value out of being an observer: by listening to people on both sides of the issue I learned what each side believe in, without getting emotionally involved. And everyone appreciates a good listener.
I learned this tactic in Bosnia where I worked just after the end of the Yugoslav Wars of 1992-95. Bosnia had been bitterly fought over by the Serbs, Croats and Muslims and the ethnic divisions are still very strong there today. I would travel around the country and visit neighbouring Serbia and Croatia on a regular basis.
Every week I would come across people who would passionately, and convincingly, argue the case for their side. All three sides blamed the others for starting the war, for carrying out the most appalling atrocities and for being in league with one or another foreign power. Each argument was backed up with real facts, some history and personal experience.
I found it impossible to argue with these people as they knew a lot more than me, they had the facts and figures at their fingertips (all I had was a few half-remembered articles) and often they knew people who had been killed by the other side. If I challenged them on a particular fact they would say that I had been deceived by the propaganda forces of the enemy and redouble their efforts to convince me of their cause. It seemed impossible for them to accept any challenge to their views and soon I gave up trying.
I realised that if I just listened to people I would learn all the details about their perspective on the issue and eventually build up a detailed overview of my own. I stopped challenging and encouraged them to tell me more and more. I learned to listen better and it became really very interesting. It became clear that what they all wanted was a good audience – people to listen sympathetically to their grievances, their stories and their version of history.
It’s really hard to be neutral in a war zone and I wasn’t neutral in the Bosnian War as it seemed clear to me that the whole thing was started by the Serbs. But I tried to keep my opinions to myself and was open to listening to all sides telling me their version of events. I think this is the best approach to take when travelling.
Nationalism enables people to blame all their problems on another country, or a cabal of countries, and the underlying message is “if only we could get rid of _____ we would be rich, happy and free”. But nationalism and conspiracy theories are not restricted to places like Bosnia and Russia (where the Kremlin has convinced most of the population that it was America, not Russia, that caused the recent war in Ukraine).
I witnessed something similar at work in Scotland in 2014 when the referendum for independence was held – and I made the mistake of taking sides (this article in particular caused fury among certain Scottish nationalists).
What made me disagree with Scottish independence was the Scottish nationalists I came across: they were unwilling to address any of my questions. My main point was “how will Scotland get into the EU if it declares independence?” – but they would immediately reject the question and swallow their leader’s promise that he would be able to charm and schmooze his way into the club as he’s an affable chappie (and that is literally the SNP’s policy on the EU). None of them could take seriously the prospect of having to apply for EU membership along with Albania, Macedonia and Turkey, the implication being that the Scots are superior to those poor folks in the east.
I realised this was nationalism at work – a blind faith in a utopian future, a rejection of common sense, an irrational force that can seduce and charm and convince whole populations. It was the same force I’d seen in Bosnia and you can’t reason with it as it’s so irrational and emotional. Something similar is also happening in England, with the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and all over Europe. It seems like we are in a time of nationalism, which often seems like an obvious answer to our economic problems.
My advice to future travelers is to listen to everyone, learn all about their cause but keep your opinions to yourself. It’s just not worth getting involved. You can tell your new friends that you need more time to process it all, to study it properly, and form your opinion. They may be delighted if you just listen to them and if you start taking notes or recording their conspiracy theories they might be even assume that you will become a new supporter of their cause.
But if you come across a people who are truly exploited or oppressed by a colonial neighbour — like the Palestinians — you can get involved in all sorts of charities and actually do some good. It is better to raise money, work for the charity, even get involved on the ground than getting involved in endless debates. Problem is, if you start debating with them you’ll never hear the end of it, and never get to the point where you might feel you are getting the best of the argument.
Every Palestinian and Israeli knows a lot more about the situation than we do and we’ll never be able to change their views. If you have a view, get involved in some way but try to avoid talking about it with the local people or it will use up all your energy. This is as true in Scotland as it is in the Palestine.
Photo credit: The Huffington Post UK