Can travel build empathy?
Travel is considered the ultimate mind-broadening experience. However, if we travel not to gaze, but to interact; not to numb, but to learn, only then can we truly have perspective-changing encounters.
To what extent do we connect meaningfully with hosts, especially when we travel to countries where culture, language, religion and lifestyles are totally different to our own? If we understand holidays as going far away to our own little piece of paradise (where we can appreciate local culture through staged performances and craft markets), are we not just turning people into products for gratuitous consumption?
When culture and social identity is commodified and subjected to market demands, tourism transforms culture into performances that attune to tourists’ expectations of what a place should look like and how host peoples should be. This enables comfortable consumption and easily digestible infotainment. The tourist gaze then becomes an expression of power - the local culture is fetishised and exists only to please the spectator. With such a prospect, can we build empathy through travel in contexts very different to ours?
The role of empathy in tourism
Tourism and empathy have been linked by organizations such as the UNWTO, the International Institute for Peace through Tourism and Tourism Concern who state that tourism can promote world peace and more harmonious relations. But what is empathy?
Phenomenologist Edith Stein argues that empathy is the ‘experience of foreign consciousness’. In other words, to grasp the narrative of another from their perspective (very different to imagining what we would do in their situation). Stein understood empathy as the basis for intersubjective experience; for it is through this type of understanding that we can appreciate our perspective as only one among many. Under this premise, empathy becomes a potent social agent that travel could strengthen the bonds between peoples and cultures. However, is it plausible to consider that travel can enhance its development?
In an ongoing and exploratory project I examined the perspectives and sentiments of tourists prior, during and after their trip to review behaviour change and the conditions that encourage empathy.
My findings suggests that the following three themes are potential empathy enablers when travelling for holidays in foreign countries:
- Researching a destination before visiting: Empathy is not so much about knowing how another feels but about understanding the structures that create that feeling. Ten days in a destination will only show us a snapshot of local realities. If we fail to acknowledge context, we will only take away a skewed perspective of the place.
- Being aware of our cultural generalizations: We interpret other cultures through the lens of our own. Therefore, any attempt at empathy should strive to acknowledge the historical, political, economic and social context of its parts if it seeks true understanding. Notice when judgement, fear and criticism arise. By being genuinely curious and not falling into the easier option of stereotyping, empathy allows to appreciate the other as a distinct human being. Ultimately, this will let us build alternative constructs through dialogue.
- Actively listening: Empathy needs to be ‘dialogic’ - it needs to include alternate discourses. Talk to the driver, the waiter, the salespeople at the market. Try to understand what life is like from their perspective. One cannot empathize with the ‘Other’ unless our interpretations can be confirmed through feedback in ongoing interaction. Otherwise, we might assume that we understand what we truthfully don’t.
The unlimited possibilities of empathy
By seeing the world through the eyes of others, we can begin to grasp how radically different are the respective realities that coexist around the globe. While ‘finding common ground’ is a laudable first step, communion only encourages us to actively look for similarities - for familiar ideas that would keep us in our comfort zone instead of considering new perspectives. We need to go beyond that.
Today’s volatile socio-political context, marked with divisive and xenophobic political rhetoric make empathy a project far more urgent. Kenneth Roth states that a polarizing us-versus-them rhetoric has become mainstream - becoming “the currency of an increasingly assertive politics of intolerance”. In times of crisis like these, when bigotry and ignorance prevail it is more important than ever to open up the possibility of considering new ideas. How can we learn to actually engage and respect each other as complex human beings?
My findings suggest international travel can help us understand our differences if we actively engage with people from different cultures; allowing us to potentially build bridges and not walls. If feeling empathy creates resilient relationships that will overcome disagreement, prejudices and misunderstandings, then by developing empathy we might trigger a broader social transformation that could ultimately lead to a more peaceful world.
Graduate Researcher at Monash University
Check out more of Lourdes work and research. Knowledge is worth spreading, help her raise the funds to share her research here: https://www.gofundme.com/pyw820