Exploration and lazy stereotypes
Exploration has a long and dark history of violence – the domination and subjugation of other people, particularly those of different races, as part of imperialist, expansionist projects. And although we’ve ditched the pith helmets, the colonialist legacy lives on in this particular corner of the travel writing genre in much subtler ways.
Happily, there’s an increasing focus on what unites us with people from other parts of the globe – a welcome change. But there remains a tendency to over-egg the differences – to stereotype, exoticise and exaggerate for effect. This only serves to reinforce a binary view of the world as one where heroic, civilised explorers from developed nations battle their way through hostile spaces inhabited by primitive, pitiable natives. It’s not only wrong, it’s dangerous.
Even in conflict zones and poorer countries, the constant repetition of these narratives to the exclusion of all else can have a ‘poverty porn’ effect. Of course it’s important to tell stories of war, famine and human rights abuses – no one in their right mind would argue otherwise. But if collectively we write and talk about nothing else, it can lead to the erasure of so much more that defines these places – of culture and history and art, of humanity – in public discourse.
How we write about people and places affects how others perceive them, and lazy writing begets lazy stereotypes – racism’s best friend. Recent events in the US and much of the debate arising from them show how far we have to come – not just stateside but all over the world. We can and must do better.