Travel Broadens the Mind

I have been working with the London Metropolitan Police to reduce alcohol-involved violence. After I gave a talk with Deputy Mayor Malthouse at the London Drug and Alcohol Policy Forum, the organizers very thoughtfully gave me this gift from the archives. These truncheons were carried by bobbies from the Victorian Era until about 15 years ago, when they were replaced with folding batons.

Beyond the fact that it will be useful at the next meeting of the faculty senate, I appreciate the truncheon as a reminder of what travel can teach us. After the forum, a friendly former beat cop took me around some of his old haunts and then for a pint. I asked him if he had ever carried a gun. Bugging his eyes out for effect he said “A gun? Why, they’re dangerous.” I think many Americans would be shocked to realize that in such a large city, the police keep order while rarely using firearms. When I learned this myself as a visiting college student I realized with sadness how much I accepted as a fact of life that all big cities are violent (Detroit was the first big city I knew well) and that police needed guns to fight crime.

Japan, now in such a terrible state, provided me a similar lesson 25 years ago. Tokyo taught me that not only could an enormous city be absurdly safe, but it could also be clean as a whistle and find shelter for everyone who would otherwise be homeless. Due to the jet lag I got in the habit of taking long, desultory walks at 2am, something I would never have done in New York or Chicago. The only time I felt threatened was when I met another American. We briefly considered having a knife fight as a tribute to our country, but decided instead to simply nod at each other, smile, and move on just as would the locals.

I also will never forget my girlfriend in Oslo who literally did not understand the concept that a woman would avoid certain places at certain times of night to avoid sexual assault, or that American women would accept living in such fear.

Some people cannot afford foreign travel — I recognize that I have been blessed. But when I think of all the Americans who can afford it but do not even own a passport, I see a missed opportunity. It is not that exposure to other cultures necessarily makes one feel that one’s own is worse, but travel gives unparalleled insight into how many choices masquerade as inexorable conditions of life.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

20 thoughts on “Travel Broadens the Mind”

  1. Those countries cannot be that safe, without also being un-free.

    Can they? I’ve been told my whole life that a certain level of danger is the price we pay for our freedom.

  2. To Davis: Certainly London’s security state is much more developed than ours (camera’s absolutely everywhere), but you’d be blind to think we aren’t moving in that direction here in the U.S., and I doubt it will vastly reduce crime.

    With that said, a lot of our cities are really very safe (NYC [minus the Bronx and Staten Island] and LA among many others), but I think Keith’s point is that in America we tend to think that more violence (in the hands of the state) is often a solution that will cause less violence. What really matters, I think, is the amount of social cohesion and empathy in a country – so a less unequal (ethnically, economically, etc.) society is going to be a lot less violent in general. Tokyo is a great example of that.

    Just one more reason for social democracy.

  3. Why no television programming showing American voters what life’s like in Scandinavia / Tokyo?

  4. I always thought that it was sad that I am statistically safer the second I step on a plane to head to most other countries until I return to Washington DC (and that includes going to places like Jakarta that people seem to think are violent). I think there are a lot of reasons for this including “honor” culture such as that found in the south and socio-economic inequality. It seems certain to me that one of them is that there are so many guns that it is simply culturally accepted to use them more often in situations that other countries would never consider. Plus guns are more likely to fall into the hands of people who simply shouldn’t have them.

  5. I would appreciate it you didn’t go around mentioning passports right now. I’m an ex-patriate ex-patriot and frankly I flat don’t want to meet any Americans. If people knew what an upturn my life took simply by bailing out of the USA to a country where I could not and still cannot speak the language.

    From one delayed payment for disability putting me on the street, to lower upper class is a continuing shock.

    I may live in a third world portion of a second world country by exploiting the poor, but I’m better off than almost all americans. I’ve actually got servants on a disability income. I need them. My insanity and physical condition, since my war, necessitate that I have care. I essentially built my own little private insane asylum with attendants. Would I go in a VA nursing home? Absolutely not.

  6. IIRC, Japanese cops carry guns.

    My fondest memory of Japan was being warned to avoid certain parts of Shinjuku because there were bad people there. I had to look (I live in Newark.) Feh. The Japanese must have a law against criminals or something.

  7. Its America I love, not Americans. Please don’t encourage the old Fox-tards to travel, as good as it would be for them to really see poverty. On the rare occasions I get to leave the country, the last thing I want to see are chubby, elderly Americans complaining about the lack of English speakers, air conditioning, or french fries. The USA looks a lot better to me from afar, but then, I spend most of my time in Nebraska.

  8. “but I think Keith’s point is that in America we tend to think that more violence (in the hands of the state) is often a solution that will cause less violence.”

    Well, except for those of us who think more (capacity for0 violence in the hands of the citizenry is a better solution.

    I think there’s no question but that we have a problem with violent crime in America, but the extent and nature of that problem can be exaggerated: I’ve lived my entire life in parts of the country where those 2AM walks would be perfectly safe, and there are most assuredly areas in England where they’d be ill advised indeed.

    Really, it obscures the nature of the problem to use nation-level statistics for comparisons, as though they meant something, when crime rates vary dramatically not so much on the level of nations, as the level of neighborhoods. So it’s neighborhoods you need to compare, not nations. But that doesn’t tend, I suspect, to lead you to an understanding of the situation which would suggest legislation as the solution…

    “IIRC, Japanese cops carry guns.”

    Yes, they also accept coerced confessions in court, which is one of the reasons their conviction rate is about 99%. Although I hear they treat you quite decently in jail once you’ve signed the confession…

  9. I think that what appears to be Keith’s main point is wrong. The kind of stuff Keith mentions (safety at night, low-level of firearms) are things that are easily understood without travelling. I think that what you actually learn from travelling is the subtler differences in lifestyle and atmosphere and attitude and demeanor that are harder to convey in writing.

  10. I know after I came back from England and Wales I just about couldn’t stand going to the store or other public places for about two weeks. It felt like being elbowed to death. And hardly anyone in public here bothers to say “Excuse me” or “Hello” before blurting “HOW DO I GET TO CITY HALL?” I just detest the general lack of good manners. I actually think crime would be lower if manners were better here.

  11. This type of commentary is hopelessly outdated, as though England were still the land of Mrs. Miniver and Mr. Chips. Its time to update your views: “Quiet and orderly? The headlines are full of knife crime, while the streets on Saturday nights are rife with drunken teenagers vomiting in the gutter. Austere and reserved? We’re the fattest nation in Europe, while our daytime shows make Jerry Springer’s guests look models of reticence. Tea-drinkers? Not any more: Coffee is our fastest growing non-alcoholic drink. And, by the way, most of us never wear bow ties or sports coats. Only Americans do that.” http://articles.nydailynews.com/2011-02-27/news/28651562_1_oscars-andrew-garfield-british-monarch
    The UK is an incredibly violent place. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1196941/The-violent-country-Europe-Britain-worse-South-Africa-U-S.html Fewer murders, to be sure, but the prevalence of violence is everywhere. Actually, were you to have a knife fight, it would be a very proper British thing to do. http://www.insight-security.com/facts-knife-crime-stats.htm#Information%20sources%20/%20interpretation
    The whole place is suffering an epidemic of serious loutishness known as “yob culture”. http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/in_depth/uk/2001/life_of_crime/yob_culture.stm

  12. In my view yob culture or trash culture is a manifestation of the same lack of self-discipline and social cooperation that lead to widespread criminality, and as such is either a gateway to, or an early symptom of, criminality.

    I hate it. The enemy of civilization is trash culture, whether adopted and placed in use by a person or a family or a club or a TV network or a corporation. Sadly, individual efforts to fight trash culture are overwhelmed by its application by the media and corporate advertising.

  13. when I think of all the Americans who can afford it but do not even own a passport

    I believe I read this to be true of 2/3 of Congress, which I find most appalling.

    @Betsy: as a New Yorker, I take umbrage at your implication that there is exactly one style of politeness. If you blurt out your question to a New Yorker, without boilerplate and unnecessary preamble, they are very helpful. The impolite thing is to unnecessarily waste their time with “Excuse me, I was wondering, if I could ask you a question, …” Conversely, a native New Yorker would never make unnecessary conversation with a cashier in front of a long line of waiting people, and when midWesterners do that it is UNCONSCIONABLY RUDE. You see?

  14. I just finished watching Harry Brown. Not the greatest movie, but relevant to the discussion here in that it did present a damning opinion of what I guess here is being called “yob” culture.

    Betsy, I sympathize with your use of the term “trash”, in that it refers to generally dysfunctional behavior and life outlook. But that said, it isn’t very useful, in that it isn’t very specific or meaningful.

    When we’re talking about crime, we can’t leave class out of the equation. This is the type of social problem that police overwhelmingly have to deal with. The question, which Keith (and the RBC in general) is abundantly aware of is what is driving these dysfunctional behaviors?

    Class is a broad term, but is highly predictive of specific social problems, most of which have multiple causes, yet generally end up with similar effects. Take for instance youth violence, delinquency, etc. Most of this is rooted in home life, either from dysfunctional parents or a lack of family capital that hinders positive development. One of the problems I see with delinquent youths is this lack of positive role-models. Fathers are generally absent, and mothers often lack proper skills or resources.

    Yet what is driving these conditions? A serious issue is the market-driven ghetto, the consolidation of populations with low levels of capital. These neighborhoods become “sinkholes” which place enormous downwards pressure on social mobility, as well as its expression by definition. Public schools become concentrated with children from disadvantaged families – whether due to poor supervision when parents work multiple low-pay jobs to make ends meet, or psychological or social dysfunction such as abuse or addiction (both of which are exacerbated by stress, something low-pay jobs produce in high volumes). This proves overwhelming for even the most talented staff, even when conditions are relatively good. Yet outside of school, peer relationships foster social norms that are highly dysfunctional, such that even relatively well-adjusted kids are susceptible to negative learning.

    A common conservative position on social dysfunction is the assumption that such people can simply rise above their position. In theory, this is possible, given enough luck and just the right circumstances. But the reality is that these are all real pressures that are not conducive to positive human development. In short, conservatism is asking the impossible – expecting some people to do better than others, and then blaming them for their failures after assuming they could have done better.

    The fundamental mistake is a failure to assess the importance of *specific* structural pressures. In the abstract, the individual is expected to be able to shrug off one or another pressure: parents not around in the evening? Read a book, do your homework. But kids can’t raise themselves, night after night – especially when peers or dysfunctional siblings are around to lead them astray (I’ve had many conversations with kids at my continuation school who speak of entire families wracked with problems – their exception due largely to luck). Kids inviting you to be delinquent? Ignore them. Class filled with poorly behaved peers? Concentrate! Dad beat you? Walk it off.

    It’s really just kind of absurd to imagine the conservative reasoning here. Poorly behaved people don’t choose to be that way. They are created. From birth, the learning begins – and every waking moment is development in action. Kids can’t choose what learning they will receive, nor how that learning will be processed in aggregate – forming their conscious capacities. Over generations, “trash” culture becomes reinforced and normalized. In many ways, ghettos are like different countries – operating according to different standards of conduct, expectations and realities.

    The extent to which there exist these pressures in communities, dysfunctional culture will develop. And if left unchecked, whether through lack of policy response or direction, the problems with fester, reinforcing and growing more solidified. American ghettos are decades in the making.

  15. Allen K — Yes, I do see. You are entirely correct: when everyone defines politeness differently, we all will be constantly violating the rules, and everyone will constantly be taking umbrage. And that is exactly what is happening.

    As for New York: you imply I am not familiar with it or that I am not from there. As to that, I don’t choose to correct you. Instead I will refer, more relevantly, to the (formerly well known) general rule for dealing with regional differences:

    “When in Rome …”

  16. Eli — Interesting points. I agree; I grow restless when I hear the so-called conservative answer (“rise above”). I’d like to know how my 7-year-old mentee from exactly the family background and part of town you describe is supposed to do that, when nearly every aspect of her life is traumatic.

  17. Trash culture starts and ends with doing exactly what one feels like doing, attending most closely to one’s basest instincts, saying whatever comes to mind, and being disregardful of the effect of one’s actions on others. In short, it starts and ends with LACK OF DISCIPLINE.

    On a scale, it moves from rudeness and crudeness, to petty malfeasance, to monstrous criminality.

    (Please note this definition is applicable equally across cultural dimensions: in advertising and media, in politics, in relationships and families, by white collar workers and the unemployed. It is not restricted to ghetto culture or to Wall Street culture.)

    Is that a good enough definition? If not, please refine, as needed.

  18. I meant to add “and SELFISHNESS” at the end of my first paragraph in the post at 10:52, but hit the submit button too early.

Comments are closed.