This week, the Ukrainian chess player Anna Muzychuk hit the headlines after she refused to attend a tournament taking place this weekend in Saudi Arabia. In a statement painting herself as a martyr to women's rights, she instead revealed herself to be ignorant, close-minded and unwilling to learn. Worse, she was lauded as a "hero" to many.
Looking back on this year, in which people seem to have been whipped into an ever-increasing, Internet-enabled frenzy of reaction and commentary on events both local and global, the need for travel is clearer than ever.
Unfortunately, many of the people leading attacks on real understanding - from all sides of the political and social spectrum - see themselves as arbiters of right and wrong, good and bad, progressive or regressive. Too many “educated” people have only polarised opinion with their partial and distorted views, encouraging the spewing of hate and discontent across as many platforms as possible.
This process only seems to make people more ignorant and the discourse more tense and is, in many cases, pointless and counterproductive. Perversely, this whole process is actually an attractive option for many as it’s easy: you can spout off before retreating back into your own little world, convinced of your own correctness. But if only such people would take the time to travel in order to, if not quite achieve enlightenment, at least to understand in a meaningful way why some people think and understand the world differently. Never before has a truly global understanding of the world been more important, or so wilfully ignored.
The good news is that in general terms, travel is now easier and cheaper than ever, workplaces and economies are more flexible and the skills gained from travel are starting to be tangibly appreciated. Opening yourself up to the world is a scary, impossible thing for many, as it involves confronting the reality that the image any of us is born with - our “factory setting” if you like, moulded in childhood - of what the world is and our place in it - is an illusion.
People who travel in their early 20s or even 30s report on the transformational power of travel, in which the images we have spent so many years receiving, cultivating and reproducing - about other people, other countries and ways of living and believing - are replaced with very different, tangible and often positive impressions. Because we are actually experiencing these changes rather than hearing about them from our friends, family or a computer screen, they are extremely powerful and effective. Yet one of the things that continues to intrigue me is that it’s usually the most mobile, “free” and often Western individuals among us, those who are not generally subject to travel bans and can travel visa-free to dozens of countries, who need to travel the most.
Watching the ongoing self-combustion of the United Kingdom over Brexit serves as an illustration of how a misunderstanding of our place in the world can lead to catastrophic consequences. In the irony of ironies, one of the biggest “kerfuffles”, to quote a perjorative Sky News presenter - has been over the proposed new colour of the British passport. If only those who voted for Brexit had used their passports more, to develop themselves into useful, appropriately-skilled global citizens. In the year ahead, before you criticise another country, culture or religion, or listen to someone or something else sounding off about it, ask yourself this question. Have I been there? Have they been there? Do you really know what you are talking about? If the answer is no, I suggest you hit the road.