I remember the first time I saw a wall constructed with the purpose of division. I was 19 and traveling throughout Northern Ireland. In Belfast I observed a 15-foot wall that separated Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. On the Protestant side, houses and lampposts were draped with British flags and walls were painted with pro-unionist paramilitary propaganda. On the Catholic side the aesthetics were different, but the attitude was the same. I vividly remember being asked, half jokingly, if I spelled my name the right way (Sean would indicate that I am Catholic, Shawn would make me a Protestant).
Northern Ireland was my first experience in a conflict zone. But two years later I found myself looking at another wall, this time in Bethlehem. When I asked a young Palestinian man how far the wall went on for he replied, “forever.” In the highly contended West Bank settlement Hebron, I saw signs that read, “No Jews allowed,” and “Arabs are pigs.” I met a man who carried a gun on him at all times because he did not trust his Palestinian neighbors.
The next summer I visited various provinces in Turkey, Georgia, and Armenia. Until recently, it was illegal in Turkey to publicly define the Armenian Genocide of 1915 as genocide because it “insulted Turkishness.”. In Georgia I heard Georgian civil society members dedicated to peace building criticize the Russian government because, “That is how Russians are.” When I was in Armenia my Armenian friends argued over whether or not the deity in the ancient ruins we visited was ancient Persian or ancient Armenian.
Some people, organizations, and philosophies attribute the division in these areas to religion, especially in Northern Ireland and in the Middle East. But interfaith dialogue can also help end it. I have come to realize that the real culprit in these areas is nationalism. All of these arguments and stagnation in the attempt to ease protracted relations has had less to do with religion, and more of the notion of “us against them.”
What traveling to these places did was not so much open my eyes to different realities; rather, it was coming back home and relating these divisions to my own country. I was forced to question how I was nationalistic in my own way. After hours of deep reflection, I realized that I was proud of my country for all of the wrong reasons. When I was younger, I praised my country’s first amendment right to freedom of speech, but became offended when people criticized U.S. foreign policy. I’d shout out how great my country was for its level of opportunity, but cuff my ears when my Black and Latino American colleagues attempted to talk to me about my inherent white privilege. I was forced to come to terms with the good things my country has done, but also recognize the things I am not proud of, such as the enslavement of Africans, and the invasions of Vietnam and Iraq, to name a few.
Traveling did not just teach me how to reconcile good things with the bad in the United States, it challenged me to check my ethnocentric worldviews and confront the notion of American Exceptionalism. I always thought that the United States was the best at everything, not just as an economic and military world power. I thought everything my country did was righteous and good. I held this sentiment even after visiting these conflict zones. It was not until last April when I visited a friend in Finland who described to me his country’s healthcare and educational system, (which the latter by the way, is the best in the world) that my outlook began to change. My old self, my falsely proud self, would argue that this system could not be adopted in the U.S. While this is still arguable, my past travels have taught me to look back into my nation’s history. If I am to understand my nation’s past, I must accept that the Founding Father’s borrowed ideas from all over the world, especially European ideas. The United States was and will continue to be a vibrant marketplace of ideas. Now I believe, more than ever, we should adopt practices from countries that are excelling in them.
Traveling has taught me that nationalism isn’t merely frivolous, but in the case of ultra-nationalism – dangerous. Stark division can lead to justification of violence. If I think that someone different from me is threatening my way of life, I am subject to being convinced that responding violently to them will sustain my culture, my language, and my heritage. It taught me that I needed to check myself when I’m propagating my own form nationalism. Ultimately, traveling taught me that nationalism, “teaches you to hate people that you never met, and … pride in accomplishments you had no part in whatsoever.”