Embracing difference in an interconnected world

Words: David Ritchie
ARt: Heather Coleman & Lauren goding

Back in the sixties when the hovercraft was first invented my family set out from London to go camping, ‘on the Continent.’ All over Europe we drove in our Vauxhall Victor Deluxe, two tones of blue, with our second hand tent in the trunk. We saw real mountains and real art and—would you believe—real foreigners, people who ate different things, spoke different languages, had different attitudes to the rules of the road.

Somewhere near Vienna my brother fell ill. We sought medical attention. There’s nothing so attention-getting as the threat of illness in a completely foreign setting. The only family member with any sense of German, I was asked what my brother’s stool was like. I thought this a pretty odd question.

“He doesn’t own a stool.”

My mother, who had worked in a hospital, explained to me that he did indeed have a stool and that it was liquid.

His ailment was probably viral. I know this because we ate so very little foreign food. This was not, as you might suppose, because we were afraid of it. The British government imposed restrictions on the amount of currency you could take abroad: fifty pounds, max, which was not much money. People all around us in campsites cooked garlic and eggplant and langoustines, great-smelling stuff. We would boil potatoes and carrots and add our beans or beef, both from a can. Being in the presence of diversity is the beginning of cultural influence.

Deeper change comes with eating at one another’s tables.

For much of human history, rules were local. You lived in a small area circumscribed by how far you could walk or ride. You had to do something extraordinary to come to the attention of distant authority and that attention could be fatal. People protected themselves in communities of trust, which is to say that in each community everyone knew what you could and could not do, and how far across any line it was possible to trespass.

And then the world grew. We invented portable money and cities so big that we needed the rule of law. Pleasures—tea, coffee, coca, opium, chocolate, foreign alcohols— traveled to parts of the world where they were unknown and restricted only by someone’s ability to afford them. People moved to new places and invented new ways of living, new religions, new notions of human rights.

We humans have not been slow to embrace connectedness. What we’ve done is change the size of the circles within which we find connection. We’ve been evolving to embrace the idea that the community we live in is far bigger than it ever was before. We acknowledge that how we talk, how we look, how we think—all of us differently—may be worthy of note, but absolutely everyone has a stool.

David Ritchie is a professor of history at PNCA.  He recently finished his sixth comedy, ‘Existence and a Pig,’ which considers a fictional meeting between Picasso, Sartre and P. G. Wodehouse.