Researcher Says Americans Are "Deluded" Regarding What They Know About the Rest of the World

Release Date: September 14, 2004 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Whether uninterested, uninformed or simply ignorant, many millions of Americans cannot answer even basic questions about American politics, much less world affairs, and it has cost the United States dearly.

George Barnett, Ph.D., communications researcher and professor in the School of Informatics at the University at Buffalo, says the onslaught of terrorism, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, problems with traditional allies, environmental degradation and the drastic changes in our domestic economy can't be blamed simply on Americans' ignorance, but have roots in our inability to consider perspectives and interests other than our own.

"Americans are impoverished citizens of the world and unless we do something about it, we will continue to experience the adverse consequences of that fact," he says.

Barnett conducts research in global communications and the sociology of knowledge. He is internationally recognized as the author of more than 100 books, articles and conference papers on a wide range of communications topics: organizational, mass, international and intercultural, political, and technical and scientific. Through his work, he travels widely on many continents.

"People from other countries and any well-traveled, well-read U.S. citizen know that, as a group, Americans are virtually ignorant of anything beyond our own borders," he notes.

"As a result of this," Barnett says, "we make gross errors in judgment about who wants what, who agrees with us, who our enemies are and what constitutes an enemy -- or a friend -- in the first place."

He says we need to take steps now as individuals to change that or we may have to pay a terrible price.

"Americans live in an insular nation. As a group, we think we 'know' a lot more than we actually do," he explains. "We've gotten away with it for a long time, but we have been deluded by our own assumptions.

"Today the price we pay for such ignorance and arrogance is death, maiming, alienation and a state of shocked, grief-stricken horror. We realize now that the world is not the place we thought it was, but we don't know much more than that."

Barnett says Americans struggle with "the increasingly obvious fact that many people overseas mock us or are angry with us, but we do little to inform ourselves about their reasons.

"As a result we continue to be removed from reality. We are living in a dream if we think that our lives are anything at all like the lives of the vast majority of the world's population," he adds.

"Millions of us numb ourselves every night with endless hours of what we call 'reality TV.' It's time we stop kidding ourselves. If we're going to be better citizens of the world, we need to find out what 'reality' actually is."

To do that, Barnett suggests that Americans:

1. Recognize that Americans have limited first-hand knowledge of others. The geographical U.S. and Americans are isolated. "The U.S borders only two countries and one of them is another English-speaking, industrialized, educated, European-oriented nation," says Barnett. "This seriously limits our view of how different life is in other countries."

2. Study a second language "or at least recognize that speaking only English limits your perspective." Most Americans, unlike so many others in the world, speak only one language, although 20 percent of the U.S. population is Spanish-speaking. "Language incorporates and conveys the values and perspectives of the speaker, and monolinguists are often monoculturalists as well." Barnett adds.

3. Travel abroad. Barnett says that only 20 percent of Americans have passports and far fewer than that actually go overseas. "When you travel, don't just go to tourist sites," he advises. "Visit neighborhoods. If you're in Cancun, go into the city; on a cruise, get off the boat and go beyond the tourist-oriented areas. Look at the housing, the commerce, the schools, places of worship, hospitals, transportation systems, parks, standard of living. Talk to people about where they work, how they get there, what they want to do, what they want for their children. Go to 'their' restaurants and taverns and festivals and social clubs. You'll come away a very surprised American."

4. Before traveling, read the introductions in guidebooks. "They tell you a great deal about the history, economy, industry, religious practices, languages, politics and attitudes that prevail in that country," Barnett adds.

5. In Europe, use a Eurail pass. It's cheap, efficient and Barnett notes that it will provide time to talk at length with other passengers.

6. Take advantage of language/cultural trips to more exotic destinations. Universities and other groups often offer package cultural instruction tours to Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Middle East, Africa and other destinations less visited by tourists.

7. In the U.S., visit cities and neighborhoods with large foreign or indigenous native populations. Barnett suggests places like urban "Chinatowns," Miami, San Antonio, the Southwest. "Spend some time with these people. Listen. Their culture, politics and values may be quite different from yours -- much more conservative or liberal. They represent the 'others' here and abroad whom we frequently do not consider."

8. Turn off your TV. "Get your news from someplace besides a television news program or U.S. daily newspaper" he adds. "Even the majority of newspaper editors say the U.S. press covers international news poorly. This includes CNN."

9. Search for new news sources. Consider BBC News, CBC News, CNN Asia or CNN Europe (produced by Asians and Europeans, respectively), independent radio programs, perhaps The Christian Science Monitor. "Go online and read foreign papers and news Web sites," Barnett suggests. "In English, try the Guardian or The Independent. If you speak another language, pursue news in that language occasionally. I guarantee that you will be shocked -- shocked -- at what goes on in this world (some of it in your name) that you will never, ever know about from U.S. television or newspapers."

10. Recognize that on the Internet, nearly all communication is domestic. "No matter how long you're online or what site you visit, if you're an American, you are likely talking to another American or reading what another American wrote," he adds.

11. Complain if your cable company doesn't offer foreign news channels without purchasing two or three premium channels. You may disagree with the news you hear on these stations, Barnett says, but foreign news represents points of view that are real, different from your own, and often powerful and accepted by millions of people. "To refuse to recognize that is willful ignorance," he adds.

12. Read magazines and books that teach about other cultures and feature clear, concise writing by well-traveled Americans like Paul Theroux. Barnett suggests Americans read Granta, a quarterly journal that publishes articles written by foreign nationals about other countries altogether -- for example, Syrians writing about the Edinburgh theater festival; Malaysians writing about Turkish film.

13. View foreign films and listen to foreign music. "Films and music are culture-carriers," Barnett adds, "and they represent the 'truth' as experienced by those who make them."

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