Why we should all spend more time looking at maps

There’s no excuse for not being able to find the Central African Republic on a world map.

Source: Slava Bowman / Unsplash

Every time a major catastrophe takes place in a major (western) city like Paris, London, or New York takes place, a predictable sequence of events takes place. Firstly, social media goes nuts, with people changing their profile pictures to the flag of whatever country got bombed/attacked/whatever. Then a small but persistent squad of professional outrage artists chimes in, complaining that tragedies that affect rich white nations invariably drown out similarly egregious events in the Global South that get far less attention.

Cue the duelling tiny violins.

As an educator — and somebody who has always loved maps and geography — I find both camps equally annoying. On the one hand, nobody deserves a medal for caring about what happens in East Timor or Equatorial Guinea, let alone for shaming those who don’t appear to exhibit sufficient awareness of events in small developing countries that most in the west know little (if anything) about. On the other hand, is there really any excuse for not being able to find Tanzania on a map — especially given how easily such information is accessible anymore?

In other words, no, fixating on a terrorist attack in Paris while overlooking one in Peshawar is not racist. But it’s still ignorance. And if we’re going to get anywhere as a global society, we really ought to get to know the geography of our planet a whole lot better.

When I was about eight years old my dad gave me what was probably the greatest present I ever received. We had just recently moved into a new house and I had my own room for the first time ever, wherein my father took on the gargantuan task of covering two out of four walls (the ones unimpeded by closets and windows) with a gigantic bathymetric world map.

As a geography-obsessed kid I was obviously ecstatic that I now had the world’s coolest wallpaper. But at the time I don’t think my dad realized the full extent of what he was doing. For the next ten years of my life I would spend countless hours reading, doing homework, talking on the phone, and daydreaming in a giant map room — something that (I’m sure) had a lasting impact on the topography of my young mind. Not only did it impart me with a profound love of maps and a knowledge of geography that continues to amaze my peers, but it also deeply influenced my worldview and my politics.

For most North Americans, the southern hemisphere is a very remote concept — basically that place where Australia is. But in my case the southern hemisphere is where I went to bed at night. With the Cape of Good Hope at the head of my bed and my reading lamp situated off the east coast of Madagascar, I spent countless hours memorizing the contours of the east coast of Africa, with place names like Mogadishu, Mombasa, Zanzibar, and Maputo becoming as familiar as the names in the Toronto Blue Jays batting lineup. Above my head stretched the deep, wide Indian Ocean. The grand statement of India, adorned with the jewels of Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and the Andaman Islands, were typically the last things I saw at night before I turned off the light.

By contrast, the desk where I did my homework was situated directly underneath East Asia. While it’s hard to say how much my future academic interest in Japan, China, and Southeast Asia was rooted in the fact that these countries stared directly over me as I did my homework as a child, it’s an uncanny parallel. By age 10 I knew what all of Japan’s main islands were and had memorized much of the geography of the Philippines and Indonesia. Java was long a place in my mind before it was synonymous with coffee, and when I started hearing news broadcasts about the downfall of the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, I knew exactly where that was — and imagined all the protesters in Manila and elsewhere seething in the land that lurked directly above my head as I procrastinated on math homework.

Further, because this was a bathymetric map that looked like somebody had taken a huge vacuum cleaner to the world’s oceans, I also gained an uncanny familiarity with the geological topography of the earth’s surface. When a South African jumbo jet crashed in the sea off Mauritius (a place I knew well thanks to my bed lamp’s position) back in 1987 I knew full well how difficult a search and rescue this would be given the five-kilometer-deep abyssal plain it would have descended to. I knew that Iceland wasn’t so much a random rock in the middle of the Atlantic as a massive outgrowth of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, that sensuous spinal column down the middle of the ocean spreading the Atlantic basin millimeter at a time. Whereas for many the idea of continental drift seemed like an absurd notion, for me it seemed perfectly reasonable.

I also got to know the globe without geographical borders. The map had cities and country names, but no actual boundaries apart from natural ones like rivers and mountain ranges. The world on my walls wasn’t one of arbitrary socio-political constructs like “Europe” and the “Middle East” so much as geographical regions like the Pacific Rim and the coastal continuum stretching from the Arabian Sea coast of India to the Cape of Good Hope. In my dreams I would imagine myself as a dhow captain of old taking in ports of call like Socotra, Aden, and Antananarivo on my way to Cape Town and beyond.

Today I remain eternally thankful to my dad for wallpapering my childhood room with maps, and in doing so inoculating me against a whole world of hurt in the form of ignorance and prejudice.

A hierarchy of global awareness

Source: Anes Sabitovic / Unsplash

The global social media response to the November 13, 2015 attacks on Paris provided a fascinating glimpse into the contours of inner recesses of people’s global awareness. Within hours of the tragedy, seemingly half my Facebook friends had adopted the tricolore (or some variant thereof) into their profile pictures and had made some sort of post acknowledging the event. It only took about 24 hours for my social media world to begin acknowledging that the Paris massacre was but one of a series of similar tragedies, leading to an upsurge of #PrayforSyria/#PrayforBeirut/etc. messages to go up and for many to incorporate greens and/or cedar trees into their profiles.

I opted to simply revert to my pre-November 13 profile pic rather than frantically try to stay politically correct amid a steadily shifting topography of expectations. After all, there seemed to be something deeply disconcerting about this painfully self-conscious effort to prove one’s global consciousness amid so much suffering. I mean, what of the perpetually catastrophic ethnic upheaval in the Central African Republic that left a further 22 people dead the day after the Paris massacre, tumult that nearly nixed Pope Francis’ visit to the country in late 2015? Where were the #PrayfortheCAR hashtags for the refugees who continue to breathe jet fuel exhaust in their makeshift camp adjacent to the airport runway at Bangui?

The truth is, we’re all deeply hierarchical when it comes to living and breathing world events. Paris, by virtue of the fact that it’s a major European capital of culture that many of us have visited in person (it is, after all, the world’s most visited city) and a major economic and political hub, was bound to hog the headlines. Beirut, by contrast, is far less familiar to the global public other than its status as a major city in one of the world’s most perpetually unstable regions. A terrorist act in the city, as in Baghdad or Damascus, simply becomes background noise, exactly what you expect, much like a drug cartel massacre in Mexico or Central America, a deadly typhoon in Southeast Asia, a plane crash in Russia, or something insane out of the mouth of Donald Trump or Ben Carson.

Still, places like Beirut and Baghdad are more familiar to us than, say, the CAR or Kenya, where 147 students were gunned down at Garissa University by al-Shabaab militants in 2015— a news story that suddenly became current again after the Paris massacre. It took a massacre in a European city to remind people of this earlier tragedy, but it remained a very surface level of awareness, and one still rooted in self-conscious guilt over not having acknowledged the massacre to begin with because it was perpetuated against black Africans rather than against white Europeans. While it’s unquestionably a good thing that we got this reminder, the nature of our social media culture is such that it will be quickly forgotten about as we move on to other things, displaced by the latest tragedy and upheaval.

In the meantime, refugees in the CAR will continue to cling to life on the edge of the Bangui runway, and nobody will talk about it on Facebook. Because even Kenya is more familiar to most than the Central African Republic, which is pretty much on the bottom of the hierarchy of global awareness.

What to do about it?

The crux of the problem, in my opinion, is that most of us are more or less geographically illiterate. Comedian John Oliver repeatedly trolls his audience by intentionally misidentifying countries on maps, knowing full well that most people watching his show couldn’t locate Bolivia on an unmarked map if their life depended on it. While there are still far too many people out there for whom stories of terrorist attacks in Africa and the Middle East fail to register for reasons of racial bigotry, the majority of us, I’m convinced, do genuinely believe that black and brown lives matter. It’s just that most of us are painfully unfamiliar with the geographic distribution of said black and brown lives.

It scarcely needs saying that unless you happen to live in Beirut, Mogadishu, or Bangui, you’ve spent far more of your life thinking about Paris than any of the aforementioned cities, if for no other reason because there’s very little out in the world to remind us that these places exist (except when something explodes there). How many prints or cross-stitch pillows bearing images of the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe have you seen at Home Sense or Pier 1 Import? How often do you see similar products with, say, imagines of Beirut’s Place de Martyrs or Mogadishu’s Almnara Tower? How many of us would even recognize these landmarks if we saw them? Probably very few. How many of you knew what the capital of the CAR was before reading this article? Unless you’re a) from the region, b) an Africa specialist, or c) an insufferable geography geek like me, chances are you didn’t.

Here’s my suggestion as an antidote to all the consternation and uproar over the outsized presence of Paris in people’s consciousness vis-à-vis other tragedy-stricken cities: turn off the social media and curl up with a globe or a map book. Spend some quality time with Gaia and get to know her nuances and contours. Start with a bathymetric map with no political boundaries and get a feel for how the warp and woof of continents shaped human migration. Then add the borders — this should give you a sense of how arbitrary they are, particularly in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, where the ubiquity of straight lines and right angles betray a callous colonial disregard for the long histories, cultures, and tribal affiliations of the people who lived there long before Europeans took control of these regions.

If you want to up the ante, try your hand at some of the many online geography quizzes out there. Try to memorize all the states of India or Brazil or the Autonomous Oblasts, Okrugs, and other subnational entities in Russia, and see how well you do. It was sobering for me to learn that after all my studies of Chinese history in university and time spent in Asia that I could barely identify more than 20 per cent of the PRC’s provinces — once you get past the big, obvious ones like Tibet, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Guangdong it gets pretty hard. Seriously treat yourself like an elementary school student and really study your planet. It’s oddly fun, and you’ll come out of it much more globally aware than you were before.

I’ve often thought it’s a real shame that adults rarely (if ever) have the opportunity to go back to elementary/junior high/high school to brush up on bits and pieces of basic knowledge they failed to fully absorb the first time around. In my case I really wish I could take high school mathematics again. As a child I had a severe anxiety around math and was convinced I simply “couldn’t do it.” As an adult I’m cognizant of the fact that I have gaping holes in my numeracy, and would dearly love to take on trigonometry and calculus again armed with a level of self-confidence that I sorely lacked as a teenager. Many of us could use the same type of brush-up when it comes to geography and history. I was just fortunate to have exactly the right influences early on in life in developing a high level of global awareness.

In sum, I urge you not to judge people for their lack of awareness of events in places like Lebanon or Kenya or the Comoros Islands. Most of us aren’t, and it’s not because we don’t care. It’s that most of us don’t have the wherewithal to place these events on the physical plain. Don’t judge. Don’t hate. Just crack open an atlas and start from the beginning. And then put your head back, close your eyes, think of the east coast of Africa, and imagine a beautiful sunrise on a Mozambican beach. Where nothing bad is happening.

In order to fully comprehend a tragedy anywhere, you first have to imagine that place at peace with itself, with everyday people going about their normal lives. We do that with Paris all the time anytime we hear an Édith Piaf song or watch a movie like Amélie. Is it really that hard to imagine people in Beirut or Mogadishu getting up in the morning, having their coffee, and battling rush-hour traffic — with no bombs going off or anything? In John Lennon’s immortal words, it’s easy if you try. Trouble is, we all need to be reminded to think about these things. Shutting off all the social media from time to time and curling up with a good map book might be a good way to start.