Matt’s latest blog titled Jerusalem’s a zoo got me thinking about what a great metaphor a zoo becomes when one examines the animal being watched and the animal watching. In The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, Richard Dawkin talks about the concept of “Flight Distance.” It is a well-known concept for those who study animal behavior in the wild. Flight distance measures the distance, say a wolf would allow a human being to approach before taking flight. Compared to feral dogs the wolf takes off at a much farther distance. And a domestic dog rather than taking flight might wag its tail and lick your hand.
Of course if an animal is in a zoo cage, flight distance become irrelevant; there is no place to run. The enclosure is protected by the bars, moat, fence or other barriers to separate the creature from higher primates like ourselves. From ancient China to modern times governments and kingdoms have built walls to keep out the possible predator, the other that might cause them harm. In this case, the predator or other is another group of human beings. Of course, when man builds such walls we effectively construct our own cages. The irony is often lost on those seeking protection that by building such contentment structures; we are putting ourselves a kind of zoo.
Flight distance is also experienced by expats. Strangers who come from a different culture cause anxiety. That anxiety is often mutual. Though expats are tolerated for a variety of reasons involving class, money and education. Knock out those social and economic props and you have a person who isn’t an expat but an illegal immigrant. See how the illegal immigrant is treated in America, England, Spain, Italy, Denmark (the list goes on and on), compared with the expat. Perhaps the difference is somewhere between a wolf and feral dog.
Then there are the ethnic tribes living inside the same borders or along the same borders. Flight distance ebbs and flows between these ethnic groups and politicians measure the emotions of the day in making their policy.
Both sides—the local and the outsider—feel the stirrings of the ancient flight hormones racing through their blood stream. We automatically place some distance to separate ourselves from anyone who signal even a marginal threat. Why take the chance is the little voice playing inside the head. On the Skytrain in Bangkok, I’ve seen seats empty on either side of a foreigner as the Thai commuters prefer to stand in the crowded aisle than sit next to a non-Thai. In the 1980s in New York City, you saw three or four teenagers walking toward you in downtown Manhattan and you crossed over to the other side, or turned down another street.
We find ways to put distance between those who are different. We wish to avoid them. In part the educational system encourages each national group to feel exceptional and to view others as less worthy, important, or, in extreme cases, human. This works well in war. Hatred and the fired up passion fueled by nationalism and ethnic identity allows commanders to override the flight distance monitor in a soldiers’ head and send him or her into battle. Though the historical record is highly suggestive that males bond into maundering bands intend on ambush and murder.
Strangers are uneasy as they go through an alien territory. No doubt we have a genetic memory of killing or fleeing from such individuals. Then we built walls. Because we are territorial by nature and predatory by design, and fearful of the intentions and motives of those we don’t know. If we have no prior bond with them, or a bond that has been broken, and we think of such people not as people but monsters and feel nothing but hostility toward monsters.
Without the bond of community we are on alert of the distance of others. We measure that distance. It’s on the nightly news. Where the enemy is hiding and waiting. We are told to be vigilant. We take off our shoes and belts watches and open our laptops for inspections at airports. There is no flight distance once you’re on an airplane. We live in an age where people are hunkered down, watching the horizon for danger. Perhaps we are reverting to a wolf flight distance pattern. What we don’t want is for foreigners to stay too close to where we live. We don’t want those who are different in appearance, belief, religion, or social class at our elbow. It makes us fearful for our throats.
We shuffle along day-by-day inside our own private zoos thinking we are free. When we watch the nightly news broadcast it is a trail of visual images of people who miscalculated the flight distance and ended up wounded or dead. Those images of horror keep everyone on their toes. Keeps them on their side of the fence. Keeps them in line and dependent on the government for protection. The wall builds best friend. Fear. Those of us who set stories inside such communities hope to illustrate perceptions from multiple points of view and without making a judgment of right or wrong. What we can offer is a version of how people inside the cultures we write about measure the flight distance that separates them from us with a glimmer of hope that understanding how and why we measure might give us a new way of looking at others and ourselves.