Stories in this Iran Travel Series:
In previous articles I explained why I feel safer living in Iran, that almost none of the headline-grabbing arrests apply to tourists, and why I take with a grain of salt what foreign diplomats and travel advisories say about unfriendly countries.
Decide on Iran’s tourism safety based on facts not hearsay
But no matter how objective we try to be, it is easy to confuse facts with impressions we develop over time about foreign people and places.
There is a huge gap between reality in Iran and how it is perceived. Tourists say this all the time.
This is constantly on my mind because I face polar extremes: I have friends who gratefully visit and I have friends and family who think I’m bonkers for even suggesting travel to Iran.
First: Fear of Iran is not a product of bigotry or conspiracy or malice toward Iran, like some Iranians claim. All the Iranian nationalists on Quora and Reddit who constantly claim victimhood and fetishize conspiracy can go F themselves.
In fact, Western news media’s reporting on Iran is almost always accurate.
What’s missing is balance and context.
Repetition of news media warps our opinions about Iran
For almost everyone, information about Iran comes exclusively from the news media. But the news media are not a balanced source of information. They’re not supposed to be. They report the negative because that’s their job.
And the news is reported without context. The news media are like sports announcers yelling out the latest volley simply because it’s new, not because it’s relevant to our lives. News reports what they said or did to us today or yesterday. But there’s never enough space to explain why (and the nasty things we did to them decades earlier that triggered the conflict.)
News is also engineered to sell: flashy, shallow, to be consumed addictively in large quantities with the least amount of thinking. It’s to the mind what sugar is to the body.
News media’s warping effect is subtle and quick
News media’s bias for the negative warps our perception of foreign people and places. And it happens very quickly.
Years ago, during a long period of unemployment, I became a fanatical reader of The New York Times – in lieu of doing something rational, like searching for a job.
Rain or shine, I got up early to grab the paper at the end of my driveway. That and coffee often occupied entire mornings. International news was my favorite.
But there came a day that I heard myself say that the Japanese, of all people, are “different” and not in a good way.
It came from reading just a few stories about Japan’s lack of charity toward immigrants, its refusal to stop hunting whales and the denial of some WWII atrocities.
I was clueless about the internal politics that rendered an acknowledgment of the past political suicide, the same way Bill Clinton was pilloried for suggesting an apology for CIA’s 1953 overthrow of Iran’s government.
I knew not a single Japanese person and had never visited the country. But, hey, I was a prolific reader of all the news fit for print and confident that I knew plenty.
Warped ideas about unseen people (really their governments) gel into emotions
What’s more, we develop emotional certainties on who is bad based on the actions and rethoric of their governments and notorious personalities. Eventually, even the occasional good news is filtered by confidence that this place and these people are dangerous or at least innately incompatible with us.
After all, our brains are perfect victims for the mother of all cognitive errors: confirmation bias.
What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.Warren Buffett
Shortly after 9/11, the wife of a dear friend sat in my kitchen and swore that Islam turns people into terrorists. The woman has two Master’s degrees.
The visceral beliefs of the masses regarding “them foreigners” are the critical fuel for unspeakable tragedies. They’re what politicians rely on to trumpet violence – until corpses of soldiers chasing non-existent WMD’s start piling up.
Many good people aren’t aware they are judging travel safety in Iran based on false impressions
I stopped inviting a Spanish friend to Iran because every time I did, he’d throw up his hands and say, “Come on. There’s always war over there.”
The last time there was a war in Iran was in 1988. The number of terrorist attacks here since then, including those from Iran’s archenemy ISIS, is a tiny fraction of the attacks in Europe and North America.
But I don’t blame my friend. He is convinced by decades of negative headlines gelled into a seemingly trustworthy heuristic.
Iran safe for travel? Positive depictions of Iran are hard to find
There’s a lot of negative news coming out of the West as well. Just the count on the migrants drowning in the Mediterranean is sickening.
But the deluge of bad news is balanced with the positive depictions of Europe and the Americas in our social media feeds, movies, books, even the fairy tales we grow up with. Disney, Marvel and Harry Potter speak to hearts of Iranian kids too.
The West’s cultural hegemony is a huge advantage.
Imagine if all your news from America were broadcasts of Donald Trump rallies.
But no matter how much xenophobia the orange man spouts, the world’s knowledge of America is balanced with depictions of normal decent Americans in the media we consume.
Normal, decent Iranians don’t appear in Hollywood movies or any other movies outside Iran. Hollywood tells us Iranians beat their wives and take hostages.
The people who do visit Iran are special
I don’t argue anymore with people who are dubious about travel safety in Iran. I just say come see for yourself, which, of course, could draw more heat.
But the invitations are worth the bother because the people who do come are often exactly the kind of people I cherish: insightful, educated, multicultural, tolerant seekers who yearn to see the humanity in others.
I cherish them almost as much as escaping the insane traffic here for the desert.