Discover more from The Cairo Dispatch
On the Intersection of Ethics and Travel
staying true to ourselves and keeping an open mind in the face of ethical challenges
Happy Tuesday, friends!
As you read this, I am emerging from the forests of Guatemala, where the fabulous sunsets almost make up for the torrid heat. This has been the trip of a lifetime, and I’m excited to tell you more about it in the coming weeks (preview photo above!).
My paid subscribers received my big guide to Cairo a couple weeks ago; this Friday, they’re getting my recommendations for Athens and the island of Hydra. I’m going to continue sending out one new travel guide per month to paid subscribers for the foreseeable future. Some will be Egypt-focused, as that’s my real expertise (I have a series of planned posts that I’ll eventually roll into a longform guide) while others will focus on the various corners of the globe I’ve covered in this newsletter. If that’s of interest, you can manage your subscription below.
Today, I’m exploring a question that every thoughtful traveler faces eventually: where should we (or shouldn’t we) travel in order to stay in line with our personal code of ethics, and how should we behave when visiting places that challenge that ethical code?
Have a wonderful week,
A couple months ago, I was scrolling through Substack Notes and came across a post by, which linked to a story about Singapore’s execution of a man convicted of a drug offense on scant evidence.
This upset me deeply. I don’t believe in the death penalty generally, but the idea that someone could be deprived of their life without proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt terrified me. My knee-jerk reaction was to grumble to myself about how I’d never visit Singapore—I didn’t want to legitimize the government’s behavior or support it with my tourist dollars.
But the more I thought about it, the less my logic stood up to scrutiny. I’m from the U.S., which practices the death penalty, and I live in Egypt, where prosecutors recently floated the idea of executing a convict on live TV. Why should I hold Singapore to a different standard than the countries where I pay taxes and spend much of my income? It’s easier to choose not to visit a place than it is to separate oneself from one’s country of origin or residence, of course, but as boycotting Singapore wouldn’t have much effect on the global use of the death penalty, it didn’t feel like the answer.
Plus, boycotting would be a classic slippery slope—I could find political and cultural practices I disagree with in just about every country in the world if I looked hard enough. If I wanted to be a moral absolutist, I’d soon be stuck at home. This begged the question of where I should be drawing lines based on ethical disagreements, or whether I should be drawing them at all.
To find an answer, I turned again to Substack Notes, and asked other travelers how they felt:
The resulting thread is chock full of (mostly) thoughtful answers. I encourage you to click on it above and read it in its entirety, but I’m going to summarize and expand upon the recurring themes.
One thing I want to make clear upfront: whether we should actively push an agenda when we travel is not what I’m talking about today. In fact, that isn’t really traveling at all; that’s being a missionary. I’m interested in whether and how we can avoid supporting regimes whose policies, practices, and values we find objectionable, because—like it or not—when you visit a place, its political elites are likely to benefit.
Of course, each of us finds different policies, practices, and values objectionable. So for ease of reading, I’ll pretend we’re considering a visit to a place I think we can all agree is morally deficient: the fictional Grand Duchy of Public Toenail Clippers, where the government has enshrined in law the god-given right to clip one’s toenails whenever and wherever they choose and the majority of the populace exercises that right regularly.1
Here are some things to consider as you plan your visit to the Grand Duchy of Public Toenail Clippers.
separating the government from the governed is critical
We can’t pass judgment on an entire country based on the actions of the powerful, because those actions will never reflect the views of every individual who lives there. In the Grand Duchy of Public Toenail Clippers—the GDPTC, for short—a great number of subjects are bound to be just as disgusted with public toenail clipping as you are.
Refusing to visit the GDPTC on the grounds that it doesn’t share your moral code would make little sense, because plenty of its subjects do share your moral code. So give each GDPTC subject you encounter the benefit of the doubt, and don’t assume they clip their toenails in public.
Depending on the political system of the country, this principle can even extend to current and former members of the military, police, and other government functionaries. The GDPTC, for example, is a universal conscription state due to their longstanding border dispute with the neighboring Republic of Open-Mouth Chewers. GDPTC conscripts are legally compelled to defend their country’s values. That does not mean they ascribe to those values personally.
Of course, this is a two-way street. In our Substack Notes thread,of said that he, as a Brit, would not want people he meets abroad to assume he agrees with Brexit. Similarly, I wouldn’t want to be dismissed as a person based on the current mess that is American politics. We should extend others the same courtesy we hope to receive whenever and wherever we travel.
traveling can lend support to people in need
The fact that not everyone in the GDPTC supports public toenail clipping doesn’t obviate the fact that some portion of the money you spend there will inevitably land in the coffers of the pro-clipping government. You could reasonably question whether it’s right to give such a government any financial support at all. However, many subjects of the GDPTC are impoverished and could really use the cash that visitors bring in.
If you are conscientious about where you spend your money, you can do a great deal of good for those people. Say you find a cute family-run bed and breakfast, and elect to stay there instead of an international hotel chain. The benefit to that family probably outweighs whatever marginal benefit the GDPTC government will get from taxes and resort fees. You can be a force for good by patronizing small, local businesses and companies run by marginalized people while avoiding businesses owned by political elites.
One caveat: this line is more easily drawn in some places than others. In many countries, businesses that appear at first glance to be privately owned may be deeply entwined with the government. Do your research before you go.
emphasizing connection and sharing your story can be a net positive
You can also be a force for good by connecting with other humans. Just as there are many subjects of the GDPTC you’d love to meet and learn from, there are some whose lives could be enriched by meeting someone like you and hearing about your experience. You are cool and unique and have much to offer!
In the GDPTC, many subjects have never met someone who doesn’t share their enthusiasm for public toenail clipping, and they assume any such person would be strange and unhygienic (because if no one sees you clip your toenails, do you ever really do it??). But if you engage those people with genuine kindness, they might be forced to reassess their assumptions. It’s tough to continue believing that people who are different are inherently bad when our personal experience proves otherwise.
There is an art to these interactions; it’s important to find balance between respecting the host culture and not hiding who you are. But big questions of politics or identity don’t have to be the focus of the conversation. Try instead to find common ground by talking about your everyday life, your hobbies, your family.—who has written extensively about the moral quandaries he’s faced as an openly gay traveler in —shared an anecdote about finding just these sorts of connections in countries where people rarely, if ever, encounter openly gay people. Michael also shared that being open about who he is can give gay people in repressive environments a low-threat opportunity to be themselves: “some of the people we met never talk to other gay people for fear of being outed. But talking to us they get to be more of themselves without fear of being discovered.”
work on understanding what you don’t agree with—and if you can’t do that gracefully, consider alternative destinations
Though public toenail clipping is anathema to us, there is probably a reason the subjects of the GDPTC believe in it so strongly. Try to understand what that reason is. Respectfully ask some pro-public clipping subjects why they are pro-public clipping, and listen with an open mind. You don’t have to agree with their answers and you certainly don’t have to start clipping your own toenails in public, but you might come away with a new perspective.
It’s important to be tactful about this—when we’re passionate about an issue, there can be a fine line between asking probing questions and trying to prove others wrong or win them over to our side—and putting it into practice requires self-knowledge. So before you go to the GDPTC, be honest with yourself about whether you can gracefully handle the challenges to your code of ethics. Can you remain civil with toenail trimmings flying at your face?
If the incessant snipping sound will cause you to fly off the handle and start ranting to the nearest person about why public toenail clipping is immoral, perhaps visiting the GDPTC is not for you. And that is perfectly fine. There is no shame in refraining from visiting a place that is too far outside your comfort zone to be enjoyable.
places are more than their politics, and it isn’t on you to fix the world
Despite its name, the Grand Duchy of Public Toenail Clippers has so much more to offer than a penchant for public toenail clipping. It is home to majestic fjords, a rich tradition of underwater basket weaving, and a rare species of bird whose plumage changes color when it rains. To ignore all the good about the GDPTC and focus solely on the bad would be reductive, and it would keep you from seeing and learning some amazing things.
Further, the impact of your visit to the GDPTC is likely to be marginal. You can’t singlehandedly stop public toenail clipping, nor is it your personal responsibility to do so. Asput it, “I grow weary of how politics has permeated everything we do. Moral decisions don’t need to creep into everything, it’s okay to just live, sometimes.” You get one life, and you might as well have a good time.
all that said, is there anywhere we definitely shouldn’t go?
The vast majority of destinations can be navigated in such a way that our visit will be a net positive. But there is a short list of places whose practices are objectively reprehensible, making it difficult to find common ground or have a productive cultural exchange. Stuart, in regards to why he no longer covers Myanmar in, said “my line is at genocide that enjoys popular support.”2 I find that fair and sensible, because there is no moral universe in which mass murder should be condoned. Boundaries like these are a highly personal decision—if you can find a way to travel to Myanmar that maximizes support to opponents of such atrocities and minimizes interaction with the government, well…good on ya! Please carry on.
Listen more than you speak. Make human connections. Be true to yourself, and be kind always. And as Rick Steves says, keep on travelin’!
Even as I write this sentence, I am mentally preparing for my comments to get brigaded by the pro-public toenail clipping lobby. Please take your filth elsewhere!
You can read more about the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State here: https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/08/24/myanmar-no-justice-no-freedom-rohingya-5-years