On Mental Maps and Their Inhabitants

Mykola Riabchuk

Paper presented at the panel discussion on “Wall, Fence, Border” at the 50th International PEN Writers’ Meeting in Bled, Slovenia, on April 19, 2018

As I was staying quite a long time in Vienna, I indulged myself in a kind of opinion survey, just of sheer curiosity. I asked locals about Ukraine: “What kind of the country is that? Is it as far from Vienna as Switzerland or, perhaps, closer? Or, perhaps, further?”

Some people hesitated. The overwhelming majority, yet, averred resolutely: “Oh, of course, it’s much further!”

And not a single person advanced the truth – that the Ukrainian border is a hundred kilometers closer to Vienna than the border of Switzerland.

This might be a graphic example of mental maps that have little to do with geography but a lot with cultural anthropology, geopolitics, and popular stereotypes. People draw their knowledge not so much on the textbooks and encyclopedias but primarily on pop-culture, tabloids, and TV shows. Common wisdom about the borders of Europe seems to stem from the weather maps on the last pages of major newspapers that truncate our continent along the eastern borders of the EU, leaving half of the geographic Europe in the obscure place further east called ‘Eurasia’ or, occasionally, a ‘sphere of Russian privileged interests’.

The mental short-cuts help us to grasp the complex reality in a faster and easier way. They are perhaps inevitable and indispensable as the firts steps of cognition. But they may become disastrous when they fully substitute the reality and inform the whole knowledge about the topic. They feed all kinds of stereotypes and xenophobic biases, and separate ‘us’ and ‘them’ by eternal, essentialized, and insurmountable lines.

Back in 2004, on the eve of the “Big Bang” enlargement of the EU, I collected a remarkable set of the international reports from the new member states, specifically from the newly redrafted Schengen border. It seemed to be of a major concern for reporters and, presumably, for their readers. Here are just two samples from reputable periodicals that graphically illustrate the spirit of that reporting:

The New York Times, 25 April 2004

“Dorohusk, Poland: the message here at this gleaming border post overlooking the thickly forested banks of the Bug River is that Poland is ready.

Inside a spotless weapon room is a rack of snub-nosed Glauberyt automatic pistols, a Polish version of the famous Uzi. There are 9-millimeter pistols, boxes of bullets, two submachine guns and night vision goggles inside green canvas kits.

Outside is a Land Rover, motorcycles and two dogs trained to follow tracks in the woods. Not seen, but also available to protect this stretch of the 327-mile border between Poland and Ukraine, are snowmobiles, a helicopter and a patrol plane …”

“There was a belief that hordes of illegal migrants are waiting outside our borders and that our controls were inefficient …,” said Jan Truszczynski, Poland’s chief EU negotiator.

Observer, 18 April 2004

“Come May Day, the edge of the edge of Europe … ‘Here [at the little village of Horodlo] is the easternmost point of a new 2,400-mile frontier of the European Union …

Springtime is stirring in the little park in Horodlo and in the Sparrow pub, to which Darek and Monika have returned from Warsaw, hoping the frontier will mean new business. “They’re bringing in 40 extra policemen just for our little village,” says Monika, “to add to the two we have at the moment. And that’s in addition to the border guards.”

“They’ve been chasing out the Ukrainians,” says Janusz, who keeps the mini-market, “because the Ukrainians bring in smuggled cigarettes to sell for two zlotys (28p), while we have to sell them for five. Now people will have to come to us for a smoke.”

The border of the new EU is both porous and harsh. Upriver, what they call the new ‘Velvet Curtain’ is being drawn, on Brussels’ insistence – a necklace of new guard posts manned by thousands of newly recruited armed men.’”

Both articles are apparently cooked to the same sensationalist recipe. The peaceful (“normal”) life on one side of the border is contrasted with, and potentially challenged by, dark forces on the other side – smugglers, illegal immigrants and other trash whose only ambition is to sneak through the border and undermine the cherished “prosperity and security” of decent Europeans. These ugly barbarians should be duly chased by snowmobiles, helicopters and, of course, dogs, which are perfectly trained to follow tracks in the woods. Glauberyts, pistols and submachine guns might also be helpful since you never know what the hordes behind the wall could amount to.

Barely would readers of these reports guess that the people on the other side of the border are basically like themselves – with two legs, two hands, and, as a rule, two eyes; and that their lives, albeit less prosperous and secure, are virtually the same as elsewhere: they raise children, teach students, write poems, perform operas, build aircraft, and most of themever have never had whatsoever intention of threatening the Schengen Area’s stability and prosperity, either legally or illegally.

That alarmist, sensationalist reporting has backfired eventually, in 2015, during the so called ‘refugee crisis’. Technically, the exodus was triggered and probably mastrerminded by the Russian invasion in Syria but essentially manifested a symptom of much bigger and perhaps incurable global desease caused by profound disparities and imbalances of the world-economy. Discursive othering and stereotyping became fashionable and, alas, profitable. Hundreds of politicians and dozens of political parties all over Europe rode successfully on this rhetoric. Rather than to address the essence of global problems, they invoke hordes of barbarians on the faked mental maps and assume the role of the main saviors of the besieged fortress.

The discursive walls might be more dangerous than the real walls since they are built of words in people minds. In a long term, it might be more difficult to dismantle blocks of stereotypes than blocks of concrete. I am not sure whether we, the writers, can compete with tabloid journalists and populist politicians. We are definitely no match to the people who appeal to the most basic instincts and most primitive thoughts. All we can probably do, is to follow the steps of Albert Camus and his Dr. Rieux who fought the plague with little if any hope to win. The first doctors’ commandment is thou shalt not harm. The first writers’ commandment thou shalt not lie. The principles look too often irreconcilable unless we grasp them as one and the same.

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