Everyone in Holland wears clogs. Ireland is full of clovers and leprechauns. All Austrians yodel with goats in the mountains and all French women entertain a crowd by dancing the can-can. Dancing is especially popular in countries and islands that are more exotic than we’re used to, where women are tan and scantily clad, and they enjoy winking at passersby. But fortunately, all these people love each other, and they love to sing about it, too.
This is how we can understand the world through the famous “it’s a small world” ride in Walt Disney World, which my comrades and I experienced reluctantly yesterday after technical difficulties prevented us from going on Space Mountain a second time. And today, we found ourselves in yet another small world: Epcot, Disney. Its “World Showcase” features something called “The American Adventure,” plus the best of Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Morocco, Japan, Italy, Germany, China, Norway, and Mexico, mixing famous landmarks and cities with cute shops and restaurants and a sugary sweet taste of foreign culture.
It’s pretty safe to say that Epcot does not give us the full picture. First of all, it only “showcases” eleven countries. And within this selection, we can wander at our own pace through a warped reality. At first glance, it’s easy to be impressed by the authenticity of the architecture or the smells that waft through the marketplace, but a closer look can break the spell when you notice signs for “Emergency Exit” and “Cast Only” or the placement of Rome’s Trevi Fountain within Venice’s San Marco. Everything is almost convincing, but the setup of the park never lets you forget where you are.
So why leave so much out? The masterminds behind Epcot have dumbed it down for us, making other countries easier to understand within a context we are familiar with. Without back alleys or any space between countries, we are meant to accept everything at face value. Like our experience at MBC on Sunday, Epcot is presented in a way that dismisses questions. During Sunday’s service, when ideas needed clarification, Pastor Lon asked our questions for us and then answered them for us as well. Several times during his sermon, I had to fight the urge to raise my hand and question his logic, to say, “But why? How does x prove y?” But obviously, sermons don’t function like one of my classes. We were meant to accept Lon’s questions and his explanations. This expectation, along with Epcot’s simplified version of the world, feels rather condescending to me. Do they think we can’t handle an alternative? Is this easy version of reality what people want? Whatever the answer, neither institution gives us the opportunity to find out.
Imagine an Epcot where Paris is surrounded by the poverty and racism of the banlieue, where menus aren’t always written in English and not everything can be made into a pin or a t-shirt. Picture the “it’s a small world” ride complete with wars, disease, colonization, genocide and hate crimes instead of only singing and dancing when groups of people come together. And what about a service at a megachurch where the pastor talked to us about who wrote the different sections of the Bible and where its contradictions come from? What if the church distinguished between the direct word of God and the collective efforts of priests who developed their religious principles over time? What if it discussed the beliefs of other religions like Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Islam and the influences they all had on each other? This theme park wouldn’t be very much fun, and this church would feel like it was losing sight of faith in God.
We are curious by nature, and we want explanations for the world: for nature, for life and death, for free will and the problem of evil. And we want to know why people are different from ourselves, and how they are. But in discovering all of these things, we don’t want anything we find to threaten our way of life or our set of beliefs. We want to stay in control of our surroundings and ourselves, and we want to feel like the way we do things is still the best – because if it turned out there were a better way, we would have to change and do that. And we don’t want to change. We are happy the way we are! We live in America, after all. And when we die, we are going to heaven. How do we know? God says so, of course. And how do we know God says so? The Bible says so, obviously. But how do we know that what the Bible says is what God says? Because the Church says so? Because the Bible is really old? Because enough people have proofread it that they would have caught a mistake by now?
The further we push our questions, the more uncomfortable people become. People want to satisfy their curiosity within their comfort zone. In Epcot, the landmarks created are ones that we already know and already associate with those places, so by leaving everything else out, it reaffirms what we know, leaving no point for questions. The psychological phenomenon of confirmation bias tells us that people tend to look only for the things that confirm their beliefs. In Epcot, this might mean taking the fact that real Italians work in Italy and real Moroccans work in Morocco to mean that they have accepted these places as accurate replications of reality, and that the preconceptions you had were right all along. A similar message from a megachurch could be “God is right, the church is right, and you are right by extension. And look at all the people around you to back you up!” These institutions condition us to ask questions to a point, and that is the point that makes us feel the best (the smartest, the most righteous, the most “civilized”). Once we come to that point, they satisfy our curiosity without making us examine the world more closely, and even more importantly, without having to question ourselves.