Commentary: Finding humanity in our ?brave new world’
March 22, 2006
G. David Pollick
Editor’s note: G. David Pollick is president of Birmingham-Southern
College in Birmingham, Ala. Two students of the United Methodist-related
school were arrested and charged in March for a series of rural church
burnings in Alabama. A third student who was arrested had attended the
school before transferring to the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
A UMNS Commentary
By G. David Pollick
For 150 years, Birmingham-Southern College has been dedicated to the
highest and most noble purposes of our human societies. It has
prepared talented young men and women to assume their rightful places
around the globe as leaders of significant intellectual and moral fiber
with a commitment to advancing the dignity of others throughout the
world. This was true in the 19th and 20th centuries — and it is true
today in the 21st century.
Yet, the differences between each of these centuries are dramatic.
And the events that surrounded the damage or destruction of nine Alabama
churches further dramatize a significant and ironic twist in the
evolving nature of contemporary community.
By most measures, there is significant agreement that many of the
challenges of our time arise out of an inability to effectively
understand one another and appreciate the differing values that people
of the world hold. Our ignorance and lack of respect for one another’s
religious beliefs have only heightened the distance between cultures.
Political differences, when defined by extreme positions staged with
loud and uncivil debate mirroring road-rage, seem to defy reasonable
resolution. Business is increasingly conducted via strangers in a
strange land or through electronic mediums without even the illusion of a
human presence — “Press 1 if ? ; Press 2 if ? ; Press 3 if ? ; or stay
on the line ? ” — and likely get disconnected.
So apparent in our “brave new world” is an emerging need for human
contact. The problems that vex us the most are easily traceable to the
distance that separates people, the movement away from personal
relationships with all their messiness and all their discomfort.
The more our systems insulate us from one another, the easier it is
to not see or feel the impact of our actions on others; the easier it is
to make others the objects of our frustration and anger. It’s easy to
feel very little responsibility for a disembodied voice, an electronic
banking system with artificial humans, or people who are caricatured and
demonized as “other” and evil.
Isn’t it ironic that at the very time when young people are most in
need of healthy social relations, when our societies are more in need of
mutual understanding gained through education and communication, that a
world of cyberspace seductively counters with isolation, privacy, and a
false and naive illusion of invulnerability. In such a world, a
person’s worst nature can emerge, unfettered by social rules that govern
and regulate day-to-day human relations.
This brave new world is characterized more by bravado than it is by
bravery. But as we’ve seen, this bravado is anything but insulated from
ever-present reality. Thoughts make actions.
Our two students, like literally tens of thousands across our
country, found their way into this cyberworld of artificial
relationships. They experimented with its distance and felt the
addiction and rush of the exotic play it offers. An explanation for
behavior gone out of control? Not likely. A significant contributing
element? Probably. A warning to others, young and old? Most assuredly.
The line between fantasy and reality can become very thin within the
human mind. And there is no such thing as a safe and secure environment
in this new age of technology.
And where is the moral of the story? First and foremost, we as
parents, schools, teachers, and friends need to pay close attention. Our
collective willingness to tolerate more and more in each generation can
so easily slide to the acceptance of behaviors that ought to be seen as
simply over the line.
Second, with every human advance, technological or otherwise, new
possibilities and challenges emerge. We cannot assume that all good
things will be used to good purpose. Again, we must pay attention.
And, finally, when we’ve done what we can, we must have the humility to recognize that we have done so.
The simple truth is that all human beings make mistakes — it’s only
the magnitude of the consequences that sets these mistakes apart.
News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org .