Finding humanity in our 'brave new world'


By G. David Pollick

Guest Columnist

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.

 Pollick is president of Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham. 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.