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Two sides of humanity?
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Forsyth County News
Forgive my waxing a bit more philosophical than usual, but a question that has gnawed at my mind for years recently arose in a rather innocuous way. I think it’s worth exploring.

Recently I was listening to a musical program on the car radio. It ended with a folk song about Neil Armstrong walking on the moon and was followed by the news. The first news story related to Bernard Madoff pleading guilty to massive fraud involving tens of billions of dollars. The next described accelerating attacks by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and then a story on genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

The juxtaposition of the song and the news items struck me forcefully. My initial thoughts were triggered by a question: “How can a society, capable of harnessing the technology needed to put a man on the moon also engage in such evil and ‘inhumane’ activities?” This thought has puzzled me for a long time.

The accomplishments of the human race are incredible. We’ve moved from simple inventions like the lever and the wheel to incredible systems that can place an Armstrong a quarter of a million miles into space and bring him back.

We’ve invented computers that are starting to challenge our own capabilities for logic and reasoning. We’ve been able to eliminate diseases that have scourged mankind for untold centuries.

And although there is still so much more to know, our knowledge of the universe and the world around us has been increasing by leaps and bounds. Throughout all of this effort, many brilliant minds have devoted themselves to the search for new ideas and new ways to apply them.
How we have dealt with the physical world around us is daunting enough. But to me there is an even more intriguing set of accomplishments, what I will call, for lack of a better term, the “intangibles.”

Music is one of these. Its origins go back before recorded history, perhaps inspired by the wind blowing through trees or the song of chirping birds. Musical artifacts as old as 50,000 years have been found. And of course, prior to instruments, there was always the human voice.
Music has an enormous impact on us. It can create entire moods; move us from feelings of heroic nature to sadness or from bounding fun to peaceful introspection. The human race can take great pride in its Mozarts, Bachs and Brahms and many who preceded and followed them, creating new, different and glorious musical traditions.

Similarly, we have artists who have created visions of the world around them, some realistic, some imaginative, but all to delight the senses. The history of art goes back even further than music, and in crude form is traceable for several million years. The important aspect of art is less associated with paint or stone or whatever medium, than it is with the ability to make a perception visible to everyone around.

If one goes back into history, you see scientists and scholars, artists and composers, teachers and healers and millions and billions of people working, in their own ways, to make this world a better place in which to live.

But … all of recorded human history has been accompanied by another track — war, prejudice, greed and hatred of every type imaginable. How does one reconcile these two parallel courses?

It’s like mankind has some huge multiple personality disorder. I wish I knew the answer to this question, but I can only speculate.

Most dictionaries give a primary definition of “humanity” as something like “the human race.”

A second or third definition will be: “the quality of being humane.” Interestingly, Merriam-Webster has the order reversed, with “humane behavior” first, and a term for the “totality of human beings” further down the list. By that definition, a portion of humanity would seem to not be human, for lack of humane behavior.

How can this be?

Some friends got a puppy more than a year ago. He was raised in a loving home and went to “obedience school” (passing with flying colors). But they couldn’t get him to stop barking and biting people. I guess one might surmise, as they did, that there are different genetic strains which sometimes lead to deviant behavior.

Clearly, it seems that there are as many unknowns in the universe as there are in trying to understand and predict certain aspects of human behavior. However, I believe there is something more definitive and compelling when one looks at much of the evil that takes place around us.

It is hard to imagine a newborn child’s mind containing any predilection for hatred, greed, a desire to dominate or to take pleasure in harming others. Of course there are babies that are born with health problems, but by and large, we start with a clean slate.

What we write on that slate is critical, particularly given the child’s thirst to learn and its desire for acceptance. How that child develops is the result of both what we do to that child and what we don’t do for that child.

A child brought up in poverty, in an atmosphere of racial or religious hatred, in a society where might is right, is not likely to compose great symphonies or explore the mysteries of the universe. A child who is denied love and affection, a decent education and self-esteem is not likely to paint a masterpiece or work on humanitarian efforts to alleviate poverty or disease. Children are humanity’s future, and we largely influence how that future will evolve.

If my assumptions are correct, they put even greater urgency on the need to find ways to build nurturing environments for children around the world. This is an extremely difficult task, given the fact that many are immersed in environments locked into a negative cycle by the actions of their parents, their grandparents and those who came before.

It will take all the creativity and ingenuity we have to break that pattern, and a lot of resources, but this may be the only way to end the never-ending cycle and achieve a world that is truly humane and filled with humanity.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at