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Of Dignity and the Future

Posted on 23 Sep | 0 comments
March on Washington, 1963.
March on Washington, 1963.

In the 1993 action film Demolition Man, there is a scene in which the character Lenina Huxley asks the film’s hero, John Spartan, if he would like to have sex. Spartan, who has been in cold storage for decades, responds enthusiastically, but much to his surprise, discovers Lenina means virtual sex. After a few minutes of this virtual encounter, John stops and asks for sex the “old-fashioned way.” Lenina is aghast at the idea of “fluid transfer,” finding the concept disgusting.

I share this with you because recently I heard a futurist speak on the changes he anticipates will take place in housing, transportation, healthcare, finance, as well as in other areas in the coming decades. His presentation was both fascinating and alarming. It was fascinating to see how technology is advancing our capabilities. But it was alarming because as technology advances it appears this same technology will create greater isolation of the individual person.

What I found particularly curious and troubling about the presentation was the presenter’s discussion of healthcare in the future. He discussed how we are very close to having the technology to give ourselves a physical with the use of an app on our smartphone and a coded stamp on our arm or hand. In addition, with the development of 3D printing capabilities, models are being created that will enable us to print out our own prescription medications. The presenter concluded that each of these advancements will most likely be operable by 2030.

The presenter was quite enthused and excited about these new developments. But as I listened, I experienced an increasing sense of angst regarding the impact of these technological advancements on human interaction. In a world where technology will enable us to do everything from building our homes through 3D printing, to riding in driverless cars, to having drones deliver pizzas to our door, where will human interaction fit in? In a world becoming increasingly mechanized and isolated, how do we establish and maintain community and human connection?

I am an introvert, and as an introvert, I find certain technological advances extremely helpful. The development of the internet, and in particular, sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn are wonderful ways to connect with other people because I can control most of the interaction and do it in my own time frame. I like being able to pull up to the gas pump and fill my own gas tank, or go to the grocery store and check out my own groceries with little or no interaction with a clerk.

At the same time, I also understand the human need for touch, connection, and belonging. Technology can take us only so far in this realm, and at some point, the individual has to have face-to-face interaction with other people. From the very beginning of time, we have been creatures in need of community, in need of support, care, compassion, and belonging. There are boatloads of research that demonstrate those needs from infancy through the final stages of life and death.

As a nation, hundreds of thousands of people have spent decades working to bring people together, breaking down walls and barriers created by race, spiritual orientation and practice, politics, gender, and sexual preference. Great effort has been put into identifying our commonalities, as well as celebrating our uniqueness and diversity. Sacrifices have been made to enable the creation of community and connection between people of various backgrounds and ethnicities.

Brent Dean Robbins, the current President of the Society for Humanistic Psychology, has identified human dignity as the theme of his presidency. It is a significant theme in our current culture and an apt follow up to Louis Hoffman’s emphasis on diversity during his presidency. It appears that the dignity of the human being may be in greater danger than ever before. As previously stated, technology’s current path is one that isolates individuals and eliminates the need for community. The political schisms in our country grow deeper, and new breaks that cut one group of people off from other groups of people seem to appear every day. Religion or spirituality, which at one time served as a centralizing force in our communities, now highlights differences, and often demonizes those who hold a different perspective. More and more frequently, community is centered on oppositional themes, whether it is the Tea Party, MoveOn, the National Rifle Association, Pro-Life, or Pro-Choice.

To restore human dignity, we must focus our energy on establishing bonds with those different from ourselves. We must make an effort to acknowledge that our differences are to be celebrated rather than destroyed. As humanistic-existential psychologists, we must also be determined to lead this effort to see the dignity in each person as a person, not based on the individual’s stage of physical development, or social status, or ethnic background, or level of education, or income bracket. And we again need leaders like those who led the civil rights movement in 50’s and 60’s.

From my humble perspective, I believe those of us who call ourselves humanistic-existential psychologists are in the right place at the right time to lead this movement. We must write about it, we must speak about it, and we must step out into the streets and lead the protests. That is what I am committed to doing, and I challenge you to join me!

-- Steve Fehl

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