November 17, 1997
Volume 50, No. 13
Students ponder our responsibility in making a better world
Students from Emory College's class of 2000 were invited to write essays discussing ethical challenges in the new millennium. The two essays below were among those whose authors were chosen to attend a dinner hosted by Nobel laureates Wole Soyinka, Woodruff Professor of Arts, and Elie Wiesel, Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University.
As we all take part in the transformation of disparate countries into a truly 'global community,' it is crucial that we are attentive to our position in this world; to injustices that linger in our peripheral vision, behind laws and out of sight; to the freedoms we take for granted; to the dozens of lowercase holocausts happening as we sit, often submerged in inattention; to our own privilege; and to the silences we have been complicit in preserving. The millennium is approaching and it is the perfect moment to do what we should have been doing all along: to awaken ourselves.
We are about to emerge from the century of the Holocaust, of two world wars, of colonies gaining independence, of the Cold War and its aftermath, of civil wars and of resolutions. And we cannot forget. We cannot turn the century like a page in a book, putting it behind us and looking only at the new chapter ahead as we glimpse but a small bit of its history seeping through the thin paper. We are as much where we have come from as where we are going, and there are catastrophes we must never allow to re-occur. We must never wipe the slate clean, but we can trace new patterns over the background of our pasts. We can move on and preserve at the same time. We can renew and remember. We can create.
This is the time to give voice-to find the place where memory and creation can intersect and to inhabit it. It is the time to break the silences that linger in the margins of every text and oral tradition; it is the time (as it has been for so long) to take an active role in the development of an ethical community.
In addressing our own ethical position (most of us as members of a powerful nation faced with almost endless opportunities to exploit or reconstruct) in this emerging society of connection and interaction, we must be vigilantly attentive to abuses of power-both in our history and at our fingertips.
But first, we must speak. Whether through our voting, our writing, our leadership, or at least, our active support, we have a responsibility to take note of what is going on in our community-to make "eye contact" with our neighbors who live across the globe-and to take part in its positive transformation. My one weapon is the pen; as an aspiring writer, I wield it with an ever-increasing consciousness of the incredible potential in my grasp.
As I sit writing this, squeezing the moral obligation of a world onto a 8.5 x 11 piece of paper, I know I cannot change it all. But it is our obligation to attempt to be the voice that confronts the silences where memory is most vulnerable, never losing sight of our unique position in the community we inhabit. We have an unbelievable power-to create or to destroy, to remember or to forget. We must both write and look up from the page.
Adam Smith said the world is made up of "atoms of self-interest." Unfortunately, this seems to remain true in many respects of today's society. For many people, as long as they are economically satisfied, nothing else bothers them-whether they are aware of it or not.
Interestingly, the enormous capabilities of modern technology, which have made our world much smaller and open to closer inspection, allows people to see more easily the problems of those less fortunate. This should mean more and more individuals would act in order to stop the rampant killing in Algeria or send support to those starving in North Korea. Instead, many of these more fortunate individuals seem just to enjoy their wealth and comfort without even thinking of the rest of the world.
It is rather sad to see that, at a time when many industrial nations are experiencing tremendous growth, the only thing changing with respect to their relations with less fortunate countries is the ever-growing gap between them.
Today the world is in the midst of a very special period. For the first time in history, people around the world can learn what happens in other remote or urban places within minutes or hours. We have a societal responsibility to use this advantage to stop unethical practices going on around the world.
As the world globalizes, it is important to make people aware of their individual ability to effect change. While one person could not have stopped the bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia, a large enough number of individuals might have led to a faster response by the Western powers or, ideally, might have prevented the situation from escalating. Individuals, especially those in more industrialized countries, have a responsibility to educate others, using the available technological tools, about what is happening around the world-whether it is oppression in Iran, terrorist bombings in Israel or human rights violations in China.
Today's society must work from the perspective of individuals educating others to stop heinous acts around the world. The key to solving the world's problems is education-education that must create a universal atmosphere of proper ethics.
The most recent examples of individuals working to create ethical improvements in the world are the donations of billionaires Ted Turner and George Soros. While the average person doesn't have their vast amounts of money to give, individuals who are willing to invest time and effort to help remedy the world's unethical practices are just as hard to come by. Many claim that people are motivated only if they get something out of it, but by helping eradicate unethical practices around the world, we all benefit.
Individual action seems the best way to start a worldwide effort to solve our current problems and how better than through communication-especially when the Internet and media are properly used. This seems to be our best hope, considering that, historically, nations are slow to react to foreign problems unless they directly affect national interests. Ultimately it is up to individuals to create movements at a grassroots level that will influence enough people to try to help stop unethical practices around the world.