GENE ROBERTSON: We need to build bridges, not fences

Tuesday, November 6, 2012 | 10:49 a.m. CST

COLUMBIA — In a world where there is so much interdependence and interrelation why does it take catastrophes to bring us together?

We put so much effort into building fences when bridges could just as easily be built and would generate mutual benefits and better enable us to address catastrophes if and when they occur. The fences or differences we appear to focus on with such abandon are not avenues of opportunity. The bridges or similarities on the other hand lend themselves to generating the wide variety of resources that we experience.

Catastrophes force us to draw on the multitude of resources that exist just on the other side of ourselves. It is not necessary for us to be in lockstep with each other because we built bridges instead of fences. Oftentimes those on the other side of fences are deemed inferior or superior in some way. Even within our differences there are additional created divisions, such as levels of skin color, types of hair, income levels and geographic location. Bridges allow us to interact and better understand, respect and accept each other. Bridges can exploit our reservoir of similarities and differences.

When we have developed a habit of valuing bridges rather than fences we are better able to fend off the ideologies and behaviors of those, who either ignorantly or unscrupulously, create cleavages that negatively generate or sustain power for them or reduce power of those it divides.

In South Africa, physical ethnic fences were built under apartheid to reduce the real or potential power of coalitions. In the U.S., we similarly create cleavages and fences through our media and in our schools, workplaces, neighborhoods and even in our churches. In cases where the fences are not physical, they are psychological.

The advent of new technology offers new opportunities for both bridge and fence building. It is up to us to create the will and ability to maximize these new technologies, so that they are beneficial and not destructive to our mutual relationships and mutual interests. The next catastrophe — whether it is a hurricane, tornado, terrorist attack, earthquake, nuclear disaster or cyberattack — should be met efficiently with a population that is united as people beforehand and who share a commonality of interest, values and trust.

Remember the aspects of life that we share — air, water, minerals and energy — have far more impact on our lives than those we are urge to believe are different such as faith, morals, work ethic, patriotism, intelligence and value for life. This earth is our shared home. We need each other to develop, sustain, protect, enhance and enjoy our shared home.

William E. "Gene" Robertson is a Columbia resident and a professor emeritus at MU. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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