"Is there anybody alive out there?"- Bruce Springsteen, from Radio Nowhere
I needed a hug. This is two years ago, outside the village of Tykocin, Poland. I was on assignment, traveling with a Holocaust memorial group, most of whom were Jewish. After days spent touring murder camps, viewing the artifacts of the dead, grappling with the incomprehensible, our group found itself in a forest clearing. There, in 1941, we were told, 1,400 Jews - all the Jews of Tykocin - were made to dig three mass graves. And then they were shot.
I swear you could feel their presence, see them ambling the path down which we had come, hear mothers soothing anxious children with soft lies. "Hush now. Everything will be all right."
For me it was, finally, too much. I'm not a guy who cries easily and I didn't then. But man, I needed a hug. Needed a human touch. I sought out one of my bus mates and opened my arms.
It is a long way, physically and emotionally, from Tykocin to a middle school in Middle America, but the moral of the story remains the same. Sometimes - times of pain, times of commiseration, times of affection, times of joy - you just need to be held. So I was appalled to read this week about a school in Texas - Fossil Hill Middle in Fort Worth - where students are banned from hugging or even holding hands. And it turns out Fossil Hill is not the only one.
From Bend, Ore., to Oak Park, Ill., to Des Moines, Iowa, to Orlando, Fla., to, believe it or not, Cornwall, England, schools are banning hugs. Some say it's because hugging creates congestion in the halls. But there are others who say these "PDAs" - public displays of affection - are a gateway to sexual harassment.
My, my, my.
Am I the only one who feels this is just the latest step in a troubling trend? Am I the only one who sees businesses, schools and public institutions moving, inexorably as a Terminator, toward the standardization and regulation of even the most mundane of human interaction? In so doing, they seek to remove the defining element of human interaction: humanity.
I don't know about you, but I'm sick of punching in numbers. And talking to voice recognition software. And of self-service checkout lines. And of customer service agents who ask robotically, "Have I provided you with excellent service today?" after they have just told me they can't help me with my problem.
Ten years ago, a 58-year-old woman who worked as a cashier in a cafeteria in Washington, D.C., got in trouble because she had a habit of addressing her customers as "sweetie" and "honey." I've always thought women of a certain age who call you "honey" while taking your order were one of life's small, human pleasures. But some young person was offended.
My goodness, what robots we have become.
I understand the thinking. If you can standardize all interactions, you ensure a consistent level of quality. I'm just not convinced what we gain is worth all that we lose.
We already watch television in separate rooms. Eat dinner in shifts and on the run. Go about cocooned by iPod tunes. Now we have hugging bans. As if there were not already enough in life to made you feel disconnected, disaffected, alienated, isolated.
No one is pro-sexual harassment or, for that matter, pro-hallway congestion. But surely there are better solutions.
We're not talking about kids groping and making out. We are talking about "hugs." To hug is to reach across. It is to reaffirm common humanity. That is a powerful instinct.
Now the hug joins that long list of banned things. I guess kids who need consolation, kids primed for celebration, kids who just want to know that they are not alone will henceforth have to write text messages instead.
And progress marches on.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2007 Pioneer Press