Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Free hugs priceless in a culture of violence

By Karen Brooks

Article from: Courrier Mail

DID you know that in New South Wales, Monday (a public holiday there) was declared a day of hugging?

This wasn't an official pronouncement; rather, it was made by an advocate of the Free Hug movement.

Last week, the creator of this movement, a young man going by the pseudonym Juan Mann, was elevated to the dizzying heights of global celebrity.

Video footage of Mann pacing Sydney's Pitt Street Mall about a year ago, holding aloft a sign stating "Free Hugs" and set to the poignant All the Same by the Australian Los Angeles-based band, Sick Puppies, was uploaded on to the video-share website YouTube.

In cyberspace, every second counts. It took only nanoseconds for news of the video of Mann's campaign to spread. Appealing to the inner child in us, the video was shown on Good Morning America last week. Now, the site is registering close to 1.5 million hits and many thousands of positive comments.

So, what was at the heart of this young man's campaign to brighten the day of city slickers – those so preoccupied with work and the fast, heady pace of contemporary life, they forget to stop and smell the roses?

According to Mann, after returning from a trip overseas, he noticed how sad everyone looked and basically wanted to brighten their day. To him, a hug was the natural antidote to the stress and alienation that burdens urban workers.

Although people were reluctant at first to approach this tall, lanky man with a promise, it wasn't long before his invitation caught on. Casting suspicion to the wind, young and old threw themselves into his arms, keen for what we so often forget we need in this hi-tech day and age – human touch. Either we forget or, for fear of being thought our actions will be misconstrued, we avoid.

But Mann didn't think about how his intentions might be interpreted, he embraced his fellow humans. And they thanked him for it.

Then, Sydney City Council decided that this generous young man could cause irreparable damage. Insisting that he buy $25 million in public liability insurance, the council demanded he stop.

Undeterred, Mann collected 10,000 signatures on a petition and now his hugging movement is free to continue to bring smiles to those drawn, harried faces of the city.

There's something uplifting about this story. Along with the video, you get the "warm and fuzzies" and find yourself cheering this guy who reminds us of the simpler pleasures; of the sweetness that life and letting others fill it can bring.

The past few weeks have been defined by memorials, tragedies and death. Steve Irwin's life so swiftly taken; Peter Brock, gone. The beloved Colin Thiele, passed away. September 11 and those agonising images replayed again and again.

Senseless violence fills our news. Matt Stanley, only 15 when the life is kicked out of him; a 16-year-old is charged with his murder.

We live in a world where violence and violent acts are becoming normalised. The producers of the new James Bond film see fit to cut the superspy smoking a cigar but not images of him killing people with a smoking gun. We are shocked and appalled at sexual imagery and intimacy (Margaret Whitlam's comments about Janette and John Howard holding hands, for example), but take death, pain and the destruction of human life in our stride.

What sort of society are we devolving into?

We've become so desensitised to aggression we no longer think twice about letting young children play computer games that encourage them to shoot, maim and kill. I watched a seven-year-old boy I know approach his mother with a gruesome game under his arm, rated MA.

He asked her permission to play it. She gave it willingly, disinterestedly even.

When I pointed out its rating, his mother said: "Oh, it's all right. He's only killing aliens."

"I thought it was the killing that mattered," I responded.

Apparently not.

I'm reminded of the movie True Lies, when Arnie Schwarzenegger's character, who's been hiding his identity as a spy from his wife of many years, admits he has killed in his line of work, then hastily adds, "Yeah, but they were all bad."

When they don't look, talk, act or worship like us, then, it seems, they're deemed to be bad (different) and their life is not so important.

For a culture that doesn't cope well with death, we seem to hold life so cheaply.

But just as you begin to despair, along comes a young man with a big heart and YouTube, technology that spreads goodwill like a virus and gives us what we need in these dark times – a hug and a smile.

All it took was Juan Mann.

Which just proves, hugs aren't for free, they're priceless.


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