The last section of Illicit (a National Geographic documentary about various forms of illegal trafficking) covers an incident where a Chinese manufacturer sold a lethal substitute for glycerine to a government agency in Panama which used it in making cough syrup (a story covered when it occured by the New York Times). In the film, Dr. Minkin Pein of the Carnegie Endowment For International Peace says: “For the outside world, these atrocities are horrible. But within China, the perspective is very different. The victims are not Chinese; they are foreigners, that’s ok.” I bring this up not to castigate the Chinese for the incident or the reaction, but because it illuminates one way humans sometimes regard their fellow humans.
To whatever extent Dr. Pein’s observation might be true, it illustrates that some humans come to perceive certain humans as having different value than other humans (in this case based on some construct of national or ethnic identity). This imputed value determines the level of treatment those persons are entitled to. From this vantage point, some humans are envisioned as more human than others. Essentially, it’s this mindset that enables endeavors like slavery, torture and genocide, phenomena where the essential humanity of the victims is negated.
At its core, this way of apprehending others is a perceptual failure, a blindness to the humanity of those other humans. In this form of mental processing, the entirety of humanity is subdivided into predefined categories based not on the actuality of those slotted but on attributes whose meaning exists primarily inside the mind of the beholder. The assigned slot determines not just how the beheld is treated, but also how their existence is allowed to permeate the viewer’s mind. We interpret away the living reality of others, filtering out their sentience and reducing them to cartoon figures that feel no pain.
Through our lacquering of categories on the world we create all of the divisions that allow humans to mistreat each other. At various times and places, some humans have done the most atrocious things to other humans, including hacking up their bodies or shoving them into gas chambers. These abusers are obviously not treating their victims as they would wish to be treated. In the doing of these things, they can’t possibly be perceiving the objects of their disaffection as human beings in the same way they see themselves as human. These unfortunates aren’t viewed as beings worthy of regard, but as creatures one might or must abuse. Or they may not even be seen as creatures at all but just as objects to be utilized as best suits one’s purposes. Their actual humanity is tuned-out, disregarded, neutralized.
Interestingly, conflicting groups of humans typically share the same categories but reverse the meanings, from Israeli’s and Palestinians to Hutus and Tutsis. At the time of the McCarthy hearings, the side persecuting the “commie sympathizers” saw them as the embodiment of evil, a malign force threatening everything seen to be good about Western civilization. Those with redder sentiments saw themselves as noble fighters for justice and the common good of all humans. The McCarthyites failed to see both the true nature of those they were persecuting and the deficiencies in the system they were trying to uphold. The leftists failed to see the actual reality of Communism as manifested in the acts of Stalin and Mao. The meaning attributed to the categories doesn’t derive from those physical beings who are categorized but rather arises like a phantasm from the social mind of those categorizing.
Superimposing preconceptions on our perceptions of other humans impedes us from actually seeing them cleanly and mindfully as they manifest themselves in the world. We schematize them, affixing them as coordinates on our boilerplate map of reality. We interpret away the truth of their actual existence. These pre-formatted categories we slot others into aren’t just labels or descriptions, they are also prescriptions, encoded guidelines on how to behave towards that party. For jihadists, for example, all Americans become demons of Satan who should be killed. Through Ideation humanity is segmented into various clusters, each meriting different portions of dignity and respect.
A couple hundred thousand years ago, on the plains of Africa, there was just one singular humanity. All of us are ancestors to this community of humans. At the time, they were small in number and insignificant in the scheme of things. As we branched out from Africa and spread across the planet, humanity diverged into communities with distinct ways of being in the world, creating that strange human phenomenon that anthropology named culture. While some bits of culture have been observed in other species, like some chimpanzees who pass on the art of potato washing, clearly we’re the only creatures who create strikingly new identities as we morph into separate groups.
These disparate cultures are not the result of evolution, the process of biological change through which organisms other than humans have adapted to the environment. Rather they arise through changes in our minds, through mutations not of our DNA but of our interpretations of the reality. Separate groups evolved singular responses to the exigencies of living in this world. These cultures became increasingly unique to the extent that when European explorers first made contact with aboriginal people they sometimes perceived them as so unlike themselves that many felt few qualms about their savage treatment of the “savages” who weren’t perceived as equivalently human to themselves (though history also displays many Bartolomé de las Casas who were capable of envision a common humanity in those who on the surface might have appeared as very different).
Now, at this point in human unfolding, parabolic population increase, technology and the general forces of globalization are resulting in a coming back together of humanity. This reunification of the human is coalescing us back into a single global population, a common socio-eco-system, a human network spanning the earth.. However, currently this global human still finds itself with a multiplicity of expressions: diverse nations, ethnicities, cultures, religions, ideologies, practices, lifestyles. In this re-merging of humanity, our responses to our differences have ranged from clashes of civilizations to the accommodative strategies of tolerance, cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism.
For anyone with a compassionate bent, the cosmopolitan way is preferable to conflict, and is essential in the current tangled state of the world-mind. However, for those with longer-term or less-embedded perspectives, a new way of looking at the world is starting to emerge that strives to transcend the surface differences between various clusters of humans. This new vision of humanity is an awakening to the fundamental us-ness of all humans, a global community flowered from a common ancestry, sharing essentially the same biology, networked together in one singular knowledge project and one overarching marketplace, and all participating in the unfolding destiny of humanity.
That vision of the transcending human doesn’t suggest that their is one single and final answer to the problem of being human; the only end of history will be the end of humans at whatever (hopefully quite far distant) time that should transpire. Since humanity is a grand experiment of mind unleashed into the world, human becoming needs to be an open-ended project. All sincere and non-harmful approaches deserve the opportunity to reveal their worth.
Nor does the thought of a common humanity imply the absurd idea that individually we are or should be the same. What is especially amazing about us humans is the singular uniqueness of each of us, a uniqueness which is enabled by the capacity of our minds to incorporate experience and information, a uniqueness that continues to expand with the elaboration of the human experience and the magnification of human understanding.
So while there can never be just one right answer to the human question, we have now unfolded to a space where we can start to realize that what unites as humans is far more important than the notions that separate us from each other. We can now begin to set those aside as minor differences, as matters of perspective. If we can move beyond defining ourselves in terms of nation, creed, culture, caste and other limiting concepts, we can start to see ourselves in a more fundamental way, as human beings caught up in our species’ unfolding (within the greater unfoldings of life and cosmos); a movement obliging us to the pursuit of self-realization.
In contemplating our spinning blue ball, let’s envision more than a grid of conflicting factions, more than a terrain of problematic strangers. Rather than build walls to separate ourselves from those who seem different from us, let’s start to tear down the barricades in our mind, open the entrances to the gated communities of our thinking. Let’s learn how to comprehend others without abstracting them into instances of categories our mind superimposes on them.
That’s not to imply that we shouldn’t recognize any difference, not to say that we should view humanity as one undifferentiated global human goo. Rather we can realize difference as illuminating the particularities of individual humans and human groups, the inscription of their unique trajectories on the biology of their being. And this appreciation of the singularity of every human allows us to simultaneously grasp that underlying our specific particularities there is a fundamental essence of humanness we all share; that the experience of being a human in this world, of living a human life, feels in many ways like that of every other human on this planet, past, present and future.
So one mind at a time, we can evolve beyond the legacy of our tribal mentality and comprehend this sphere that we inhabit not as a topography of domains but as the singular homeland of us all. In that seeing beyond difference, we can perceive not a globe fraught with others, but a world of humans, a world of us. That is a world full of people with hearts and minds. People who hurt when they are hit, kicked, cut or burned. People who laugh and cry. People capable of being sparkled by wonder and haunted by dread. People who wish not to suffer but are confronted by the truth of their eventual end. People who aspire, hope, wish, dream, yearn. People whose minds can evoke the past and conjecture the future. People all linked to the great chain of humanity through words uttered or inscribed. People who can glimpse the perspective of other beings. People blessed with promise and cursed by vulnerability to outrageous fortune.
We have an implicit sense that it means something to be human, that the status of being human is valuable in and out of itself. This is the notion, which has developed over time, which underlies concepts like human rights and humanitarianism. To dehumanize someone is to efface the inherent worth of being human, to debase the currency of human value.
Some trends in postmodern tend to devalue the concept of the human and that contend we are just another species. I think these posthumanist assertions are valuable in helping us to more fully appreciate all of the living world, and to see ourselves as part of it and not above and beyond it. But I think any consideration of the trajectory of human unfolding or just a simple reflection on the modern world, make it clear that humans are not just another species, but rather a very singular and unique development (one which has produced both beneficent and destructive consequences).
There are I believe good reasons we have cultivated the concept of the human and given value to it. Partly, it is simply because being human is what we are. When we value humans for simply being human, we are each essentially valuing ourselves unconditionally, saying “I am worthy” simply for being alive, however fortune’s winds might blow. Further, it is because of our hearts and minds. Our minds capable of assimilating large chunks of the world into themselves, let us develop worldviews much larger than ourselves, drawing upon the past and extending into projections of future possibilities. And our hearts, flowing from the refinement of our nervous system, make the world something we feel, not just something we know.
This combination of heart and mind lets us experience ourselves as being within the world, which allows us some appreciation of the realities of other beings in the world. When I pass a deer on one of the trails in my near daily walks in Hartwood Acres, a local park, I can appreciate the deer, observe it, ponder its life, try to feel what it might be like to be a deer, wonder things like what grass might taste like to the deer or how it decides to graze where and when it does, consider its positions in the ecosystem and in the unfolding of evolution, realize its fortune in being in a wildlife sanctuary and think about how I might appear to the deer, and what it might make of it if I wave a hand in greeting. To the deer, it seems to me, I am something mostly to be observed as a possible threat and possibly as a minor curiosity.
Hearts, minds and language allow us to transcend the limits of our self perspective and experience ourselves as part of a greater encompassing world co-existing with other beings each of whom has not only a different space-time perspective but also a different existential experience of reality, a reality that looks and feels at least somewhat different from ours. That is that our personal reality is not the only and ultimate reality, but more of a sampling of a grander and more obscure one. And that therefore, the world doesn’t just exist for us, but rather we are but one of a multitude of beings, each with equally valid desires for bliss.
When we appraise humans as valuable in themselves, I think that foremost we are esteeming our human sentience, not just the cognitive aspect, the cogito ergo sum aspect of our being, but that entanglement of heart and mind which breathes the world alive in us. That’s not to say that only humans have sentience. Surely, other primates have a sentience that we would recognize. And scholars debate the existence and degree of sentience in other creatures including octopus, fish and even insects.
And while we shouldn’t shortchange the sentience of other creatures, humans are clearly apes who are blessed and cursed with a peculiarly extravagant sentience, a sentience through which the world inhabits an expanded presence. These enhanced mental capacities, in opening the world up to us, allow us to extrapolate the experience of other beings, absorbing it into our personal lifeworld. We don’t just perceive other beings, we can also catch a glimpse of the world through their eyes, sense the pebbles beneath their moccasins.
The lives of others simulate themselves in our minds not just as conceptual understandings, inert renderings, but awakened by our empathic circuits (including things like mirror neurons) they touch our guts as well as our brains. While we might experience them in different circumstances, our bodies understand the pain, joy, love, anger our fellow humans feel. We don’t just perceive the lives of others, we feel them.
This contact, this intersecting of self and other, echoes the other inside ourselves, a reverberation we absorb into our personal world. Others become a part of us, inhabiting space in our mind; making our “self” a composite of our direct experience and an array of imagined experiences of others. Living in a world of humans doesn’t only happen on the external playing field of the earth’s surface, it’s also occurs on the turf of our minds, a current flickering through the dense networks of neurons that make us the strange human creatures that we are.
When we credit value to humans simply for being human we also recognize that any particular human we might be considering is more than just their particular manifestation at a given moment. Humans are creatures of possibility, possessing the capacity for self-creation, able to learn, explore options, influence our futures. Increasingly we are coming to realize that both as a species andas individuals, humans are agents of becoming. Never a fixed entity, everyone is always more than meets the eye, always a promise to be fulfilled, a blossom that might reveal itself with the right soil and care.
There is, in modern consciousness, a common understanding that being human has intrinsic worth. This current sense of human value probably arises from a natural empathy that evolved because we are social creatures, an empathy that was elaborated and articulated by strains of post-scientific enlightenment thought, and global connectedness which exposed the diversity of human fauna to each other, a process accelerated by the wonders of modern communication.
However, our present notion of the human is, I think, an implicit notion, one that is rarely fully examined. We typically don’t consider the infrastructure of the idea, don’t analyze it in depth. Even less do we explore fully the implications of the idea. In his book on dehumanization, Less Than Human, David Livingstone Smith, notes that there are very few prior books on the subject of dehumanization, and most of those focus on subsidiary aspects. I would guess, without exploring it, that there are even less books, if any, about humanization. To examine dehumanization or its constructive opposite means having to wrestle with what it means to be human, particularly in relation to other humans. One reason that we are reluctant to pursue this might be that it too easily exposes the contradictions of the world, an avoidance syndrome not unfamiliar to the framers of the U.S. constitution in dealing with the issue of slavery.
The understanding that being human is valuable in and of itself, whether for the reasons I give above or through reasoning of one’s own, conveys significant implications, implications that the world has yet to fully explore. For if you vest value to the state of being human, then this value must automatically accrue to every human without exception. If it matters to be human, then every human matters, every single human, each and every human on this planet, both those breathing now and all those who will respire in days to come.
Every human, must therefore, mean every human, whatever the color of their skin, whatever patch of the earth they live on, whatever beliefs attach themselves to, however portly or petit they might be, however attractive their appearance might be appraised, whatever their stature (physical or cultural). Every human means those who clean toilets just as much as those who run corporations, those who pick lettuce as much as those who critique paintings or films, those who mine coal as much as those who extract knowledge, those who collect garbage as much as those who create legislation, those with empty pockets as well as those with bulging offshore accounts, the faceless and the voiceless as well as the ubiquitous parade of celebrities flickering across the world’s screens.
Recognizing the inherent worth of all humans summons you to consider the implications of that finding. While it might be rather easy to intuitively sympathize with the notion that humans matter for being human, it still requires mental laboring to do the accounting necessary to audit humanity’s balance sheet. But if one comprehends that every human matters just because they are human, and if this is more than a deduction of rational analysis, more than an abstract moral principle, but something that arises because we grasp what it means to be human, not just in our heads, but in our bones, then the current state of the world can be rather disturbing if it is carefully examined.
Because if we come to embrace the point of view of innate human value, then it becomes difficult to countenance the ill-treatment of so many humans on this planet, hard to accept it as an unavoidable element of our existence, an unfortunate truth which we must resign ourselves to. Once the sense that every human matters inhabits you, becomes rooted in your consciousness, then the unnecessary suffering of others confronts you as something that needs to be diminished, as wounds to be healed.
Fundamental to the whole ongoing project of being human, maybe the thing that truly differentiates us from other creatrues, is that we don’t accept the circumstances of our lives as given, but instead are sparked with an impulse towards betterness, an itch to enhance our circumstances, to shape reality towards our liking. In a world of constantly upgrading software and hardware, a world in which razors and laundry degrents are continually new and improved, it would be profoundly shortsighted to see the current state of human affairs as the way the world is and must be.
We humans are just getting started in this deep project of human becoming. Scientists like to say that human life is just a tick in the whole history of life on earth. And of that brief time, increasingly smaller segments of that involve settled agricultural existence, written language, industry, true science and digital communication. Think of the changes of the last 2000 years, or even the last 200, and then ponder what humanity might become in 10,000 years, or 100,000 or 1,000,000.
If we remove the blinders of the present and liberate ourselves from the self-imposed shackles of the past, we can recognize humanity as a movement into the future. Humans are the first species of becoming, the first creatures whose existence isn’t just a struggle with what is, but is also an impulse towards what might be.
To navigate our odyssey into the human future, it behooves us to consciously address what it really means to be human, particularly how we want to live as humans, to contemplate which star we’re sailing towards . As humans, this involves simultaneously considering our individual pursuit of happiness, and the collective happiness of the global human community. As well as the terms and conditions of our own self-realization, the specifications of our personal bliss, we also need to appraise how we wish others to live and how we wish to live with others. In short, what do we want from the world and what world do we really want.
Being human is not just an individual undertaking but is also a participation in the greater global human enterprise. Our birth automatically enters each of us in the human race, like it or not. Negotiating a human life involves one involuntarily in the whole dense matrix of human systems that span the planet, including languages, cultures, ideas, histories, sciences, technologies, communications, governments, and the pervasive capitalist marketplace with its financial substructure. To be human is to live in a human world, to be enmeshed a world of humans.
Facing forward, the fundamental issue we humans must face (and which has been widely disregarded) is this whole question of human relations, of how we wish to live with each other on this planet. Essentially, it comes down to a choice between two different ways of being, that is between a world focused on the competitive pursuit of individualistic self-interest, and that of a world devoted to a mutualistic pursuit of common human well-being. To me it seems radiantly clear to the point of being virtually self-evident, that the world striving for the common good would be by far, the happiest world for the vast majority of humans.
We find ourselves here, just past the start of what we clock as a new millennium, in this world of humans, having achieved an awesome human predominance over the planet, having grown exponentially in numbers, knowledge and capabilities, a state of species eminence so unique as to constitute a radical development in the evolution of life. And yet at the same time, we find ourselves with deeply problematic relations both with each other as humans and with the rest of the living planet.
At the human level, the world is afflicted by two major curses. First, there is the divisiveness of antagonisms between groups, based on beliefs, cultures, skin color and other conceived differences. Beyond the war and human carnage caused, they condemn us to spending vast expenditures of money and energy on implements and preparations for harming each other, and further they immerse us in corrosive emotional states of fear, anger and hostility, life under the shadow of threat.
The second curse is a world system involving the exploitation of the many for the simplistic and unreflective numerical self-advantage of a privileged elite, a world where 1% of humans lay claim to over half the world’s wealth, according to recent analysis by Oxfam. A world which, in any empirical assessment of empirical input and output, doesn’t work for the benefit of all, but rather where all work largely for the benefit of a few.
Both afflictions involve the separation of humans from each other, either segmentally or hierarchically. This partitioning of humans by membership group or by status ranking pits humans in opposition to each other, whether as groups or as individuals, faction generating friction. But I think a good interpretation of the prehistorical record would be that the most significant factor in the success of humans as a species, was not intelligence or tool-making, but that we are a social species, that empowered by language and community we were able to work together in complex ways, to combine efforts in the struggle to survive and flourish.
As we expanded in numbers and spread across the globe, we mutated from being egalitarian and arguably relatively harmonious communities with little interaction from remote groups (though having some conflict with nearby communities). The winds of history produced today’s world of vast inequality and ongoing conflicts of nation, religion and ideology. Interestingly, the thing that perhaps most works to interconnect us as spatial groups, the process of economic globalization, is the same force that creates the vast inequalities that separate individuals, regions and classes.
But while the cultural differences that divide us are quite live and kicking (as evidenced by attacks in Paris that killed over 100 on the day I’m writing this paragraph) they can all be viewed, in one light, as historical artifacts, differences which were produced by the flow of the past. Because they are cultural differences, they exist to large extent in the social minds of humans. Though they are also to some extent embodied in material reality, they are still essentially mental fabrications of humans. They do persist of necessity but primarily because they continue to be propagated by humans.
Because they are fundamentally cognitive formulations, they are capable of dissolving in the blink of an eye, an uttering of a word, at least in the mind of any single individual, perhaps from their encounter with a stimulating thought or just through reflection on their experience of the world. Globally, of course, these differences won’t just dissolve in any instantaneous fission; they possess a tendency to persist, like memories, which is essentially what they are, embodied group memories. On the other hand, because they are all mental constructs, they can’t help but change and are more fragile than most imagine.
What are commonly called cultures can be viewed as lived interpretations of the world. They are never static and always undergoing contestation and revision. The incredible projects of human knowledge making, both the hard sciences and the so-called social sciences must necessarily interact with the human process of interpreting the world. The vast increase in human knowledge of the past few centuries, both of the nature of “material reality” and of the histories of how we’ve come to this point in time must necessarily catalyze the human interpretative process to create fresh understandings of what it is to be human.
The great inflow of knowledge and the accelerating process of change produce a profound dissonance with belief systems born deep in the past as well as the structures that emanated from them. Further, the acceleration of human knowledge is based upon an empirical approach to understanding, essentially making the process of interpretation subject to verification by evidence that can be gleaned from world.
The great expansion of our understanding of the world and the greater universe and how we’ve come to be here open up, for the first time really, the possibility to see the ourselves that we are as concoctions of history, as blossoms of space-time, to see our beliefs not as material realities but as dreams, guesses, hypotheses. From that perspective, it becomes possible to see all of humanity, indeed all of life, as an unfolding, a becoming, a movement towards what might be.
While this interpretation of humanity must undergo its own unfolding, while thoughts of difference won’t magically disappear across the earth, I think the present world has arrived at the point where we can begin to re-prioritize our differences. The possibility has opened up for us to see that while history has written differences into our lives that the essential condition of being humanis something that we share with every other human in this world. Further that this being human is the fundamental element of our existence, that what connects us is more important than what divides.
So, as we find ourselves immersed in a world of humans, a world bursting with humans, all smuggled into the world through the same portal, human understanding frees us to envision how we wish to live with each other, to imagine what the world might become. The world is inviting us to start moving beyond hostile difference, beyond vast inequality, beyond the chill of separation. Instead of erecting walls and fences to keep our bodies apart, we need to build bridges that link our hearts and minds.
If we are compelled to be tribal, let our tribe be the tribe of humans. If culture is essential to being human, let us develop a human culture, a culture of harmony and goodwill, a culture of humans being for each other and for what they each might be. Let’s learn to see other humans not as objects to be utilized but as our flesh and blood. Let’s make learn how to make this world of humans into a world for all humans, a world that works for the benefit of everyone.
We are rooted in this earth beneath our feet. It is the land grant of all humans, our birthright, our common ground. Let it be our home sweet home, a welcoming to all, an invitation to flourish. Let’s learn to be human together on this earth. Let’s make this world of humans a world of us, of each and all of us.