Just like everybody else does

2 06 2011

Were slaves humans to those who enslaved them? Were Jews and the Roma and Slavs human to Nazis?

Yes. And no.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s interests and mine once again intersect, this time on the question of who is human. TNC has posted a number of pieces in which he notes that the slaves-weren’t-human-to-slavemasters trope really doesn’t hold up; in his most recent post on the topic, he notes that

But throughout the South there were (poorly enforced) laws against the murder of slaves. Enslaved people were often encouraged to embrace Jesus, and ministered to by white preachers–treatment that mules and dogs were generally spared. Slave populations were filled with the progeny of white people who had sex with slaves–again treatment which most mules and dogs (as far as we know) were spared. It is surely true that blacks were seen as biologically inferior, but they were nevertheless generally recognized as human.

Frederick Douglass, as well, observed in What to a slave is the Fourth of July? that

Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it. The slaveholders themselves acknowledge it in the enactment of laws for their government. They acknowledge it when they punish disobedience on the part of the slave. There are seventy-two crimes in the State of Virginia, which, if committed by a black man, (no matter how ignorant he be), subject him to the punishment of death; while only two of the same crimes will subject a white man to the like punishment. What is this but the acknowledgement that the slave is a moral, intellectual and responsible being? The manhood of the slave is conceded. It is admitted in the fact that Southern statute books are covered with enactments forbidding, under severe fines and penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or to write. When you can point to any such laws, in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent to argue the manhood of the slave. When the dogs in your streets, when the fowls of the air, when the cattle on your hills, when the fish of the sea, and the reptiles that crawl, shall be unable to distinguish the slave from a brute, their will I argue with you that the slave is a man!

The Nazis, too, did recognize that Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs were human, in their prohibitions and punishments, their sterilization campaigns, the theft of their goods, their enslavement, their use as experimental subjects, and, perhaps, above (or below) all, in their willingness to rape Jewish women, Roma women, Polish and Russian and Ukrainian and Serbian women.

Such practical recognition (one which is likely shared by all chauvinistic peoples) must be conceded: the superior knew the inferior to be human.

This concession does not, however, end the debate, for there is also the matter of the ideology of the slaver and the Nazi, one which also drove the practices of enslavement, brutalization, and extermination.

TNC admits to a kind of admiration for Cannibals All! author George Fitzhugh, largely due to Fitzhugh’s willingness to extend the logic of superiors/inferiors to all peoples, such that even many white people could justly be enslaved. Again, I’m not so sure that this consistency deserves any praise, but even more than that, I think a focus on such consistency itself obscures the practical reality of slavery, to wit, that those who were enslaved were both human and not human.

TNC, from the same post:

This posed a philosophical problem for the nascent Confederate intelligentsia. Thomas Jefferson’s notion that “all men are created equal,” particularly rankled. If black people were part of “man,” and all “men” were created equal, how could one justify slavery? Well, one could completely ignore the discrepancy, which is exactly what a lot of Confederates did.

He goes on to consider the “more radical position” that Jefferson was wrong, that the mere fact of humanity did not make one equal.

I happen to agree with this: the liberty and equality we grant to one another is just that, a grant in recognition, and one which could be either extended or withdrawn. (Arendt, too, noted that there was nothing particularly sacred about the “naked human”, and that acknowledgment of humanness is hardly sufficient to guarantee any sort of right.)

But TNC, having opened himself to this radical possibility, gives himself over to those who assert inequality  without also considering that they, too, were engaging in double-talk and legalistic bullshit, that is, that assertions of inequality or inferiority covered up their own discrepancies regarding humanness.

These discrepancies are, frankly, much easier to see in Nazi propaganda, what with their constant references to vermin and bacillus and disease and corruption (in the case of Jews) or weakness and stupidity and beastliness (in the case of Slavs): these people aren’t really people.

What you see, in other words, is that the Nazis had a kind of Platonic Form of humans, namely, the German* (with the asterisk indicating that to be truly German was to be not-Jewish, not leftist, not sick, not mentally ill, not handicapped, not Christian, etc.), and that those who were not-German—that is, those who deviated from the Form—were therefore less human. This dynamic could be seen as well in the belief that some Czechs and Ukrainians and Poles could, perhaps, be “Germanized”, that is, brought closer to  True Human Form.

In short, this is less about equality or inequality than about degrees of humanness: those who are closer to the Form are more human than those further away from it.

The question of the constitution of the form and the determination of relative distances to it is, of course, not a little caught up in questions of power, in particular, in the question of power over. This is where not a few of the discrepancies enter: are more human if you’re on top? if you win? If so, what does loss (as in, say, WWI) mean regarding your humanness? Et cetera. . . .

To bring the point closer to home: We Homo sapiens  use other species; norms and regulations over such use have both varied over time and space and from species to species, a variation dependent upon (among other things) utility and perceived nearness to us. In the US (as in many parts of the world), for example, the Great Apes—our nearest evolutionary relatives—are accorded rather different treatment than mice, rabbits, worms, and flies. And shall we discuss our agricultural and culinary uses of, say, chickens and cows and pigs. . . ?

This brings us back, then, to Fitzhugh, or at least, to the title of his work, Cannibals All! While cannibalism is not unknown among our species, it is an exceptional rather than normal practice—which itself indicates some widespread (if not quite global)  and basic acknowledgement of one another as being of the same kind.

That basic acknowledgement, however, is not quite enough: there is more to being human than, well, being human.








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