So I fudged in the previous two posts.
I assigned the “practical” to pt I and the “ontological” to pt II, and then promised to return to the practical in this post. But really, it’s all been pretty much fudgily ontological, or should I say, practically[-]ontological?
Which is to say, I think the question of being-in-the-world, the ontologically query, is also a question of great practical [political, ethical] urgency. Further, that the difficulty of the question ontologically is part of the urgency of the practical question of humanness gives that urgency purchase in the ontological.
Short version: the border between the two is foggy. Fudgey. Part of being human is to be recognized as human by other human beings. Which came first. . . ?
I don’t know, and I don’t know that anyone can know. One can argue, with TWO, that there is something irreducibly “human” (his “concrete reality”) in our species-being, and that the lack of recognition of a group’s humanness is simply a kind of dodge, a repression, a story told to cover the horrors of inhuman treatment.
Among the books I pulled off my shelf was a copy of my dissertation. Early on I quote Elaine Pagels on the long history of “us vs. them”, as well as her caution that “[T]his virtually universal practice of calling one’s own people human and ‘dehumanizing’ others does not necessarily mean that people actually doubt or deny the humanness of others.”And she may be right.
But that concrete reality of the Arendtian-naked human, however practically correct it may seem, runs right into a practical problem: how do we know that this person is human except by the way we treat him? Isn’t the treatment of the other its own practical recognition of the status of that other?
I’ll come back to this, but in the meantime, a few examples:
- Hans Frank, Nazi General Governor of Poland: “the Jews were a lower species of life, a kind of vermin upon contact infected the German people with deadly diseases” (Robert Lifton, Nazi Doctors)
- Alfred Hoche, Freiburg psychiatrist referred in 1920 to “incurable idiots”, of those with “mental death” as “human ballast” and “empty shells of human beings” (Lifton)
- “The Guarani-speaking Paraguayans who hunt the Ache and the Ache, both speak varieties of the same language stock, Tupi-Guarani. But the Guarani-speaking settlers are men of reason, while the hunting and gathering Ache are in their terminology merely Guayaki, ‘rabid rats’; and the rabid rats must be exterminated.” (Eric Wolf, quoted in Leo Kuper’s Genocide)
- Colin Legum, writing of massacres in northern Nigeria: “While the peasants complained of exploitation, the educated Northerners spoke of Ibos as vermin, criminals, money-grabbers, and sub-humans without genuine culture”. (Kuper)
- Wilfred Jones: “By a peculiar twist of logic (which has not been completely dispelled in our day) those afflicted with mental diseases were generally treated as if they had thereby been stripped of all human attributes, together with their rights and privileges as human beings.”
There are more, of course, unbearably many more, divvying people up by ethnicity, religion, mental capacity, morphology, language, culture—anything, really.
And here we are at the point at which TWO and I can point to the same evidence and reach opposite conclusions. TWO could say, “yes, but these people were all recognized as humans, and their oppressors and killers clearly had to try to take their humanness away from them—which ipso facto reinforces my point that they ‘really are’ humans”.
I, however, look at these examples and think, “our humanness can be taken away, which means that it is contingent, not absolute”.
If you are religious and have some belief in an after-life, an absolute humanness might be a kind of solace for the sufferings of this world: Even if your fellow species-beings treat you as a rat to be exterminated, you will be recognized as human by your god, and granted surcease as a result.
But I hold to no existence beyond this world (maybe there is, maybe there isn’t), so there is no solace in considering our status beyond this world. If I am to live as a human in this world, then I have to be recognized as human by other beings in this world. If I am not so recognized, then I can be abused, enslaved, killed, and justifiably so.
I can protest that I am human, but if you don’t see that in me, then my protests, even my own “absolute” beliefs in my own humanness, mean nothing.
This is the urgency of the point: our humanness can, in fact, be taken away from us. The only way, then, to insure that we are treated as humans is to reinforce our humanness over and over and over again.
It’s like setting down a tent and staking it to the ground: you have to go back round and round and pound those stakes back down to keep the whole tent from flying away.
It is power against power: the force of the hammer, the strength of the stakes, the firmness of the ground, against the wind and the rain and the mischief of those who would pull up those stakes.
If we recognize our fellow species-beings as human beings, if this is a “concrete reality”, it is only because we have made it so, because we have, in fact, poured concrete around those stakes. But even that concrete is not enough.
We have to remember why we poured that concrete in the first place, and be willing to reinforce those stakes over and over and over again.