Friday, February 18, 2011

Deconstructing Humanity

In what we may consider an enlightened understanding, all the vast peoples of the earth comprise a single species we may collectively deem humanity. Contemporary anthropologists refute earlier models for separate and distinct races of the earth, favoring instead concept of a single humanity. But does this construction not itself merely another way of constructing an understanding of the world not inherent in it? Does the notion of humanity correspond to any actual category in the real world? Ultimately the perceived variation between blacks and whites is not much different from man and chimpanzee. In reality the relation we perceive within our species is very isolated, and this directly corresponds to a notion of universal humanity. I find this view abstract and selfish. When constructing a notion of humanity, we do so at the cost of our discriminated neighbors, our fellow animals. What not if instead of regarding myself as distinctly human, I saw myself as no different than any other beast, appearance aside. For is this not what happens when a person identifies himself a human instead of white?

Joseph Conrad’s Victory displays vividly the elasticity conception of “humanity” we now cling to so dearly. Written in 1914, the novel takes place in the Euro-infiltrated Far East coast. Certain European hotelkeepers privilege the their race at a distinguished table d'hôte. World traveling Brit Mr. Jones keeps a hairy indigenous from the Mexican coast as a bestial servant and a sidekick who regards him as a gentlemen. The trio gives little consideration to an idea of common humanity.

My point is that the affinities we have toward common humanity are abstractions of our feelings of care. We may assume our actions should be targeted at humanity, but this completely ignores our actual surroundings. Just as Mr. Jones denies rights to Pedro, so too do we do so with “simple” beasts when we harvest forests. And clearly this term is relative, for it is not too far off from how American natives were originally treated. The idea of humanity is not innate to humans. Before our species evolved into the mono-conglomeration of humanity we understand today, several related but distinct species of Homo dug dirt together. What obligations have we to indigenous creatures or “wildlife” in our cohabitation? Mr. Jones treats his like a beast, but are our furry natives not as just as much Memphians as we are?


  1. I would disagree with you and claim that the notion of humanity does, in fact, correspond to an actual category in the real world. The variation between black and white humans is really quite negligible when compared to that of humans and chimpanzees, just as the differences between squirrels and humans are infinitely greater than the differences between red squirrels and gray squirrels.

    Essentially, I agree with Patrick.

  2. I’m assuming you’re a strict vegan, right Cole? To me at least, there seem to be very demonstrable differences between humans and animals. To speak from a Kantian perspective, we can recognize contradictions. Perhaps even more fundamentally, we have language so that we can even talk about categories in the first place. We recognize universals and are able to abstract such ideas away from experience. We are aware of our own consciousness and mortality. When we look at another human being, we instantly recognize that they also do these things. The same cannot be said about squirrels. If we someday learn that squirrels have these capacities for thought, then I think we need to reevaluate our understanding of animal rights.

  3. I didn't mean to emphasis animal rights rights in this blog, but only to compare the notion some people like Ben and Kant have about distinct humanity with other "distorted" conceptions that ignorant people nevertheless may have believed at a certain time about the "humans" whom they were exposed to. We should take for granted that all humans think in similarly enough even though we can seen no more inside their heads then inside those of squirrels. I guess my point really is, sometimes our ideas can abstract us away from the animals we really are. Our biblical sense of humanity's propriety over this earth should be taken as a maxim, because unlike conceptions of race, it is a happy intrinsic truth. People who hold different views about the status of humans and other animals are wrong because as humans we can know these things.


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