Lately I have been exploring the meaning of the word “humane”. While it has its roots in the word “human”, it refers to compassion and empathy with non-human entities as well (“humane societies” are generally intended to encourage the humane treatment of animals, not people, for example).[i] A quick internet search reveals a graph of the word’s usage over time[ii]; according to this set of data, the adjective “humane” has been on the decline since 1800 (with a brief upward trend in the early 1970s). I can’t help but wonder, has the entire concept of humaneness been on the decline too?
Philosopher-physicist Karen Barad routinely uses the word “matter” as a verb. Through the lens of language, she invites us to envision a kind of “post-humanist” world in which humanity along with everything else is not just equal and interconnected, but is intra-connected and ever-becoming – ever-mattering – based on constantly-morphing intra-relationships.[iii] Incensed that it is possible to live in a world in which it is of urgent necessity to point out that #BlackLivesMatter (glaring evidence, if ever there was, that the obvious is in dire need of advocates), it is in this active sense of the word “matter” that I am suggesting that #HumanenessMatters. Active humaneness towards everyone and everything of all colors, genders, species, and even presumed status with regard to “aliveness” or “consciousness” is bound to cause an immediate ripple effect, resulting in a measurable increase in overall planet-wide levels of humaneness.
To humanize someone or something – human or otherwise – is to relate to her, him, or it with compassion, on an equal plane with oneself[iv]. “To humanize” has elements in common with “anthropomorphize”…to ascribe our own characteristics to things outside of ourselves, such as plants, animals, geological features, or forces of nature. Anthropomorphization is often thought of as a quaint, if slightly risky, poetic device, a handy metaphorical tool, but something that must be used with discretion if we wish to be taken seriously as rational creatures in societies in which it is collectively assumed that humans are different, separate, and superior to everything around us.
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On the other hand, to “dehumanize” someone or something is to degrade it, to divorce oneself from responsibility for her, his, or its well-being. Soldiers are trained to de-humanize those deemed enemies in order to fight, kill, or torture them. Imperialists de-humanize pre-established populations in order to colonize their lands. Capitalists often de-humanize labor in order to exploit it. In addition, they may find it necessary to detach themselves emotionally from environments and entities that must be harmed or eradicated in order to maximize profit. De-humanization is routinely employed to justify all manner of predatory behavior.
The ongoing effort to reverse these trends – racism, classism, sexism, speciesism and other oppressive -isms – may be enhanced and accelerated by the radical re-humanization of everyone and everything. A simple mental shift will transform the pigeon in the park or the mountain in the distance from “it” to “him” or “her” (as is standard in many languages other than English). This could be thought of as a kind of “post-anthropomorphism”, the reflexive granting of equal status, respect, and care to every being and every thing. What if we were to begin with the assumption that we are more alike than different and work our way out from there, instead of starting from a position of presumed separateness-until-proven-connected?
Even if you are a scientist, have no fear…this mindset will not permanently impair your capacity for objectivity when necessary, nor will it cause you to do your job less accurately. In fact, you may be able to do it more constructively; empathizing with your specimens could move you to design more humane, ethical, and beneficial experiments. After all, the notion of objective observation is a poetic device too.
It turns out that poetic devices – including our basic assumptions about the ways the world works – can have extremely tangible effects, for better or worse, on the ways we treat each other and the planet we share. By choosing a social imaginary that presumes equality and interrelationship, rather than one that perpetuates exploitation and abuse, our individual everyday lives become re-infused with purpose and meaning. Detachment leads to alienation and nihilism, while caring leads to a sense of cooperation and fulfillment.
In this time when it seems apparent from a cursory glance at the daily news that humans are capable of so much damage and violence, it is important to bear in mind that it is a relatively small percentage of the total population of humans that is causing the majority of the harm[v], whether through extremist acts of aggression or by a seemingly more innocuous form of fundamentalism: excessive consumerism. For those wooed by such ideologies, gravely destructive acts have become normalized.
But it is not too late to stop the spread of destructive -isms and reclaim the spirit of what it means to think and act humanely – with kindness, compassion, and empathy. If “to humanize” means to connect with another in an intelligent, emotional way that feels uniquely human to us, we can approach this fraught moment in history most constructively and with maximum grace by coming to humanize everything.
[i] Curiously, most definitions include a reference to “humane” ways of killing.