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Common humanity, or, We’re the same because I said so

9 September 2013

We hear a lot, it seems, about our ‘common humanity,’ our shared, fundamental belonging to the single human family that makes us all more alike than different. This is a peculiar notion and one that interests me for three very different reasons: (1) that it seems to be one of the last bastions of essentialism; (2) that, historically, it reflects millenia of speculative wrestling with the reality of human difference; and (3) that is it seemingly most frequently deployed by persons in a position of privilege to silence the voices of the oppressed. I want to talk about all three, in that order. Throughout, I’m going to discuss it in terms of the same test issue: race. I’ve selected race not because it’s earned me traffic in the past but because it’s adequately contentious that no one should be able to nod along with everything I have to say; it applies, more or less self-evidently, to both of the more material issues I wish to address; and because it’s an area where I am both interested and, I like to think, qualified.

That Special Something

So what do I mean when say that ‘common humanity’ is one of the last bastions of essentialism? Well, as a form of discourse, the common humanity argument assumes that all persons, regardless of gender, sex, class, race, etc., are equally and fully members of a single community of ‘humans’ and/or partake in some essential reality which qualifies us as ‘humans’ and from which other sorts of beings or things are excluded. The implication is that this fundamental humanness overrides sub-group membership in some relevant ontological or moral way but that is neither here nor there for the moment.

Essentialism, as defined by Quine and applied in this discussion, is “the doctrine that some of the attributes of a thing (quite independently of the language in which the thing is referred to, if at all) may be essential to the thing, and others accidental.” ‘Accidental’ is a broad category. An ‘accident’ is any feature of a thing which is not essential to it, which does not identity, qualify, or constitute it as an example of a type. So an accident can be characteristic without being essential (for instance, the colour brown is characteristic of wood but not all woods are brown). Those who espouse the common humanity argument think that features such as race, gender, and sexuality are accidental to humanity.

Now, essentialism has long since ceased to be a mainstream way of seeing the world. Granted, there are plenty of ways to be an essentialist. But, whether the Platonic Forms, the Thomistic Universals, or the Kantian Ding-an-Sich, they all long since lost the day to nominalism, in its various forms (in brief: everything is just names). We no longer think in terms of ‘tableness’ or the ideal form of table which all actual tables merely approximate. Except, it seems, when we’re talking about ourselves. No matter how firmly we accept evolutionary theory and post-Wittgensteinian ordinary language philosophy, we can’t get past the idea that we’re something special, that there really is some innate, identifiable humanness to us. So we still assert that we can have human rights because of our human dignity. We still talk about ‘animals’ as if we weren’t just another sort. We still think we’re special (nota benae: I am aware that this is often because of religious convictions, including but not limited to Christian ones, but I still think it’s wrong, you know, philosophically). So we get all sorts of regressive essentialisms, though gender essentialism (which erases trans* and non-gender binary persons) is probably the most prominently hated by liberals. Yet liberals have their own trendy essentialism too.

The essentialism of ‘common humanity’ erases the differences within the type. It’s in the nature of essentialism to subordinate the accident to the essence, the instantiation (the individual example) to the ideal. Think of that what you will but it becomes especially problematic when we’re talking about people. Why? Because the ideal of human, the thing you need to be if you want to be an unqualified human being, is a straight, white, cisgendered man.

Late on the Scene

As an intellectual historian, what interests me about the ‘common humanity’ argument is how it reflects centuries or millenia (depending on how you work your narrative) or wrestling with the reality of human difference. The narrative I tend to focus on takes us back only about 400 years, to the literature that grew up, particularly in Portugal and Castile, debating the humanity of the ‘Indians,’ indigenous inhabitants of the Americas, and whether it was right to enslave them. The mainstream accepted the humanity of the Indians fairly uncontroversially (Juan de Sepúlveda, most famed as the interlocutor of Bartolomé de las Casas in the Valladolid Controversy, was the only major thinker to seriously question it), so debate roiled around the latter question, in particular over the Aristotelian category of ‘natural slavery.’

Natural slavery, in short, is the idea that some people are just naturally not able to govern themselves in their own best interest (that is, direct themselves toward the human telos) and thus ought to be subject to those who can do so for them. The concept is from Aristotle and he didn’t racialise it as such, though in practise he seemed fairly content to accept that Greeks were generally able to govern themselves, unlike, say, others. Advocates of enslaving potential slaves, Juan de Sepúlveda notably among them, deployed this argument, usually arguing from the ‘Indians’ ‘savagery.’ Opponents, unwilling to argue against Aristotle (perish the thought), usually preferred to argue that the ‘Indians’ simply did not meet the criteria for natural slavery. Francisco de Vitoria, importantly, argued that no such humans exist, though the category was theoretically valid. Vitoria won the debate but lost the day, as the end of Castilian enslavement of America’s indigenous populations resulted in the import of African slaves.

Note benae: Not every thinkers who accepted slavery accepted the argument from natural slavery. Luis de Molina, for instance, posited only voluntary slavery and accepted that ‘Indians’ and ‘Aethiopians’ (black West Africans) could be justly enslaved if they sold or traded themselves into slavery (in exchange for, say, not being shot by a Portuguese slaver).

Only centuries ago, Juan de Sepúlveda, believing that the ‘Indians’ could and should be enslaved, erased their humanity, either by questioning it outright or by suggesting that their nature was so inferior to that of Europeans that they should be enslaved for their own good. Since then our discourse about human difference has come a good ways. Today we don’t accept natural slavery, that some people must be governed by their betters for their own good (though it was a mainstream position less than two centuries ago). Instead we (well, we social liberals) take the issue to the opposite extreme: we refuse to accept any morally or ontologically relevant differences between humans. Where once race brought humanity in question, now race is not an admissible question. It amazes me how quickly this utter reversal in perspectives came about. The period in which this reversal took place is well outside my area of expertise (coming, as it does, after the 17th century) but my sense of it is that it stems from an experience of shame at the knowledge of one’s own history, and an explicit rejection of the points of view that one assumes led to it. In that much, at least, it’s well-meaning.

The Devil’s Greatest Victory

Jem Bloomfield not so long ago took on the common humanity objection so often raised to identity politics. ‘Identity politics’ is something of a dirty word these days, especially when prefixed with ’90s’ and I think that’s closely related to the regnant post-racial, post-gender, post-whatever ideology of contemporary political discourse: in this modern age (usually they point out what year it is, presumably to highlight the unbridgeable moral chasm between the world of today and that of whenever they figure racism or homophobia or misogyny was last relevant, say, the dark ages of 1964), we have evolved beyond these categories. We have this on the authority of the straight, white, cisgendered men who feel no prejudice in their own hearts. These are people to whom ideas like ‘privilege’ and ‘structural inequality’ are academic when they’re not meaningless, because they’re not lived. The world looks fair to them, so they don’t understand why you insist that it’s not. That’s not to say this dynamic is only between the ideal and the divergent of the type, of course. No, it’s heard often as not from those who should know better.

As previously noted, the common humanity argument posits and/or assumes that ‘humanity’ overrides sub-group membership in some morally and/or ontologically relevant way. Because, says this line of discourse, you and I are both human, our different genders, sexual orientations, races, or whathaveyou, are irrelevant. This was a common argument in the comments to my open letter on the Trayvon Martin case. Many commenters (on the blog and on other platforms) insisted, variably, that I was ‘the real racist,’ that my letter was ‘fanning the flames of racial hatred or division,’ or that I was obscuring some ‘more fundamental’ issue. At the root of most of these comments (there were any number of other popular lines of objection) was the assertion that by talking about race and understanding my own experiences in light of race, I was creating artificial divisions within humanity.

But what these defenders of common humanity don’t (whether it’s can’t or won’t, I can’t really say) recognise is that my experience is being human is not the same as theirs. What’s more, when they demand that I recognise our common humanity, they want the defining elements to come from theirs. Because when they say ‘human,’ they don’t mean me. No, they mean themselves. At least, they mean the parts of their own experience of being human that fits the type. If being human means not talking about being black then, clearly, to be black is not to be properly human. Here you might protest that these same would argue that we shouldn’t talk specifically about being white, either. But of course, we don’t need to, do we? When we’re talking about humans we have to specify if we don’t mean white ones. That’s how the argument of common humanity erases, how it serves privilege and systemic inequality: it demands that in the interest of human unity we never discuss the realities of the majority of humans.

When those many commenters argued that I was ‘ignoring our common humanity’ or ‘getting caught up’ in identity politics, they were asserting the primacy of their own humanity and political priorities over mine. I am a human. A black human. Being a black human involves a lot of peculiar realities. Many of them reflect structural racism and systemic inequality. The same is true of many experiences of being human. When I talk about how I am human, I must talk about blackness, because blackness is part of my experience of being human. When you say that I should ignore it, that ‘common humanity’ doesn’t involve talking about structural racism, the fear of black males bodies, or people of colour wearing protective clothing, you are denying my humanity. You are saying that the live I have lived is not part of the experience of being human.

The experience of being human is not a uniform or monolithic. But ‘common humanity’ demands that it be. So it seeks to silence discussions of experiences that don’t reflect the ideal of the human type. It serves the interests of the privileged by invalidating the experiences of others, refusing to hear them because they are speaking in light of their own particularity, which ‘common humanity’ refuses to acknowledge as valid. It says that you can comfortably avoid engaging with the experience of the other because they’re not looking at it right. It robs the already marginalised of moral authority over their own experiences by accusing them of divisiveness or racism when they won’t sublimate their own humanity to the ‘common humanity.’ It does all this invisibly, claiming the moral high ground and comfortably reinforcing the status quo.

“We’re all human,” it says. “Not black or white. Just human. Like me.”

Nota benae: I’ve simplified my racial identity here in the interest of brevity. It takes nothing away from my point to describe myself, less than fully accurately, as black. It would hurt my readability a bit to describe myself as ‘a mulatto who considers himself a member of the black community’ six or seven times. If you prefer, you’re welcome to think of me as black in the political sense.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jones permalink
    17 September 2013 6:00 am

    YES. I want to quote bits of brilliance, but it’s all on point. Thank you, bruh.


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