What differentiates a human from other living beings, specifically animals (the differences between humans and living beings besides animals can explain itself), provides the first pillar for defining humanity itself. John Locke introduces the human capacity to reason, an innate and equally bestowed ability as the principal distinction, as it allows humans to make rational decisions that animals cannot. Karl Marx, however, defines humanity through its appreciation of aesthetics and invention of the laws of beauty. For Marx, the human ability to create for reasons besides necessity distinguishes them from animals, who cannot think beyond their physical safety and survival. Despite the diametric opposition of these scholars on most other issues, the salient characteristics of humanity that they introduce are not mutually exclusive, and can, together, distinguish between humans and animals. Both scholars assert that human intelligence extends beyond basic needs and allows this race to pursue their desires even if unnecessary for survival. Animals lack such an ability.
Nonetheless, after excluding other specieses from humanity, the question then becomes what does unite the human race. Professor Tamura, in her opening plenary lecture, suggested that the possession of a body creates a common human experience. Through this connection, she argues that humans can understand those unfamiliar to them, because humans universally experience physical needs and emotions, such as hunger. In this example, she specifically argued that humans can understand, or at least have a basis for imagining, the pain of others that might occur, for example, in a fight. Similar themes surrounded viewings of the dance “Strange Fruit” during unit five. In this performance, the dancer repeatedly beats her body against the ground, and the clash from this movement resounded even over the video screen. The common human body naturally predisposes the audience towards sympathy for this dancer, as audience members can, through their respective bodies, imagine the pain. This connection, as such, inherently elicits sympathy towards the purpose behind the dance and inspires the audience to agree with the performance’s thesis. Nonetheless, humans still make wars, demonstrating the limits to this commonality. Humanity chooses where it draws the line and ceases to care about its universal experience, but this decision has historically remained dynamic.
Furthermore, the body furthermore can provide a catalyst for change in human relations. In the graphic novel March, documenting the freedom riders and Birmingham protests during the Civil Rights movement, the authors depict a male police officer kneeling down to talk to a young girl protesting. Although, despite the semblance of respect in kneeling down to her level, the officer likely still arrested this little girl, Professor Wills pointed out the wedding ring on his finger. Professor Wills commented on how he would have felt kneeling down later that night to talk to his own daughter and how his body would have reminded him of kneeling down before arresting this other little girl. This contradiction questions how he then could have slept that night. The conflicting human behavior juxtaposes two identical actions with two drastically different outcomes to ask how this officer looks at these two little girls and sees one as less human solely due to her skin. The commonality of the body clearly fails to generate empathy for the first little girl, and the existence of such divisions suggest that humans primarily define themselves not by the body.
Furthermore, human commonality only extends so far, as humans often throw others under the bus for their own benefit. At the height of Stalin’s terror, random disappearances and executions ran rampant, and the novella Sofia Petrovna illustrates through this protagonist’s example the confusing nature of this atmosphere. Sofia Petrovna’s inability to distinguish the innocence of her son that she presumes from the guilt of everyone else that she assumes illustrates the typical lack of fault of the victims during this terror. Nonetheless, many were executed or faced prison and torture due to their neighbors and friends selling them out. The film, “The Death of Stalin”, depicts Soviet requests for names on multiple occasions. These requests for criminals would not have played such a crucial role in the administration of these regimes had they not been reliably successful. As such, the question then becomes how humans, despite these unifying features discussed, become so quick to turn on each other?
Referring to humanity’s definition of itself, Professor Quillen suggests the tendency to focus on opposition. Through this model, humans exclude everything they do not identify with to arrive at what they do. Black Matters by Toni Morrison demonstrates this predisposition, since the author highlights the interdependence of whites and blacks in the American colonial system. For Morrison, whites derived their power exclusively through the subjugation of blacks. As such, the exclusion of this enslaved race in the time’s historical narrative becomes simultaneously ironic and self-evident of this historical reality. History reflects what one group of people thought about an event. In the case of nineteenth century whites, this bias demonstrates the parasitical nature of race relations and the extreme dependence of whites on blacks. Because superiority requires the existence of an inferiority, Morrison’s theses demonstrate how this contingency came to define the whites of the time, while these people simultaneously defined this other race. The dehumanization of blacks, nonetheless, continued beyond enslavement to the Civil Rights movement and subsequent prejudices. In Robert Williams’ written account, Negroes with Guns, he explains his effort before the passage of the Civil Rights Act to get a swimming pool in Monroe County for the black community or to gain access to the pool one day a week. His efforts to share the pool prove futile, as city officials explain the high costs of black access to the pool, because it would require draining every time these people use it. This sentiment exemplifies how the white community of Monroe defines itself in opposition to the black community and views this other race as “dirty” and consequently less human. For the whites to maintain their own humanity, according to the officer, requires the deprivation of the black population. Such a policy permits the whites to categorize themselves as superior, but only because they force the blacks to act as their inferior. Nonetheless, this division within humanity demonstrates the limits of the common possession of a body on whether humans, despite their differences, view others equally.
These aforementioned examples illustrate the stark differences humanity creates for itself, and it frequently establishes these differences through institutions. The distinction between citizenship and nationality, which underscores the contrast between what a person claims and what claims that person, acts as a clear example of how institutions limit humanity. The differences established through modes of legal citizenship carry with them huge implications, such as mobility, and create hierarchies within the human race. As humans form themselves into groups, such as nations, binding themselves to some and inherently rejecting any connection to others, the resulting system inevitably comes to have imperfections. This consequence distinguishes between citizenship and nationality, as those with a legal place in one country do not necessarily identify most closely with it. According to Professor Robb, in his opening lecture for the course, categorizing anything intangible inherently leads to flaws. While his example centered around Diderot’s map of knowledge, the same concept applies to humanity and thus explains why divisions within nations occur. Both within and across nations, these divisions inherently make some worse off, and thus other comparatively better, and this result highlights how institutions dehumanize to organize humanity. Many nations try to impose equality to combat these effects, and the United States has established equality before the law as its standard. Nonetheless, this scheme fails. Professor Quillen provides an example of laws attempting to criminalize the homeless population by outlawing loitering, instead of referencing these people, and the United States cash bail system serves as another. In the former, as Professor Quillen points out, only these target victims would ever face consequences, and, in the latter, those that cannot pay still suffer in jail while others buy their way out of the cells. Both of these legal actions specifically impact certain groups with no mention of these groups, passing the test of equality before the law but failing that of equality. These contradictions point out the inherent flaws in any human constructed system due to prejudices and the subsequent dehumanization of some to protect others.
Nonetheless, humans also have developed language to communicate within the systems they construct for themselves. This construction, notwithstanding, creates its own power hierarchies similar to those of the systems to which it applies. The example Professor Tamura introduced, the distinction between mourning and melancholia, posits that, while both involve grief, only in mourning a person can verbalize their loss. Despite the absolute freedom of conscience that humans experience, they can only think about what they actually know. Colonization provides a primary example of melancholia, because it shifts human conceptual schemes such that the victims cannot quite understand what the colonizers took. This epistemological violence reflects how colonizers force their superiority upon victims, and any situation with a superiority complex establishes an inferior, dehumanized group. Such violence, nonetheless, once again asks how such cruelties can occur given the shared nature of the body and reinforces the limits therein. Language furthermore can create barriers due to the challenges in communication across linguistic barriers. The translation panel during unit two highlighted how the ability to speak and understand languages generates power. Professor Denham’s side-by-side yet very different translations of the same text indicate the power of the translator, which represents a greater societal reality about access and understanding. Although translation theoretically allows those who might otherwise not to learn about such ideas, these ideas simultaneously filter through a translator who affects the message. Translation gives more power to those already in possession of the capacity for greater intellectual understanding that others. Language, as such, reduces the place of these others in society and simultaneously diminishes their humanity.
Beyond these hierarchies within language itself, the question of who gets to use language and who gets to talk produces its own set of inequities. While Professor Quillen’s unit in part centered around how history writes itself according to power, present discourse proves just as fascinating to study within this question. The best example of this trend, the film “The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum” from unit eight, depicts a tyrannical press derailing the protagonist’s life on the premise of “freedom”. This anti-democratic tendency of the press polarizes the characters and turns many against this protagonist. The scathing nature of this press makes Katharina out as such a far away, removed presence. The definition by opposition theory holds in this case, as the paper’s influence reduces the characters into a binary based on their reaction to these scathing reviews. This tragedy communicates the power in attention and circulation of ideas and how what takes the spotlight can define a human’s life. The speed at which humans choose sides in any conflict reflects this universal tendency to define themselves by opposition, and the presence of this tyrannical force in the film only heightens this trend.
Humans, through all of these connections formed through language, constantly and implicitly ask how they fit into the rest of the world. One central question posed by unit two asks why humans choose to believe what they believe. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave argues for an inherent human desire for enlightenment. The removal of a man from the cave that trapped him and revelation to him of the upper world’s sunlight led to his refusal to submit to the caves restricting nature once again. Borges, however, presents a completely opposed argument on human nature, as he describes the invention in an encyclopedia of a nonexistent planet, Tlön. Nonetheless, in Borges’s story, people come to believe that this planet does exist despite a lack of factual basis even according to the encyclopedia. Humans, for Borges, merely seek knowledge without regard for the truth value of what they know. The contradiction between Plato and Borges asks how humans reconcile what they do not know and cannot understand not only about themselves but also about the world around them. The differing views on knowledge, nonetheless, reveal the contradictory ways humans derive power to reinforce the place of humanity in the world. Given all of these aforementioned examples of unity and fractures, humanities are the ways in which humans define themselves upon interacting with others and the rest of the world. The discipline Humanities studies the humanities.