My “Humanity” Hobbyhorse

23Mar12

Most of my posts on SpecTechnique have been about stuff you can do in fiction & language. But today I’m going to talk, for a chance, about something to avoid.

And after you read this post, I hope you’ll avoid it too. Or at least think about it!

In high school, I was asked to read Jane Eyre for English class.

I thought the book was okay. Probably too long — depriving me of time I’d otherwise have spent playing Suikoden or Vandal-Hearts or Xenogears….

AP English alternative: PS1 role-playing games

— but still, Jane Eyre was pretty good all the same. Since unlike many others in the class I’d read the novel instead of the Cliff’s Notes, I felt prepared for the class discussion. Except that the discussion topic was this:

What makes Jane such a human character?

My thought was this:

If she’s not human, then what the fuck is she, a xenomorph?!!

Ever since that day, I’ve disliked the word human when it’s used to mean somebody who is empathic, kind, considerate, understanding, etc. Something about it just bugged me. But I didn’t really know what — until about a year later.

It was 2003, the time of the Iraq invasion. We were debating whether the invasion was a good idea or not. Today, it’s funny — funny in the sense of irony, otherwise horrible — to remember some of the claims and arguments that were thrown around in that classroom.

The most memorable argument of all came from one student who supported not only bombing Iraq and Afghanistan, but conducting total, genodical war on all Muslim nations.

“How could you actually support that?” we asked him.

“Because those people aren’t human anymore,” he replied. He’d seen footage of Palestinians cheering after September 11: “To see what happened on 9/11 and cheer, those people aren’t worthy to be called human beings anymore.”

I probably shouldn’t have to add that this guy thought of himself as a Christian.

(On another occasion, I called this guy out for some racist remark he made about African countries; enraged, he left the classroom… Later that day, my International Relations teacher took me aside and told me that actually, he couldn’t really be a racist — because he was friends with the black kid on the lacrosse team…)

secret xenomorphs

In any case, what that incident made me realize was that when ‘human’ is used as shorthand for “kind, considerate, person,” it also has the silent rhetorical effect of excluding foreign, unfamiliar, taciturn, bitter, silent, unsympathetic, non-neurotypical, othered, or just plain different people from the category of “humanity” whenever they don’t provide the response you think they ought to.

Ironically, “human” as a compliment actually dehumanizes people who don’t fit your particular standards.

And more than likely, those standards are the kind of thing you can’t precisely articulate, but rather, “you know it when you see it…”

This might as well be the fucking definition of ideology.

When you believe people have to meet your standards to qualify as human, you’re walking a wicked path, like Kefka!

I don’t consider myself qualified to include and exclude people from the category of ‘humanity.’ That’s why when I write, I never use the word ‘human’ to mean ‘kind’.

And I hope you won’t either.

Therefore (here comes the spec fic) I was so delighted to see Ursula K. Le Guin flip the script on this in her short story “Coming of Age in Karhide,” which you can find in The Best of the Best antho. Here, two youngsters are talking about the changes happening in their bodies:

Sether burst out, “I’ll tell you what I hate, what I really hate about it — it’s dehumanising. To get jerked around like that by your own body, to lose control, I can’t stand the idea. Of being a sex machine. And everybody just turns into something to have sex with. You know that people in kemmer go crazy and die if there isn’t anybody else in kemmer?…”

These characters, inhabitants of planet Gethen, are human-like androgynes who only have a gender for 1/3 of the year, and I don’t remember if they can interbreed w/ Earth people… yet I think this word “dehumanizing” is perfectly chosen.

“But they’re actually not humans…” I can hear someone whining.

Nevertheless, Le Guin extends the concept of “humanity” to include them. And I think she’s right to do so.

(Compare this to the utterly stupid moment at the end of Star Trek II when Kirk calls the dead Spock the most “human” person he ever knew. Spock would’ve regarded this as an insult. The key difference is that Spock would never describe himself as human, but Le Guin’s Gethenians do.)

You’d think this move would only be done by socially progressive writers. But weirdly, it happens in At the Mountains of Madness, by H. P. Lovecraft, who is like the platonic archetype of the racist, sexist, reactionary specfic writer. Nevertheless, here his human narrator feels human kinship with beings that are literally alien. Take a look at the extraordinary last line:

Poor devils! After all, they were not evil things of their kind. They were the men of another age and another order of being. Nature had played a hellish jest on them – as it will on any others that human madness, callousness, or cruelty may hereafter dig up in that hideously dead or sleeping polar waste – and this was their tragic homecoming. They had not been even savages-for what indeed had they done? That awful awakening in the cold of an unknown epoch – perhaps an attack by the furry, frantically barking quadrupeds, and a dazed defense against them and the equally frantic white simians with the queer wrappings and paraphernalia … poor Lake, poor Gedney… and poor Old Ones! Scientists to the last – what had they done that we would not have done in their place? God, what intelligence and persistence! What a facing of the incredible, just as those carven kinsmen and forbears had faced things only a little less incredible! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star spawn – whatever they had been, they were men!

Even Lovecraft can surprise you, I guess.

Join me next time at SpecTechnique for “Archetypes vs Characters.”

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2 Responses to “My “Humanity” Hobbyhorse”

  1. It’s a really interesting point that I hadn’t thought of before (and I love Ursula K Le Guin). But that’s a pretty broad statement you’re making about Christians.

    • 2 nicktramdack

      I think I’m okay with that; the typical American war hawk DOES call himself a Christian, after all. Besides, Christianity itself is no stranger to “pretty broad statements” about the eternal damnation of nonbelievers…

      But I will say that that I stand in solidarity with Christians who actually live up to the name by working for social justice & resisting wars of aggression.



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