When I was framing my Credidero writing project for 2019, I spent a fair amount of time and thought developing the list of 12 one-word topics that I intended to ponder and write about over course of the year. I clearly remember that the very last edit that I made to the final list was turning the possible topic “Humanity” into the actual topic “Inhumanity.” At the time I did that, the edit was largely to eliminate what I thought could have just produced a fuzzy wuzzy glurgey article, and to better balance what I considered innately “positive” reflections among the list of 12 with what I thought could be innately “negative” reflections, and thereby perhaps more intellectually difficult to parse. In other words, it seemed to me at the time that it would be easier for me to fall into writing piffle and tripe about the concept of “humanity” (“La la la, let’s all get along, people are great, yay!”) than it would be to consider its opposite, which could far more fraught with dark feelings and unpleasant realities and difficult realizations. Those seemed to be the spaces that would be more challenging for me to explore, and since this project was intended to be a personal challenge, that final edit stuck.
My sense of that potential challenge has proven accurate for me over the past month, and this is the first of five scheduled articles to date where I’ve missed my self-imposed monthly deadline (by just a few days, though) as I knocked the topic around in my brain housing group a bit longer than I have earlier installments before finally sitting down to organize my mental noise and write. One of the key difficulties for me has been that this topic is ultimately defined by its negation: you can’t actually consider or define “inhumanity” without considering and defining “humanity” first: basically and etymologically speaking, “inhumanity” is simply the absence of whatever its opposite is. Then, adding complexity, “humanity” itself carries two simple/common uses, one of a noun form (“the human race; human beings collectively”), and one of an adjective form (“humaneness; goodness; benevolence”).
But here’s the rub: by most objective measures, on an aggregate, macro, long-term, global basis, humanity (noun) does not practice humanity (adjective) very effectively, at all. Our history is shaped, defined and recorded not through long eras of benevolence and kindness and care, but rather through endless, constant, unrelenting war, subjugation (of our own species and others), depredation of resources, conquest and assimilation of assets, and a host of other day-to-day and century-to-century activities that skew far from the concepts of compassion, tolerance, goodness, pity, piety, charity and care that are embodied in the common adjectival use of the word “humanity.”
It’s almost like humanity (noun) hired some supernatural marketing agent to spin the emergence of the English word humanity (adjective) in the 14th Century just to make us look good and gloss over the horrors imminent whenever we rolled up into your forest or savanna or jungle or oasis. “Oh hey, look, it’s the Humans! Word is, they are kind and benevolent! Humanity, Huttah!” (Said the Lemur King, before we turned him into a shawl, and then killed all the other humans who didn’t have any Lemur Wear).
I kept knocking this conundrum around, not really getting anywhere with it, until it occurred to me that maybe I needed to parse the word “inhumanity” a bit differently. In its common modern form and usage, we think of it in these two parts: “in + humanity,” i.e. the absence of humanity (adjective), and we generally take the combined word form to be a bad thing, even though “humanity” (noun) is pretty awful, if we’re frank about our shortcomings. Perhaps a better way to consider the subject word, though, is to parse it thusly: “inhuman + ity,” i.e. simply the state of being not human. Plants exist in a state of inhumanity, when defined that way, and there’s no value judgment assigned to saying that. They are not human. Fact. Likewise all of the other gazillions of species of animals, protists, fungi, bacteria, viruses, and unseen and unknown entities (ghosts? angels? demons? gods?) that share our planet with us. Not human, and all existing in a state of inhuman-ity accordingly.
The collective set of inhuman-ity engages in many of the same practices that humanity (noun) does: its species and members eat each other, cause diseases, go places they shouldn’t, do harm, deplete things, despoil things, over-populate, over-hunt, over-grow, overthrow, fight, bite, copulate, propagate, locomote, respirate, expire. But their collective abilities to break things on a truly planetary basis, and their willful, ongoing, compulsive drives to engage in the mass exterminations of creatures of their own kind in pursuit of meaningless shiny things or mythical mental constructions or physical homogeneity all pale in comparison to the wide-spread horrors which Homo sapiens is capable of, and seemingly revels in.
Should some miracle suddenly and completely remove the biomass of human beings from our planet today, the other living and unliving things upon it would likely, in time, return to some slowly evolving state of punctuated equilibrium that would allow life to continue in perpetuity here, occasionally blasted and reorganized by comets or asteroids or other stellar detritus, until the time, billions of years from now, when our star explodes and incinerates the little rock we all call our home for the final time.
But I believe it would challenge the most optimistic human futurists to consider the trend lines of what our own species has wreaked upon our planet since we emerged from East Africa, and imagine a (mostly) peaceful progression where humanity (noun) practices care, compassion, kindness, and goodness in ways that promote planetary well-being, human dignity, respect for all species, equality, justice, brotherhood, and the peaceful distribution of assets to all who need them for billions and billions of years.
The accepted scientific consensus, in fact, is quite the opposite of that: the actions that a relatively small number of human beings in positions of political and economic power are taking, right now, largely for the short-term material gain of their own cliques and cabals, are forging an irreversible glide path toward long-term global human suffering that will be orders of magnitude greater than any experienced in the history of our species, and that will more than offset the benefits of centuries of scientific gains, e.g. disease mitigation, crop yield and nutritional density, etc. It’s bad, and it’s going to get worse, fast, and it’s going to take down a huge percentage of the collective set of inhuman-ity on its way. Our current government, to cite but one illustrative example, doesn’t even want its scientists to publicize climate forecasts beyond the year 2040, because the list of probable futures are so dire beyond that point. But they’re coming, whether they write about them or not.
Where does any classical sense of humanity (adjective) as a state of goodness and grace fit within that reality, and how does one reasonably envision the human species a thousand years or more years from now as anything but, at likely best, a small rump tribe of survivors holding on meanly after the vast majority of our species has perished, horribly?
That may be the inevitable progress of our unique species, and it is inherently human accordingly, but it’s certainly not inherently humane. So the linkage between those two uses of the word “humanity” grows more and more difficult for me the longer I think about them, because it really seems to me that, on many planes, humanity is at its most humane when it is being its most in-human, and humanity is at its most inhumane when it is being its most human. Oh, the humanity! Look how inhumane it is!
I suspect alien interplanetary observers would come to the same conclusion, and then might want to hire that supernatural 14th Century marketing firm themselves before they head onto their next assignations: “Oh, hey, look, it’s the Aliens! Word is, they are decent and good and fair, despite their different colored skin and hair! Aliens, huttah!” I mean, we English speakers are just really full of ourselves and bursting with linguistic bullshit when we use the very word with which we name ourselves as a synonym for all the goodness in the world, right? It boggles this already boggled mind.
Let’s pause and take a deep breath at this point. I certainly appreciate that this is high-minded rant that I’m embarking on here, and I certainly do not wish to imply that I am any better (or worse)(or different) that the rest of humanity, by any stretch of the imagination. While I may not be one of the 100 Human Beings Most Responsble for Destroying Our Planet in the Name of Profit (if you click no other link here, click that one, please), there’s still plastic in my trash can, and dead animal parts in my refrigerator, and hatreds in my heart, so I would not set myself up as any sort of paragon of the ways in which human beings can, actually, be and do good. I’m doing my part to destroy the planet too, whether I want to or not, because I am human, and that is what we do, collectively.
But even in the face of our unrelenting, unstoppable destructive natures as a collective, there are individuals around us who do good, and act benevolent, and show kindness, and practice care, representing that classical 14th Century marketing sense of the word “humanity” in their everyday lives and activities. There might even be some small groups of people who can do that on a consistent basis over time, but I think that it is an inherent flaw in our in species that when you put too many of us together, by choice or by circumstance, we become inhumane to all those beyond the scopes and spheres where our individual perception allows us to see individual goodness shining more brightly than the collective awfulness to which we inevitably succumb. Jesus’ teachings were sublime and profound, to cite but one of many examples. But most churches that attempt to teach and (worse) enforce them today are horrible and cruel, with the largest ones usually being the most egregious, inhumane offenders.
How many humans do you have to put together into pockets of humanity before our innate lack of humaneness emerges? I would suspect the number aligns with the size of the average hunter-gatherer communities before we learned to write and record stories about ourselves, and then justify why one communities’ stories were better or more correct than its neighbors’ were, and I suspect that in our twilight years as a species, after we’ve mostly destroyed the planet, we’ll rediscover that number again as we cluster in small groups, optimistically in our ancestral savannas, but more likely in the wreckage of our great cities, after they have spread to cover the inhabitable surface of the Earth, and implode upon themselves.
I found close resonances in my emergent thinking on this topic in the writings of Sixteenth Century French philosopher Michael de Montaigne, most especially in his essay “On Cruelty,” where he wrote:
Those natures that are sanguinary towards beasts discover a natural proneness to cruelty. After they had accustomed themselves at Rome to spectacles of the slaughter of animals, they proceeded to those of the slaughter of men, of gladiators. Nature has herself, I fear, imprinted in man a kind of instinct to inhumanity.
Along similar lines, St Anselm of Canterbury has served as a sort of a quiet mascot for me in this series, since I indirectly captured the word “credidero” from his writings, and I’ve been researching some of his major works in parallel with this project. In De Casu Diaboli (“On The Devil’s Fall,” circa 1085), Anselm argued that there are two forms of good — “justice” and “benefit” —and two forms of evil — “injustice” and “harm.” All rational beings (note that Anselm is including the inhuman angelic caste in this discourse) seek benefit and shun harm on their own account, but independent choice permits them to abandon justice. Some angels chose their own happiness in preference to justice and were punished by God for their injustice with less happiness. We know them now as devils. The angels who upheld justice before their own happiness, on the other hand, were rewarded by God with such happiness that they are now incapable of sin, there being no happiness left for them to seek in opposition to the bounds of justice. Poor humanity (noun), meanwhile, retained the theoretical capacity to choose justice over benefit, but, because of our collective fall from grace, we are incapable of doing so in practice except by God’s divine grace, via the satisfaction theory of atonement.
At bottom line, then, Anselm ultimately found humanity collectively damaged, closer in temperament to devils than angels, and salvageable only by the intervention of the humane, though in-human, God of Abraham, and his Son, who became human, so that other humans could kill him. As humans do.
These two quotes eventually carried me back to the very first thing I typed on this ever-growing page over a month ago, and likely the very first thought that you as a reader had, when presented with the word “inhumanity:” the oft-stated concept of “man’s inhumanity to man,” which has become something of a cliche through over-use. Do you know where the phrase comes from? I didn’t, though I guessed it was likely Shakespeare, since so many eloquent turns of phrase of that ubiquity in our language come from his works.
My guess was wrong, though: it was first documented in English in Man Was Made to Mourn: A Dirge (1784) by Robert Burns:
Many and sharp the num’rous ills
Inwoven with our frame!
More pointed still we make ourselves
Regret, remorse, and shame!
And man, whose heav’n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn, –
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!
Burns, too, accepts at face value the inherent awfulness “inwoven with our frame,” and notes that through our active choices and actions, we’re more than capable of becoming ever more awful yet.
Once again, we return to to the linguistic twist: humanity is at its most humane when it is being its most in-human, and humanity is at its most inhumane when it is being its most human. Can we extrapolate a statement of action from that conundrum thusly: the only way we will save humanity is to reject humanity, and the only way we will be humane is by being inhuman?
It seems and sounds absurd to frame an argument in those terms on the surface, and yet . . . human beings readily embrace the inhuman when they pray to God and ask his Son to come live in their hearts, guaranteeing their eternal salvation, and human beings embrace the inhuman when they accept a Gaia concept of the planet as a single living entity upon which we are analogous to a particularly noxious strain of mold on an orange, and human beings embrace the inhuman when we look to the cosmos around us in the hopes that we are not alone, and that whoever or whatever is out there might yet save us.
I could rattle off dozens of other examples of the ways in which humans embrace the inhuman in the hopes becoming more humane, and all of them carry more than a whiff of deus ex machina about them, as they all involve elements from outside a system being injected into a system to sustain a system. But you know what? That feels right to me. That feels like the one viable path out of an endless do-loop of inhumane humanity, and I suspect that’s why all cultures, throughout our history, have created stories and religions and narratives that seek to guide humanity’s future through the examples of non-human actors, be they other living things on our planet, or mystical beings beyond it.
I doubt that any one of them is any better or any worse than any other, so long as they focus individuals and small groups (remember, we get horrible en masse, always) on goodness at a scale perceivable to the perceiver, and receivable by a receiver. Maybe this explains why I feel compelled to speak out loud to animals when I meet them on my perambulations, as just a small personal act of embracing the inhuman around me, perhaps creating feelings and moods and resonances that might then make me a better human being to the other human beings with whom I interact. Maybe Marcia and Katelin embrace the inhuman in similar ways through their yoga practice. Maybe you embrace the inhuman in a church, or a temple, or a mosque, or in a forest meadow, or atop a mountain, or beneath the eyepiece of a massive telescope.
Maybe we all become better, more humane humans, the more we embrace the inhuman-ity around us. It’s a squishy proposition, sure, but my gut tells me it’s the right one . . .
Note: This article is part of an ongoing twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random online dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this fifth article complete, I roll the die again . . .
. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Seven: “Creativity”
All Articles In This Series: