What Is Humanity?

To have “humanity” or be “humane” is supposed to connote positive meanings: caring, compassion, wisdom. But given humanity’s propensity, on both a personal and global level, for cruelty, greed, and selfishness throughout history (latest evidence here), I always thought it was appropriate to switch the meaning.

Humanity hasn’t done the black rhino any favors.

So if someone did something kind or caring, I would say “Oh, how inhumane,” because the action ran counter to how the human species often behaves. And the usual parade of short-sightedness and self-interestedness I considered “humane.”

I know it is cynical, and it was sort of a wry joke, but it also felt right given the evidence. Still, it is also true that humans, for all their flaws, are in fact capable of extraordinary and inspiring acts of love and kindness. And in this Ted Talk, Chris Abani, despite the life he has led and the things he has experienced, makes a heroic effort to reclaim for “humanity” some positive connotations by recounting small acts of courage and compassion, tying them into the transcendent concept of “ubuntu.”

For now, I will stick with my reversed concept of humanity. But it is in the stories Abani recounts (along with his humor and resilience), and the possibility that they can be contagious, that I place my hopes for the future.

One thought on “What Is Humanity?”

  1. Tim,

    Minutes ago, I read (and commented on) an article about the DA turning down a plea bargain of life without possibility of parole in the Aurora murder spree, telling the judge “My determination for James Eagan Holmes – justice is death,”

    I penned the following, regarding the concept and the case:

    There can be no Justice. The deeds have been done, the people have been killed, wounded, scarred. But WE the People can still demonstrate that WE are above the very act we have him on trial for. His one death does not make up for all the lives taken, the suffering caused; Killing him back isn’t Justice. It’s revenge, petty, pure and simple.
    Is killing okay when WE do it? When YOUR determination is that it is justice? We’re all too cavalier about taking life when it suits us, about defending life (even when it’s just a gelatinous mass called a fetus)when it suits us. Perhaps it is SENTIENCE we should be defending, if we are truly Sapiens ourselves.
    The man offered life in prison without possibility of parole. That would protect us from any future wrongdoing and save us many millions of dollars. Accept the plea and lets get off of your career-building aspirations and back on to the healing at hand. Such healing is not accomplished by more destruction, but by love and time.

    I’m quoting the above because it seems, to me, that it’s all the same subject. A long-time friend of mine points out that we shouldn’t expect people to care about non-human earthlings, citing the way we treat each other, our very own species. Perhaps when we raise ourselves up by the bootstraps to become better than we are about ourselves, we’ll be able to do the same for non-human earthlings. My fear is that such enlightenment will arrive far too late.


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