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Humanism and Its Others

[Banksy's Armoured Peace Dove, West Bank, Palestine, 2007. Image by eddiedangerous on Flickr.] [Banksy's Armoured Peace Dove, West Bank, Palestine, 2007. Image by eddiedangerous on Flickr.]

Who could possibly be against humanism? Wouldn’t this be tantamount to being against humanity—that is, being against oneself? This all depends, of course, on whether you have had the chance to count among those who are considered to be “human” in the first place—or, to put it in the terms of contemporary protests in the United States and elsewhere, whether you are one whose life is seen to matter. The critique of humanism that has emerged in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century is first and foremost an attack upon the dehumanization of certain populations, an attack that has all too often been carried out in the name of humanism itself.

One way to begin to understand this critique of humanism is to focus on the fact that humanism is, after all, an “ism.” Another way to say this is to say that “humanism” is an ideology, and like all ideologies, it has been put to a variety of uses. The dominant form, which emerged in Europe at a historical moment also marked by the emergence of European colonial domination of the globe, was, as its critics have amply demonstrated, deeply complicit in this colonial project. Frantz Fanon memorably gave voice to this critique in the conclusion of his anti-colonial masterpiece Les damnés de la terre: “Let us leave this Europe which never stops talking of man yet massacres him at every one of its street corners, at every corner of the world.” [1]

Now it could be said by way of response that the European humanism that Fanon attacks here for its complicity in colonialism’s global massacre is not true humanism. This would be an argument about the sort of “blindness” that we often attribute to the past, with the benevolent sense of ourselves as having moved away from this darkness—the humanism of that earlier colonial generation, in other words, was simply less developed than our own. But to say this is to miss the full critique of humanism offered by Fanon and others who have taken up similar sorts of anti-colonial and anti-racist positions. The problem is not simply that humanism, in its dominant form, was limited or blinkered; the real problem is that the very definition of “the human,” as it emerged in that particular place and time, constitutively excluded certain categories of living and breathing people, based upon their race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and other seemingly illusory but ultimately defining categories.

This is what I mean in describing humanism as an ideology. Part of the claim of humanism is that it simply represents a taken-for-granted category: humanity. An important a set of twentieth-century thinkers, inspired in part by Friedrich Nietzsche’s call for a “transvaluation of values” and in part by post-World War II political struggles, insisted that “the human” is not simply a category that can be applied to a set of pre-existing subjects. Instead, this category of “humanity” represents the way that the modern Western subject constituted itself—fundamentally through a rejection of those considered to be non-human “others.” As Michel Foucault noted, humanism relied upon already-existing conceptions of humanity “borrowed from religion, science, or politics” and turned them into an ideology. Therefore, “humanism” is based upon a tautology: “Humanism serves to color and to justify the conceptions of man to which it is, after all, obliged to take recourse.” [2] And these “conceptions of man” [sic] emerge, crucially, through the rejection of those excluded from this category and, consequently, excluded from humanism itself.

Foucault’s reference to humanism’s “conceptions of man” indicates one crucial exclusion from the category of “man”—women. While comprising more than half of the population, women nevertheless, as feminist thinkers have insistently shown, functioned as the “other” of man, left outside the prevailing concept of the human. Simone de Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième Sexe embodies the key point, by which “man” becomes interchangeable with “human” (i.e. “mankind,” “the ages of man,” “all men are created equal”—one could go on), leaving woman with no other role than that of “the other.” As Beauvoir wrote, regarding the fundamental position of “woman” in this dominant conception of the human: “She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject; he is the Absolute—she is the Other.” [3]

The exclusion of women from the category of the human might be understood as part of the working of humanism as an ideology “at home”—that is, within European society itself (this would also include the rejection of other groups—workers, particularly during times of unrest like the Paris Commune; immigrants; and, particularly in the case of the Americas and Australia, indigenous peoples). Outside Europe, the great global crimes of modernity—slavery, imperialism, settler colonialism, the increasingly global degradations of capitalism—relied directly upon the notion that certain populations were not to be considered fully human.

This is a notion inscribed in the heart of modern liberalism itself. As Lisa Lowe has recently and convincingly argued, John Stuart Mill’s defining works on liberty relied upon the premise that good government involved discerning those populations that were “unfit for liberty,” for whom the only appropriate form of government would be not democracy but despotism. [4] In this sense, Mill’s lifelong employment by the British East Indian Company, a keystone of British colonial domination, does not contradict his writings on liberty; rather, this seeming contradiction captures the formulation of modern liberalism—democracy at home, despotism “over there”—reflecting in turn the belief that some populations are more “human” than others.

Such a division of the world into “humans” and “others,” while it may have been a product of the era of high colonialism, did not simply disappear with the coming of “independence” to formerly colonial countries in the post-World War II era. Indeed, our own understanding of “humanism” continues to be haunted by the legacies of slavery and colonialism. This is why Fanon insists that those who have taken up the struggle for decolonization “must start over a new history of man which takes account of … [Europe’s] crimes, the most heinous of which have been committed at the very heart of man.” [5] The horrific legacy of slavery continues to be lived today as the horror of racism, a disease that has not yet been healed—a contagion, in the haunting words of the novelist John Edgar Wideman, that can be traced to that moment “when one of us decided to sell one of us to another.” [6]

Certainly, it is possible, even in light of this history of dehumanization carried out in the name of humanism, to continue to fight for humanism from within. Edward Said, whose book Orientalism has been one of the key texts in exposing the way in which “the West” managed to create and constitute itself through a rejection of its less-than-human Oriental other, argued this case to the end of his life: “it is possible to be critical of humanism in the name of humanism and . . . schooled in its abuses by the experience of Eurocentrism and empire, one could fashion a different kind of humanism,” he wrote in a late essay. [7] Fanon himself, at the end of Les damnés de la terre, concludes with a call to “make a new start, develop a new way of thinking, and endeavor to create a new man [sic].” [8] Both Fanon and Said offer examples of the struggle to retrieve humanism from its legacy of dehumanization. However, they also show us that a true engagement with this legacy involves giving up on the illusion that our own humanism today is somehow automatically more enlightened than that of previous generations, thanks to the critiques and struggles already described—that is, that what we can have today is simply old-fashioned humanism minus racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.

To understand the underpinnings of a movement like Black Lives Matter in the United States, for example, one cannot simply assent with the traditional response of humanism: “of course, all lives matter.” A truly honest engagement would have to begin with the reality that only a few generations back, one set of bodies, beyond simply being seen as “less human,” were literally converted into commodities to be bought and sold like other objects on the market. This was done in the service of the same ideology of “humanism” that insisted, to take one famous example, that “all men were created equal.” That paradox could only be resolved by creating a category of “man” that excluded those others not seen as human. This is what Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the most brilliant contemporary critics of this ideology, means when he argues, against the usual humanist understanding, that “race is the child of racism, not the father”—and, furthermore, that the latter only comes into existence to uphold an ideology by which those considered “human” can maintain a system of pillage that both dehumanizes and systematically disenfranchises its enslaved others. [9] This system of pillage created, and continues to underwrite, the lives of those who Coates, following James Baldwin, refers to as “those who think they are white.” [10]

This ongoing critique of humanism remains particularly important today, when the key word of our time seems to be not “humanism” but “humanitarianism.” Indeed, we have lived to see horribly destructive wars carried out in the name of humanitarianism. As Keith David Watenpaugh, among others, has shown, the history of humanitarianism has always been linked to questions of colonialism, domination, and political control. [11] Within this larger history, the bloody events of the past few weeks (as I write this) indicate something about the continuing uneven assignment of “humanity”—or, rather, the exclusion of certain populations from this category. The differing reactions, at least within the Euro-American context, to horrific bombings that took place successively in Ankara, Baghdad, Beirut, and Paris have come to be increasingly noted. [12] A map that has circulated widely via social media satirically measures “how terrible it is for the world” when a tragedy occurs in various geographical regions; categories range from “What a terrible tragedy!” (North America, Western Europe, Australia, Japan), to “Well, life is like this” (much of the Middle East, Central America, much of the former Soviet Union), to “Who cares?” (essentially all of the African continent). [13]

This point about the uneven assigning of “humanity” across the globe resonates with the argument made by Judith Butler, in her book Precarious Life, that in the age of the War on Terror, populations have been divided into those considered grief-worthy and those who are not. [14] To break this division, she puts forth a politics of solidarity based precisely around a shared sense of vulnerability: rather than increasingly brutal and armored versions of “security,” Butler offers a politics that begins with a shared sense of precarity—and with it, we might suggest, a shared sense of humanity.

There is a sense of hope in this vision, as there is in the insistence of many who, called upon to separate the “meaningful” tragedy of Paris from those of Beirut or Ankara or Baghdad, refused to play this game of unequal humanity. It may be, to return to Fanon’s quote, that in the age of social media and instant global news we have become somewhat better at noticing, amidst our taken-for-granted humanity, those murdered “at the corners of the world”; however, we seem to continue to miss those murdered “at every one of our street corners,” rendered invisible as they have been by their exclusion from the category of what we would recognize as “fellow humans.” This is true of the forms of state violence carried out against marginalized groups in the United States, where I write this, and of the forms of state violence carried out against marginalized groups in Germany, where it is to be published, and of the forms of state violence carried out against marginalized groups in Turkey, where it might be read; no doubt it is true of many other places as well. In each case, the majority, ensconced in their taken-for-granted humanity, consent to the brutalities enabled by this uneven distribution of humanity.

It may be, finally, that the real test for any new humanism lies in its response to the problem of “the terrorist.” To deny that the world today is a place imbued with terror would be an absurdity. Much of this terror, of course, has been unleashed by states and para-state actors, and thus is rarely described as being the work of “terrorists.” “Terrorist,” the ultimate term of dehumanization today, is reserved for those one wishes to place outside the bounds of the human. Before launching its wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, the government of the United States invented the term “enemy combatant” to place certain of its “terrorist” targets outside the reach of international law—legally speaking, that is, outside the realm of the human. The current Israeli government considers any form of Palestinian resistance to the illegal and dehumanizing occupation to be the acts of “terrorists.” In President Erdogan’s Turkey, Kurds, Alevis, leftists, queers, “improper” women, young people, indeed anyone who offers any resistance to state policy—all are eligible to receive the title of “terrorist,” and all thus become disposable.

Any attempt to fashion a different kind of humanism today finds itself surrounded on all sides: by the dehumanizing legacy of humanism’s history, and by the dehumanization endemic to today’s terror-saturated world. All the more reason, then, to dedicate ourselves to the struggle against dehumanization, right at the heart of humanism itself.

[The Turkish version of this article was originally published on Sabah Ülkesi.]


[1] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, translated by Richard Philcox (New York: Grove, 2004), 235.

[2] Michel Foucault, “What Is Enlightenment?” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: The New Press, 1997), 313-14.

[3] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, translated and edited by H. M. Parshley (New York: Vintage, 1989), xxii.

[4] Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Three Continents (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 106-07.

[5] Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, 238.

[6] John Edgar Wideman, Fever (New York: Penguin, 1988), 133.

[7] Edward Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism (New York: Columbia UP, 2004), 11; see also Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1978).

[8] Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, 239.

[9] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 7; for the argument linking the invention of racism to slavery and white plunder, see Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic (June 2014).

[10] James Baldwin, “On Being White and Other Lies,” in Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White, ed. David R. Roediger (New York: Schocken, 1998), 177-80.

[11] Keith David Watenpaugh, Bread from Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015).

[12] A particularly good analysis can be found in Thomas Serres, “Terreur partout, humanité nulle part,” Jadaliyya (17 November 2015).

[13] See Shiv Naidu, “The Tragedy World Map,” The Citizen (18 November 2015).

[14] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso, 2004).

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