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Friday essay: reflections on the idea of a common humanity

Aboriginal elder Max Eulo holds a baby in front of a sea of 70,000 multi-coloured paper hands at the Sydney Opera House in December 2000. David Gray/Reuters

Friday essay: reflections on the idea of a common humanity

It is striking how often people now speak of “a common humanity” in ethically inflected registers, or ethically resonant tones that express a fellowship of all the peoples of the earth, or sometimes the hope for such a fellowship.

It is also striking how often we speak of our humanity as something that is not given to us once and for all, as species membership is, but something towards which we are called upon to rise – not until such time as we achieve it, which could be different from one person to another – but unendingly, until we die.

The two seem interdependent: to recognise the humanity of others we must rise to the humanity in ourselves, but to do that we must at least be open to seeing fully the humanity of all people.

In a similar way, the acknowledgement of human rights – rights that all people are said to possess merely by virtue of being human – appears to be interdependent with the acknowledgement of a common humanity with them.

The same is true for the recognition of the “Dignity of Humanity” to which, we are told in preambles to important instruments of international law, an unconditional respect is owed, as it exists, inalienably, in every human being.

More often than not, we refer to the idea of a common humanity when we lament the failure of its acknowledgement. The forms of that failure are depressingly many: racism, sexism, homophobia, the dehumanisation of our enemies, of unrepentant criminals and those who suffer severe and degrading affliction.

As often as someone reminds us that “we are all human beings”, someone will reply that to be treated like a human being you must behave like one.

There are two kinds of explanations for this. Each has its place. One assumes that we retain a firm hold on the idea that all peoples of the earth share a common humanity, but for various psychological, social, moral and political reasons fail to live up to our acknowledgement of it.

The other suggests that the very idea of a common humanity waxes and wanes with us and at times – when we dehumanise our enemies or are vulnerable to racism, for example – becomes literally unintelligible to us.

A sign saying ‘Don’t allow humanity to wither’ near the scene of a bomb attack in Ansbach, Germany, last month. Timm Schamberger/EPA

Racism is again on the rise in many parts of the world. So is the dehumanisation – in some cases demonisation – of our enemies. They have come together in attitudes to ISIS and have spread to Muslims and some immigrants as effortlessly as water flowing downwards in a channel.

For that reason, many people now fear that within ten years or so, national and international politics will be dominated by crises that are caused and inflamed by the shameful gap between the rich and the poor nations, aggravated by the effects of climate change.

We now have reason to believe that instability in many regions of the earth may cause even more people to be uprooted than were last century. Strong nations are likely to protect themselves in ways that become increasingly brutal, testing the relevance and the authority of international law.

It is, I believe, almost certain that my grandchildren’s generation will not be protected as mine has been from the terrors suffered by most of the peoples of the earth, because of impoverishment, natural disasters and the evils inflicted upon them by other human beings.

More and more, I fear, the reality of affliction together with unrelenting exposure to what is morally horrible – to evil if you have use for that word – will test their understanding of what it means to share a common humanity with all the peoples of the earth, and to a degree almost to awful to imagine, their faith that the world is a good world despite the suffering and the evil in it.

Inherent dignity and inalienable rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, stated in its preamble that

the recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

It also spoke of crimes that had recently “shocked the conscience of mankind”.

Memorial to the British nurse Edith Cavell who helped around 200 allied soldiers escape from German occupied Belgium during WW1 and was shot by a German firing squad. she_who_must/flickr

Two years earlier, the UN’s Resolution on Genocide declared genocide to be a “shock to the conscience of mankind … contrary to moral law and to the spirit and aims of the United Nations” and a crime “which the civilized world condemns”.

Yet at the time those words were written, the peoples of the European nations who drafted them and created international law looked upon most of the peoples of the earth as primitive savages who, of their very nature, lacked the kind of understanding presupposed in what is meant by speaking of genocide as “a shock to the conscience of mankind” - even though some of them had been victims of colonial genocides.

Racism of that kind was then, and is now, often marked by incapacity to see depth in the lives of Blacks, Asians and Central and South Americans. Some other forms of racism are different. Anti-Semitism is different in many ways from the racism of whites towards coloured peoples. I do not know enough about racism of coloured peoples to one another and towards whites to comment on it.

At issue in the kind of racism I will be talking about is not the truth of the factual stereotypes to which racists often appeal in order defend their attitudes, but rather the meaning they are able to see – or fail to see – in the lives of the peoples they denigrate.

When James Isdell, Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia in the 1930s, was asked how he felt when he took children of mixed blood from their mothers, he answered that he

would not hesitate for a moment to separate any half caste from its aboriginal mother, no matter how frantic her momentary grief might be at the time.

Written comments on a 1934 newspaper clipping: ‘I like the little girl in centre of group, but if taken by anyone else, any of the others would do, as long as they are strong’. Corbis

They “soon forget their offspring”, he explained. It was literally unintelligible to him that “they” could grieve as “we” do, that grief for a dead child could lacerate a black woman’s soul for the remainder of her life.

To get the hang of what I mean by “unintelligible”, think of why one couldn’t cast someone who looked like a racist caricature from a Black and White Minstrel Show, to play Othello. Such a face can express nothing deep. Not even an omniscient God could see in it the expressiveness needed for such a role.

It’s hardly disputable that expressions like “failing full to see the humanity of peoples” come naturally in discussions of racism of the kind betrayed by Isdell’s remark.

So when I speak of a common humanity of all the peoples of the earth I mean, at least in the first instance, that there are no peoples who are as Isdell saw Aboriginal Australians. Given my earlier remarks about the colonial context in which the Universal Declaration of Human rights emerged, and the resurgence of racism world wide, the importance of such an affirmation cannot be overstated.

In making it, however, I do not want to suggest that I understand what it is to be fully human, that I and others who make the same affirmation discovered it and wish to impose that discovery to formerly denigrated peoples.

But when I say we have not discovered it, that we do not know what full humanity is, I don’t mean that we might one day. There is no such thing to discover.

Earlier, I said that we sometimes speak of humanity as something towards which we are called upon to rise, that it is task with no end, and would have no end even if we lived a thousand years. That is the idea of humanity that informs what I have been saying about this topic. Reviewing my book A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice (1999), Greg Dening said that “for Gaita, humanity is a verb, not a noun”. I couldn’t have put it better.

What it means to be human

It is, I think, uncontroversial that Australia’s Aboriginal peoples think differently about what it means to be human than non-aboriginal Australians do – a difference expressed, not discursively, but as the great Australian anthropologist WH Stanner put it, in

all the beauty of song, mime, dance and art of which human beings are capable.

The difference can be described most generally as being in their attitude to the natural world and their place in it. That is vague, of course, but it is enough to sustain the point that the difference has inevitably shown itself politically in, for example, disputes and court rulings about land and title and in the many, sometimes angry, arguments about what counts truly (practically) as reconciliation as opposed to merely symbolic gestures towards it.

Perhaps the most bitter disagreements were over whether genocide was at least sometimes, in some parts of Australia, committed against the Stolen Generations, as the 1997 Bringing Them Home report alleges.

I want to comment on this, though not in order to set new fires burning. Genocide is perhaps one of the most controversial concepts of international law. There is disagreement over whether it entails murder and over whether the Holocaust should be regarded as its paradigm or only as an extreme instance of a crime that, at its other extreme, might be forced assimilation.

Bringing Them Home consists largely of heartbreaking stories. The argument that genocide was committed is brief and depends on its definition. The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and punishment of the Crime of Genocide allows that there may be genocide without a single killing in service to a genocidal intent and that taking the children of a group may be a means to genocide, if it is done with the intention to destroy, “in whole or in part, the group as such”.

Stories, I have argued elsewhere, cannot of themselves tell us whether that allegation is right. Stories, no matter how many and how moving, cannot settle the controversies about the nature of genocide.

Primo Levi: the Italian Jewish chemist, writer and Holocaust survivor. Mondadori Publishers/Wikimedia Commons

In the West, where the concept was developed, stories or narratives like Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man (1979) which played such an important role in our understanding of the Holocaust, speak to us only against the background of a common understanding. It is the work of discursive thought, usually in disciplines like anthropology, philosophy and history to try to render it reasonably perspicuous. But I must enter two important qualifications to that point.

Firstly, the kind of thought that engages with the stories should be answerable to the same critical concepts that determine the degree to which the stories contribute to understanding, rather than to edification or to delight. Those concepts are, of course, partly those with which we assess literature.

About virtually everything that matters in life, including matters of law, we argue not only about facts and the logical inferences made from them, but also about whether certain accounts of them move us only because we are vulnerable to sentimentality, or pathos, are deaf to what rings false, and so on.

For that reason, there can be no marked distinction between the concepts with which we critically assess narratives and those to which discursive engagement with them is answerable.

Bringing Them Home was criticised for being emotional. Hostile to its allegation of genocide, many Australians said that it convinced only people whose reason had given way to their emotions. Kim Beazley, some of you may remember, wept in Parliament when he read out some of those stories.

It is, of course, a failing – sometimes a very serious one – to be “emotional” in the pejorative sense of the term. Then we ignore or deny facts and arguments that are not congenial to beliefs to which we are emotionally committed. That is usually what people have in mind when they say “stop being so emotional”. Hold on to your reason, they say, especially in turbulent times like ours – like advising someone to hold onto to their hat in a storm.

Men hug as they watch then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologise to Aboriginal Australians on a big screen outside Parliament House in Canberra in 2008. Mick Tsikas/Reuters

But there is a danger here that threatens our capacity, indeed our desire, to see things. It is the tendency to oppose reason to emotion in a way that makes us insensible to, or uneducated in, a form of understanding in which thought and feeling and form and content are inseparable.

Sentimentality, a disposition to pathos, a failure to register what rings true, a tin ear for irony – these undermine understanding more often and surely than when emotion usurps reason, if reason is conceived as separate from and unfriendly to emotion.

When that happens it is not because emotion defeated reason that we affirm beliefs that we regret holding and having acted upon when we become morally clear sighted. It is because we were bereft of a sensibility, educated and disciplined, that would have enabled us to detect the sometimes crude, sometimes sophisticated, sentimentality, pathos and so on in what seduced us.

I come now to my second qualification. There is no shared understand between Aboriginal and non-aboriginal Australians about what it means to be human, and therefore, I think, no shared understanding of what we would naturally call crimes against humanity – if the concept of humanity plays any serious role in the ethical characterisation of such crimes.

Aboriginal peoples have no power of the kind that could force anything on non-Indigenous peoples, no power to force them to negotiate a treaty, for example.

Awful though it must be to peoples treated as they have been by their colonisers and their descendants, whatever further justice they are given will be a function of the openness of non-aboriginal Australians to seeing that justice must be done and, most importantly, seeing what that comes to if it is true to the history of this land.

For that to happen, non-aboriginal peoples must come to see what is at issue from the perspective of the Aboriginal peoples. That requires more than we usually mean by empathy, because it depends on acquiring new concepts or modifying old ones – concepts that are a condition of empathy, rather than its product.

Pat Dodson at the Garma festival last month. Peter Eve/AAP

For most non aboriginal Australians, that will involve a perceptual gestalt switch of the kind, which, for example, would enable them fully to acknowledge that this land is under occupation, if not legally as defined in international law, but morally, nonetheless.

If you think that is an exaggeration, a step way too far, then listen to Pat Dodson.

While the 1788 invasion was unjust, the real injustice was the denial by [Governor] Phillip and subsequent governments, of our right to participate equally in the future of a land we had managed successfully for millenniums. Instead, the land was stolen, not shared. Our political sovereignty was replaced by a virulent form of serfdom; our spiritual beliefs denied and ridiculed; our system of education undermined.

We were no longer able to inculcate our young with the complex knowledge that is acquired from intimate engagement with the land and its waterways. The introduction of superior weapons, alien diseases, a policy of racism and enforced biogenetic practices created dispossession, a cycle of slavery and attempted destruction of our society.

The 1997 report Bringing Them Home highlighted the infringement of the UN definition of genocide and called for a national apology and compensation of those Aborigines who had suffered under laws that destroyed indigenous societies and sanctioned biogenetic modification of the Aboriginal people.

For many people, to see Australia like that, really to see it like that, will at first be like seeing one aspect and then the other of an ambiguous drawing.

Crimes and lacerated souls

There is, of course, much more to understanding Aboriginal cultures than seeing the impact on them of the crimes committed against the Aboriginal peoples. But if we are to talk seriously about a treaty then we cannot avoid talking about crimes.

Understanding the crimes committed against the indigenous peoples of this country depends on an ethical understanding of what they suffered. Understanding of that can never be too distant from their stories and other forms of art that express that suffering.

If that is so, then it is obvious that, for the most part, Aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples of this country do not have a shared understanding of that suffering and, therefore, of how it should enter the ethical characterisation of the crimes against them.

The development of such understanding will be unnerving, radical and almost certainly novel to the classical traditions of Western political thought.

When people’s souls have been lacerated by the wrongs done to them, individually or collectively, openness to their voices requires humbled attentiveness. Such attentiveness is growing in Australia, I believe: slowly, by no means surely, but growing nonetheless

Philosopher Martin Buber said that the basic difference between monologues and “fully valid conversation” is “the otherness, or more concretely, the moment of surprise”. His point is not merely that we must be open to hearing surprising things.

A group of Australian children adorned with painted faces and bodies clown for the camera in Sydney in 2000. Jim Hollander/Reuters

We must be open to being surprised at the many ways we may justly and humanly relate to one another in a spirit of truthful dialogue. It is in conversation, rather than in advance of it, that we discover, never alone but always together, what it means really to listen and what tone may properly be taken. In conversation we discover the many things conversation can be.

No one can say what will happen when, through such conversations, we understand better how Aboriginal peoples have experienced – in the past and now – the crimes committed against them and, therefore, how that understanding should inform the ways that Aboriginal and non aboriginal peoples will be able to say “we”, truthfully and justly, in political fellowship.

It might not be “we Australians”. We might change the name of the country. Maybe not, but I cannot see how one can respond with truth-seeking humility to Dodson’s words and at the same time rule that out.

An act of faith

As things stand, the preambles to some of the most important instruments of international law that I mentioned earlier deploy Eurocentric concepts to express the ethical significance of those laws, to reveal what it means ethically to break them. The Dignity of Humanity and the inalienable dignity of every human being are amongst those concepts.

Elsewhere, I have expressed deep reservations about the way we speak of human rights and Human Dignity with a capital D (the capital D is necessary because the issue is not the alienable dignity people fear to lose as a result of injury, or enfeeblement in old age).

Like French philosopher Simone Weil, I fear that the way we now speak about human rights rests on an illusion. The illusion is that no matter how unrelentingly savage or cruel our oppressors, we can retain a Dignity that they cannot touch.

A woman holds a sign at a protest in Paris in April 2016. Elyxandro Cegarra/New Zulu

Some people suffer affliction so terrible, either through natural causes or because of human cruelty, affliction that crushes their spirits so completely, that the heroic key in which we talk about Dignity and inalienable human rights sounds like whistling in the dark.

But I have also said that the battles for what we call “human rights” and for the acceptance that all the peoples of the earth share an inalienable Dignity that defines their common humanity have been amongst the noblest in Western history. God only knows where we would have been had we not fought and won so many of them.

Talk of inalienable dignity is often an attempt to capture the shock of encountering the violation of something precious, a kind of wrong that cannot fully be captured by reference to the physical or psychological harm that is part of, sometimes integral, to it.

In much of my work, I have developed the implications of the fact, wonderful but also commonplace, that sometimes we see something as precious only in the light of someone’s love for it.

Our sense of the kind of preciousness that we feel is violated when we speak of a person’s inalienable dignity was historically shaped, I believe, by the works of saintly love. They were the inspiration, I believe, for what we mean when we say that even people who have committed the most terrible crimes and those who suffer severe and ineradicable affliction possess inalienable dignity.

Kant, to whom we owe the modern heroic inflections attached to those ways of speaking, was right to say that we have obligations to those we cannot love and may even despise.

He was right. But it was the works of saintly love, I believe, that transformed our understanding of what it means to be human and in fact are the source of the affirmation that we owe unconditional respect to the inalienable dignity possessed by every human being.

One doesn’t have to be religious – I am not – to acknowledge that. Doing so will enable us to talk of the inalienable dignity of every human being without falling victim to the illusion that its heroic resonances encourage.

Two-year-old Charlie Rosanove runs through flags that make up the ‘Sea of Hands’ display at Sydney’s Centennial Park September 9, 2000. Mark Baker/Reuters

I spoke earlier of my fears for the world my grandchildren will grow into.

I dread the prospect of a world in which my grandchildren could no longer affirm – for it is an affirmation, an act of faith to be true to what love has revealed but reason cannot secure – that even the most terrible evildoers, those whose characters appear to match their deeds, who are defiantly unremorseful and in whom we can find nothing from which remorse could grow – are owed an unconditional respect, are always and everywhere owed justice, for their sake, rather than because we fear the consequences if we do not accord it to them.

I dread the prospect of a world in which we no longer even it find intelligible that those who suffer radical, degrading and ineradicable affliction could be accorded a respect that is without trace of condescension, and thereby kept fully amongst us, mysteriously our equals.


This is an edited version of a lecture Raimond Gaita gave on Wednesday August 10 in the series The Wednesday Lectures, held at the University of Melbourne.

Professor Gaita will be available for an author Q&A on Friday 12 between 3.30 and 4.30pm AEST. Post your questions in the comments below.

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