The Emergence of The New Universal Human
Published in the Truth Seeker (Volume 121 No. 1)
The current world situation provides numerous examples of factional conflict of the most diverse kinds.
In the wake of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the upheaval in Eastern Europe there was a brief glimpse of hope for a new mode of peaceful development in the world. But the glimpse was all too brief, eclipsed by flaring conflicts all around the world, some new, some old. In the former Soviet realm a multiplicity of nationality conflicts erupted into sometimes violent confrontations. Religious revivalism and fanaticism continued to assert itself, not only in the Islamic world. In India we have seen communal clashes and terrorist activity on an unprecedented scale. The list of strife around the world could be made long, but let us mention only one more instance: Yugoslavia. This is where nationalism, religion, and the legacy of communist rule are mixed in a vicious war that has given us a new word for a very old phenomenon: ethnic cleansing.
A striking fact about these conflicts is the familiarity of the ugliness they display. War between nationalities in the Balkans or central Asia, clashes between Hindus and Muslims in India, tribal conflicts and religious fanaticism are not new phenomena. It is only the faces of the actors that have changed. The problems are, in other words, old, and obviously the old remedies have not worked. If it were possible to solve the old problems by the old methods, these problems would not still be with us today. Therefore the old problems need new solutions, and I would like to make some reflections on what the future might require of us in this regard. To do so I would like to fix attention firmly on the individual person, in order to explore the meaning of factional strife from the point of view of its bearing on our sense of who we are.
Let us notice that in each type of conflict -- national, ethnic, religious, etc. -- the central distinction has a double aspect: it is simultaneously universalizing and particularizing. Nationalism lifts the individual from separate selfhood into the fellowship of the nation, while at the same time dividing him or her from the members of other nations. To be an Indian or an Englishman is to assure a sense of identity extending beyond the purely local. And with the sense of identity goes an extension of the concerns of the heart, of loyalties, to others who were formerly not included within them. They thus come to include the welfare of distant countrymen whose face one may never even get to see. In the ultimate case one stands ready to give one's life in defense of the country all these individuals call theirs. This positive side of the national idea is what is generally designated by the term patriotism.
But since the nation is always less than humanity as a whole, this extension of loyalties to others is at the same time a limitation and restriction of loyalties with regard to all those who live beyond the confines of the nation. In its national aspect the individual's identity extends no further than his or her country, and excludes identification with all those who live beyond its borders. Loyalties are restricted accordingly. Not only do they not extend beyond the confines of the nation, they are all too easily turned into hostility and antipathy to other nationalities. As a complement to the willingness to die for our country we therefore have the readiness to kill those beyond its borders. This restrictive, divisive aspect of the national idea goes by the term nationalism, and at its narrowest it is called chauvinism, epitomized in the motto My country, right or wrong.
Now, exactly the same analysis into an expansive, universalizing aspect and a restrictive, divisive aspect can be made with respect to any of the other categories that figure in factional conflict. In religion the fellowship of believers joins the individual through his or her creed to all those, wherever they may live, who share this set of beliefs. At the same tine it draws a line of separation from all those who happen to believe otherwise even though they might be neighbors. And again, with the sense of religious identity go loyalties, predisposing the believer to assist fellow believers, and, in the limit, to persecute and put to death infidels and heretics. The same dynamic applies to the ideologies of the modern world, whether they happen to make race or class their category of distinction. In each case the expansion of the sense of selfhood and loyalty beyond the local is purchased at the price of its restriction to a collective which in being less than humanity as a whole sets the individual off from a substantial portion of our kind.
I believe it is reasonable to assume that historically the expansion of loyalties from local to larger concerns has in some sense been functional, and has proceeded on a background of technological progress in the range of communications, transport and commerce. At the same time a heavy price has been attached to the universalizing tendency through the circumstance that it has been defined in terms of categories that set collectives off against one another and so lend themselves to the purposes of factional strife, persecution, and warfare. The question now arises whether along with our current technological progress to global communications, transport, commerce and information flow, we have not reached a stage at which the old categories that define our identities and loyalties are ceasing to be functional. This will be the case the more they fail to match the global reach of our potential intercourse. The farther they come to lag behind the scope of our global possibilities, the more will the price attached to their restrictive aspects exceed the benefits formerly generated by the categorical expansion of loyalties. This generates a need for a new definition of our identity to match the global reach of our potential intercourse, and it is my thesis, or rather hope, that such an identity, which I call the new, universal human, is in the process of emerging.
If then we ask ourselves what this new sense of identity would look like, we notice a peculiar circumstance. This new universal identity, which in keeping with our previous argument would expand our sense of who we are to the global level of human beings as such, would simply be what we all have been all along, minus the acquired distinctions of nationality, creed, race, caste, class, or any other subcategory of humankind. The sense of identity appropriate for the most global level is at the same time the sense of identity of which personally we are more sure than any other identity we might call ours, namely that of being human beings. It is the only identity that is ours by virtue of our existence alone, and is in fact synonymous with that existence.
Whatever else anyone anywhere believes him- or herself to be, he or she is certain of being a human being. There are some tribal peoples whose name for their own tribe is just that, "the human beings." They are of course right: they are human beings, and they are wrong only to the extent that they deny the same name (and status) to other tribes and peoples. The new universal human knows this and accords the status of human to every human being, without distinction. The tragedy of the old divisive categories of expanded loyalty we have reviewed is that in defining us as different from them, from that portion of humanity falling outside of that loyalty, be it of nation, religion, race, caste, class or ideology, we so easily forget the primary fact of our common humanity, and so feel entitled to accord those others less than human treatment and respect.
Yet the recognition of our common humanity is only the first step in the emerging consciousness of the new universal human. What in fact does it mean to be a human being? And what, therefore, does it mean to accord others full human treatment and respect? The question of a universal human identity thus forces us to grapple with questions of human nature, and the moral consequences that flow from every conception of such a nature. This is not the place to dissect these difficult topics, but I want to note one very immediate and practical consequence of a sense of self that accords primacy to our common humanity.
When our sense of who we are dispenses with all partial distinctions to assume the basic and at the same time universal identity of human beings, our loyalties extend to human beings as such. Does this mean propagating schemes for universal salvation? Does it mean going to the ends of the earth in search of suffering humanity? No: human beings as such are the very people we encounter in our everyday reality, and this everyday reality is the stage of our moral concerns. To act humanly, humanely, in our everyday dealings, and to see the human being, the person, in the individuals whom we encounter in our mundane surroundings is the challenge posed by the consciousness of our common humanity. To cultivate such an awareness of the humanity of others requires refusing to let distinctions of nationality, race, religion, caste, class or creed blind us to our common human status.
Acting in this awareness might force us to mount challenges to traditional customs or established authority for violating the integrity of our fellow humans, but is not an end in itself. Activism is needed to re-humanize and re-universalize that which the weight of obsolete custom, special interests, and coercive authority have de-humanized and de-universalized. Its aim is to remove the obstacles that impede our human treatment of our fellow humans. Lest such activism fall into the trap of itself losing its human content, it has to be thoroughly anchored in the concrete case, in realities of which we have direct experience, and with whose details and background we are thoroughly familiar. This universalism begins with our neighbors and extends to the world only through them. In some small way this is what we have been trying to practice in the many and varied projects and campaigns of the Atheist Centre, which often have had their origin in tangible problems which have confronted us personally or been brought to our attention in the course of our work. For me, the experience we have gained in the process is summed up in the conviction that the emergence of the new, universal human is a requirement for our passage to a better future.
Think globally, act locally.
Lavanam, Director of Atheist Centre, Vijayawada, India, gave this keynote address September 26, 1993 at the London Annual Reunion of the South Place Ethical Society.
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