When I hear of humans who sell children’s bodies for money, when I read headlines of angry men who enact random violence against innocent marathon runners, when I learn that yet another boy has violated the sanctity of our schools by opening fire on innocent students, I find it difficult to call these individuals human.
They are something less. Inhuman.
For a long time “inhuman” referred to the person who dropped a rung on the Great Ladder of Being; this was an individual ruled by passion before reason; a beast.Four hundred years ago, René Descartes (1596-1650) famously argued that the ability to use language and reason formed the difference between humans and animals. For Descartes, animals had neither minds nor consciousness, and are were machines—sadly, much animal cruelty was predicated upon this distinction [it is ironic how the articulation of our inhabiting a higher state of being than animals served as justification for our bestial acts toward them].
Though no longer convincing in most academic circles, Descartes’ distinction has continued to hold considerable sway in popular circles right up to the present. Though few in today’s culture could accept Descartes’ notion that animals have no minds or consciousness (how could anyone who grew up watching The Lion King, The Aristocats, or Bambi abide such a statement?), we nonetheless seem to delight in the distinction between “us” and “the animals.” In fact, with metaphysics and phenomenology fading out of philosophical vogue, the question of what is human has often come to replace the question of what it means to be.
Crying over Chimeras
The other night I was deeply moved (and mildly disturbed) by the Fullmetal Alchemist episode, “Night of the Chimera’s Cry.” Shou Tucker, a state alchemist and leading scientific mind of his generation, finds himself under tremendous pressure if he cannot produce results in time for his upcoming review. The lavish life that he has attained for him and his 4-ish year-old daughter, Nina, could suddenly be taken away. The episode ends with the unpleasant twist that Tucker sacrifices his adorable daughter for his experiment, finding that the life of a young, human girl is sufficient to enable the alchemical creation of a chimera that speaks the human language.
The “chimera’s cry” of the episode’s title represents the perpetual pain of this poor girl who is now trapped in the body of a beast. It is a cry caused by the inhuman act of a man who literally de-humanizes his daughter. In a touching twist, however, the only humanizing touch of this episode is also found in crying—in this case in Edward’s tears when he discovers Nina’s fate.
Language and reason are powerful descriptors of humanity, but they also exhibit tremendous de-humanizing potential. I cannot help but wonder if tears are a more important indicator of our being human.
Rise of the YOLO-ites
It is interesting that, even 400 years ago, Descartes lumped machines and animals together as occupying the nonhuman category. While this distinction probably holds true in most popular circles today, what is noteworthy is how the Great Ladder has changed. Yes, machines and animals continue to inhabit the lower rung—it is hard to say what is worse today, to be called a beast or a machine. Where the change comes, however, is that today animals and machines do not simply occupy the space below us on the ladder, they are also above.
YOLO has become our new carpe diem. Act first and think later, follow your passions, do what feels good, are clarion calls of the YOLO-ites. The online Urban Dictionary defines this phrase as “the dumbass’ excuse for something stupid that they did,” and I am inclined to agree. Beyond stupid, however, this phrase also signals a new privileging of the instinctive—the animalistic [I can vaguely hear The Bloodhound Gang playing in the background…].
If you give any credence to Descartes’ other famous idea–cogito ergo sum [I think therefore I am]—then it would seem that the YOLO-ites have answered Hamlet’s great question: apparently, they would prefer not to be.
In tandem with this repudiation of reason is a strange embrace of the cyborg. While being called a machine is among our worst insults, we are quickly entering a phase of human existence in which we cannot engage in language or thought without the mediation of a mobile device.
If you have not watched Marshall Soulful Jones’ “Touchscreen” please do yourself a huge favour and check it out. (If you are not hooked at the one minute mark you are a machine!)
I have witnessed powerful and emotional responses to this poem when I have shared it with my students. Interestingly, however, seconds after railing against the de-humanizing effects of excessive reliance on technology, the bell goes, and every one of my 30 students takes out their cell phone to check or send a text.
As far back as 1991, thinkers like Jean-François Lyotard have led the charge for this trend, arguing for instance, that, faced with the inevitable destruction of humanity in about 4.5 billion years when our sun explodes, it is our responsibility as a race to alter our idea of what it means to be human so that the sun’s explosion does not end “humans” (to be fair, Lyotard does offer critique of the dehumanization of science and technology also).
This question is a popular one in Science Fiction. From Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), to Blade Runner (1982), to Snatcher (1994), to Deus Ex (2000-2011) [a highly selective sampling, I know], films, novels, and video games have long been exploring the dehumanizing and transhumanizing potential of technology.
Once more I am reminded of FMA. The episode after “Chimera” opens with Lieutenant Colonel Mustang (whose name also suggests an affinity for “upper rung” animality) lamenting that, “We state alchemists are human artillery they roll out if nothing else works. To serve, he have to distance ourselves from emotional attachments. In that way we are not so different from Tucker” (“The Philosopher’s Stone,” FMA 1.7).
Shortly afterward, still shaken after Nina’s tragic death, Ed confides in his brother, “We’ll have to hope our powers are good enough to help us rise above our limits. ‘Cuz we’re not gods, we’re humans, tiny, insignificant humans” (FMA 1.7). The consensus among both Mustang and Ed is that humans seem to need something more.
Alone, we are not enough.
I admire these sentiments, even as I heartily disagree with them. I cannot, with the secular humanist, trust in the ultimate improvability of humankind. I think we need “something more.” But I do not think that “something” can be found in a return to primal instincts (ala YOLO-ites or, on the other side, deep ecologists), nor can it be found in a technological augmentation to help us transcend our limitations (ala Deus Ex or FMA).
While Edward might think that the problem with humanity is that we are not gods, I am inclined to think that the perfect human was the god who condescended to become human. Perhaps we need to stop trying to become something we are not, and simply be human—and, I think, we just may be most human when we cry.
Rather than seek to become something more or less, perhaps we should be what we are and learn to rely on One who is more, and yet knows what it is to be less.