Last week, I touched upon how Star Trek followed a colonialist logic and how it had replaced the White Man’s burden with the Human Being’s Burden. Today, I explore that idea in a more general context.
If you remember any story involving talking animals at all, I think you remember Disney’s Duck Tales. So let’s use that as an example to demonstrate what actually we do when we project our humanity on the world around us.
Here is something subtle that we should pay close attention to. The big idea behind Duck Tales is not — “What if ducks had been people?”. It is actually the exact opposite — “What if people had been ducks?”.
At first blush, it seems an inconsequential distinction. But if you pay this a little thought, it becomes clear that when you use the first what-if, you are separating humanity from what humans have. You are implying that the trappings of human life — clothes, houses, cities, businesses, language etc. — are separable from the human being. You are then taking all of these disembodied qualities, giving them to an animal (ducks in this case), and ending up with a talking animal character.
If however, you apply the second what-if, you are simply replacing the likeness of a human being with that of an animal. In this scenario, the entire story would work the exact same way if the characters had been regular old human beings.
The second what-if — What if people had been ducks? — makes use of a simple yet sublime idea that we lose sight of far too often. It is this: You cannot separate the human condition from the human being any more than you can separate a human being from her head.
The human condition is as much a result of the human being as the human being is a result of the human condition. The things that we have — clothes, houses, cities, businesses, language etc. — are an inevitable result of who we are. If ducks had cities, they wouldn’t be anything like our cities. If they were to wear clothes, they would look nothing like the clothes we wear.
Every aspect of human culture and society owes its origin to the way we are and the ways in which we behave. It is not possible to remove these aspects of us and then transpose them whole on to another species of animal.
But hey! We are imaginative animals who examine ourselves using storytelling that sometimes features animals that act and talk like us. Surely there is no danger in that!
No. There is no danger in that… until there is. What kind of danger? The kind where we fail to make a distinction between fact and fiction. Imagination is a great big beautiful sea, but if you wade in too deep without the boat of reason, it is perfectly possible to drown in it. I think it is important to understand why stories work. Because if we don’t, we stand the risk of falling completely under the thrall of what stories appear to be — reality.
We frequently project our humanity on the world around us, unaware that what we are really doing, is storytelling. Out of such projections came religion — the idea that the universe was created and is maintained by a living being who looks and acts just like us. Out of such projections emerge superstitions involving weather patterns and natural occurrences that either impact or are impacted by what goes on in human lives. We even undertake explorations of outer space in hopes of finding aliens who look and act just like us. We have, and probably always will, perceive the universe through human-coloured lenses. Our subjectivity is our prison.
But though we can’t avoid having a human perspective, we can avoid thinking that the human perspective is some kind of universal default. We can, on an ongoing basis, be cognizant of the fact that our way of being is just one of many and that we aren’t really doing plants and animals any favours by assigning them human language, human emotion, and a general human way of being. We may consider that perhaps doing these things demean them by turning them into things we use to feel good about ourselves and our choices.
It was not that long ago that ideas like “White Man’s Burden” had currency. I think that what we have now is its equivalent — the human being’s burden. It is biologically sanctioned instead of being socially or culturally sanctioned and it involves us judging other species on the basis of human parameters and criteria. We assign human responses to plants and fool ourselves into thinking that we are being empathetic when in reality, all we are doing is preventing ourselves from acknowledging that plants have their own way of being that may very well be completely different from our own. Plants do not need to have emotions to be worthy of being our attention.
Feeling is an inescapable aspect of being human. But understanding our place in the universe, I think, is a loftier goal still.