What Does it Mean to Be Human?

What Does it Mean to Be Human?

My major intention for 2018 is to get better at recognizing and connecting with my own humanity and the humanity in others. That means I need to figure out, what it means to be human. In this week’s podcast, I explore this question and share my story with you. If you don’t have time to listen now, bookmark it and come back later, or read my notes below.

Let’s Start with a Quote

“My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” – Desmond Tutu

I shared that quote on Instagram about a week ago, and it’s really stuck with me. This quote is firmly rooted in the South African/Bantu concept of “Ubuntu”, which we translate or understand as “humanity”. I’m not qualified to write about Ubuntu, but it’s definitely something I want to learn more about this year.

The essence of this quote is that humanity is social. And, I think most of us get that. As humans, we rely on each other for our survival. However, it’s much bigger than getting support from your friends and family. If you’re like me you rely on other humans to produce the food you eat, to build the home you live, or to fix your hot water heater (which is happening as I write this blog).

The irony of our interdependence is that we’ve become individualistic and isolated.

How Did We Get Here?

This question organizes my course on Globalization and Social Change. In it, my students and I explore how our species went from simple foraging groups to a complex global society.

What’s most interesting to me is that foraging societies are extremely collectivistic. In these communities, it’s almost like there is no “you” or “me” only “us” and “we”. It’s like this because every member of the society relies on others for their survival. Everyone needs to forage and share they find or else the group will not survive. This feels like the exact opposite of today’s society where we’re taught to see each other as competition or threats to our own survival. 

Humans Create

For the last few years, I’ve assigned students in my Race and Ethnic Relations courses a “creative project”. Most of the students hate the idea. “But I’m not creative!” they groan. But this isn’t true. We’ve just been convinced that what we create has no value.

As human beings, we create our world and the things in it. We create tools, technology, language, categories, and relationships. And these items in shape the way we live our lives. In order to make your way through each day, you have to be creative. You need to make sounds (words) that make abstract concepts understandable to other human beings. Yes – a lot of our interactions become routinized (we’ll talk about that another day). But, we create our lives and our sense of self through the stories that we tell.

I once heard that what separates humans from animals is that we transform food into culture. Think about it, we take eggs, wheat, and sugar, mix them together, bake it and call the result “cookies”. Of course, this time of year, they’re not just cookies, they’re “Christmas Cookies” that have more meaning and/or value than the Oreos you ate last month. But it goes beyond just baking cookies. We also place meaning and value on the cookies and establish rules around eating them. Someone decided that cookies are treats that you shouldn’t eat often. ON top of that, we’re taught to feel ashamed if we eat “too many” cookies. I don’t know about your cat, but I know mine doesn’t judge himself over the three or four cans of food he eats each day.

A Materialist Perspective on Humanity

According to Karl Marx’s Materialist Theory of History, what sets modern humans apart from animals is that we produce the things that we need to survive. For example, unlike gorillas who roam their territory trying to find food and shelter, we make our own.

Farming may seem like a uniquely human pursuit, but did you know that some species of ants cultivate different fungi that they eat? Or that other species of ants appear to herd aphids so they can eat their honey due? Maybe Marx didn’t have it exactly right about what separates humans from animals. But, in his materialist theory of history, he goes on to argue that how we produce the things we need to survive determines how we relate to each other.

So, how do we relate to each other? As humans? Not really. At various times throughout my day, I’m a son, brother, uncle, friend, teacher, boss, or customer. In sociology, we think of these “identities” as statuses and roles. If you’ve never had a sociology course, that’s okay – a status is basically your position in society. And, roles are the expected behaviors for a particular status. Together, these statuses and roles confer power and prestige and shape the way that you interact with other human beings.

My status as a “sociology professor” is unique to our current mode of production, post-industrial capitalism. My labor is highly specialized and doesn’t produce a physical “thing”. I’m pretty sure foraging societies have little use for sociologists.

What’s the Takeaway?

Humanity is inherently social and creative. However, while we depend on each other for our survival. the society we created pulls us away from each other. I hope you’ll join me next week when we’ll explore this paradox.

Have you?

Checked out my YouTube channel, Marc the Fat Yogi? I’ll be using the channel as a companion to this blog BUT I’ll also be creating content exclusively for the channel. So, if you want to see more of me head over to YouTube and subscribe!

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