Defining Humanity

I can’t help but feel that Steve Fuller is really having an argument about how we define anything and then trying to hang some of his own ideas about why university education is important as the froth on the top of that debate. I got the feeling I was being led rather than challenged or questioned in that presentation!

It seems absurd to suppose there is some kind of emerging historical notion of humanity. His argument appears to be that there is some kind of intellectual elite leading this attempt down the ages to define humans by, in no particular order, additional non-animal characteristics (like the love of God!), bigger intellects and less hair (like Linnaeus), and greater goals (like Darwin and after). All of these approaches appear to overlook the nastiness of man’s inhumanity rather than humanity. The Crusades were not an exercise in educational clubbishness as Fuller appears to imply but an excuse, fuelled by ideology and greed, to wage war on some people. The same is true of Cortes, Attila the Hun and Adolf Hitler not to mention the slave trade and its imitations in any number of cultures down the ages.

It isn’t any wonder that people in the twentieth century challenged some of the more comfortable notions about humanity given the backdrop of two appalling world wars and the emergence of institutionalised racism and prejudice. Neither is it really any wonder in the 21st-century that humanity with a capital H is criticised as a male club, characterised as ignoring the environment, gender and economics and now sinking into an obsession with technology to create an alternative reality having ruined the one we’ve got.

Having said that, any time you see anyone espousing that tired old ‘things are getting worse argument’ and asserting how there used to be a golden age you can assume they are on shaky ground, getting on in years and nostalgic or politically dangerous. It is a point of view which appears to assert a kind of flow in history which rolls backwards and forwards or, for them, from good to bad.

However, it is still fair to ask a question about what humanity might be. The answer, for a lot of people, is what it isn’t. Being human is not being entirely animal, not being entirely driven by instant gratification and unconstructed desire, not being stupid or uncaring, and so on. This is boundary theory, the place where we get the interesting idea that dirt is simply material in the wrong place. Foucault, who Steve Fuller doesn’t appear to like, talks about normalising judgements, the everyday way that we speak about things which confirm the world as we build it. In other words, we don’t simply socially construct reality but we also work quite hard to maintain it. We don’t do this by asking each other what humanity is but we do it by reinforcing everyday value judgements and by disapproving of what lies beyond the boundaries. The recent gay marriage debate is a good example of people setting boundaries and many of those who do it are neither gay, churchgoing or much bothered about marriage but since they have Twitter accounts or are members of Parliament they feel obliged to join in. Frequently, in the media, this process is made quite explicit when behaviours and individuals are characterised or described as inhuman. Child killers, suicide bombers and paedophiles, for example.

What we need to remember in this discussion is that just because humanity is a leaky concept and fuzzy around the edges that doesn’t make it somehow flawed or inapplicable. If you think about it, your idea of a chair, red or a holiday is just as disparate. To me it seems entirely right that we should be working constantly to define our own humanity without the help of popes, dictators or anyone else for that matter who would like to tell us what being human is. That discussion is a place where we can express, exercise and develop our own moral values, principles and purposes as well.

As part of this, it is worth mentioning that you cannot be human if you are the only individual left on the planet. Humanity is a socially ascribed and developed characteristic which is why we tend to view people who describe themselves as overly humane as slightly suspicious. Best to judge people by what they do rather than what they say! Obviously, the last man on earth is going to dispute this but all he is holding onto are the vestiges of what people used to say and there are plenty of examples about how humanity can be made more flexible when the social bit is underplayed which is why stranded sailors in lifeboats were happy to eat the cabin boy and why people in high-density housing are more likely to kill each other.

So, where does that leave humanity and technology? More to the point, why is technology seen as a threat to the notion of being human when a variety of individuals and ideologies including Pol Pot, the Catholic Church and extreme Islam have provided a much greater threat down the years.

In theory, it is possible to argue that if we meet virtually we meet face-to-face less but given the billions of Facebook and Twitter postings each week and the exponential expansion of social media it would be absurd to suggest that we are communicating less. We are not just talking rubbish either. Twitter is a highly politicised forum for many people and an information exchange. Amazon reviews are an excellent source of shared wisdom about potential purchases and, increasingly, politicians are taking notice of mass petitions. Talk to the people who blog seriously with their primary school classes and the positive impact this has on their learning and then try to say technology is damaging humanity!

Is there any evidence that the technology is driving us? In terms of the use debate, which we have already had, it is certainly offering some attractive options and products but that doesn’t make us passive consumers or users. Television, as probably the most influential technology of the twentieth century, was far more dangerous in terms of indoctrination and social control.

I have got a feeling that Steve Fuller would have concluded if he had had more time that believing in God was an excellent way forward and that MOOCs are not real learning. I think he’s wrong on both counts.


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