No positive changes are ever made in the world without community building. Communities make us stronger, more capable and more motivated to create a better future. But they’re not easy to unite. Bringing people together to problem-solve on a cultural level means making sure everyone feels their concerns are represented and their goals will be met.
We’re not the best at this. We’re getting better at inclusiveness and respecting diversity, but real inclusiveness is difficult in Western cultures because humanism has trained us not to recognize other people’s priorities as priorities unless we share them. It might be time, then, to rethink the human element.
Western cultures have been dominated by humanism for hundreds of years. In some aspects, this has been great. Humanist art is great. Michelangelo is awesome. But the awesome things that humanism has produced have maybe blinded us to how self-centred humanism makes us (although…it’s even right there in the word…).
There’s a recent historical assumption that people are the most important creatures in the universe. Before the early modern period, we assumed that other beings were all part of God’s plan. With God out of the way, we decide whether/how other beings fit into our plans. The practical fallout of our thinking that we’re the most important creatures in the universe is that we have behaved as if we’re the most important beings in it.
The human evaluation that humans are super important has led us to evaluate all other nonhuman beings according to how closely they resemble or behave like us. The closer they are to being like us, the more we take their rights seriously and the more we extend ethical consideration to them. When you think about whether you would feel worse hitting a june bug, a kitten, or a rock with your car, you see what I mean. There’s a hierarchy to our ethics.
We’re accustomed to thinking ecologically about our world—that everything in it is interconnected. But even interconnection will always end up primarily benefitting us if we persist in making similarity to humans the standard by which other species’ rights to flourish are measured.
Posthumanism isn’t about getting rid of humans. It’s about decentring them. It’s not as futuristic and sci-fi as the term makes it sound. A posthuman being might be someone who has incorporated some biotechnology into their body (something like a mind-controlled prosthetic. This is a real thing), or someone whose social life is entirely virtual (also a real thing, and not just for teenagers). The human doesn’t go away, but the boundary between human and nonhuman gets blurred.
As a way of thinking, posthumanism is also about challenging the boundaries between the human and the nonhuman, that boundary being the foundation of the humanist philosophies that have underpinned so much of contemporary Western cultures.
In Ecocriticism and the Idea of Culture, scholar Helena Feder suggests that the challenge posthumanism poses for us is to recognize the relationships between diverse species as political. She explains that humans “are one animal among many in this shared world, living in interwoven interspecies communities, a series of polises themselves comprised of differing societies.”
This is where the theory might make us better capable of inclusiveness in our communities. Humanist traditions have non-inclusive ideas about what counts as politics. Like ethical consideration, our idea of what counts as politics is based on what looks most like human political activity. Few would argue that grass is engaging in its own politics. There’s no reason to suppose that politics are only practiced by human beings, but we do suppose it because no other species have political systems that look like ours.
In fact, history shows us that human beings are actually pretty terrible at recognizing real political organization when it’s in an even slightly unfamiliar form. The past few hundred years alone contain numerous regrettable examples of groups of people travelling to far off places, encountering other people with different politics, not recognizing their politics as politics, and then enslaving, exploiting and/or exterminating them under the justification that those beings are less sophisticated and therefore less worthy of ethical treatment.
Only in hindsight have we recognized that those justifications were 100 percent erroneous. There’s nothing to suggest that we’re any better now at understanding unfamiliar politics as practiced by beings around us, not when we still decide if a nonhuman being is worthy of concerted conservation efforts primarily by the emotional effect it has on us, by its utility to us and by how much it inconveniences us when its populations are healthy.
If we were to recognize ant colonies, coyote packs and forests as political entities, we would automatically have to take their rights seriously, which is why it will probably never happen. They would have to be allowed some kind of “voice” in our decision-making. We would have to allow them to participate in the community in ways that were meaningful to them, which would in lots of cases probably just mean leaving other species the hell alone.
It sounds crazy, but it only sounds crazy because human beings are so used to getting away with being jerks to every other being on the planet. If we could stop evaluating the world on our terms, however, we could recognize that there are many levels to our communities, all working to thrive.
Giving everybody the space to thrive in the ways that work best for them is essential to positive, inclusive community building. Posthumanism pushes us to see the intrinsic value in every being, regardless of whether we’re able to see their priorities as important or not. If we could decentre ourselves in our community building efforts, we might make coordinating goals the basis of social change. We could better understand other people’s goals as equally valuable to the community, even if they don’t look like our vision of a perfect world.