Insisting on our Common Humanity
“Where do we go from here?” asks Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. at the Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967. I ask the same question as I sit in Paris, the city in which I was born at about the same time of King’s speech, and listen to the latest news from Nice, Dallas, Minnesota, Louisiana, Istanbul, and Baghdad. Where do we go in a world in which so many innocent humans are being slaughtered by other humans?
King answers his own question by saying that we move forward by linking justice, power, and love and understanding that “justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” President Obama adds, in his recent speeches, that what stands against love is our failure to recognize our common humanity. We will not find justice and peace, in other words, until we insist on our human capacity to empathize, listen to each other, and see ourselves in the other.
Our common humanity is evident everywhere. It is seen in Istanbul when the colors of the French Flag were displayed on the Bosphorus Bridge to show solidarity with the French after the Nice attack. It is seen in the hundreds of peaceful rallies in the U.S. that occurred immediately after the latest violence in Dallas, Minnesota, and Louisiana. It is seen in the thousands if not millions of refugees who have been welcomed in countries such as Canada and Germany and it is evident in the daily stories that go viral on the internet of strangers helping strangers. Humans have a remarkable capacity to care for each other.
The work of primatologist Frans de Vaal and evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Hrdy affirms that humans are, by nature, empathic, cooperative, altruistic, and social. Yet our modern “me, myself, and I” culture that privileges the self over community and the right to own guns over human rights encourages us to forget our humanity. We forget that Muslim, Jewish, and Christian parents want the same thing for their children; that Black. Latino, Asian, and White teenagers want the same thing for themselves and their parents; that White Police Officers and people of color want the same thing for their communities. We forget that we all want the same thing which is to live in caring communities with excellent schools, to be seen, heard, understood, taken seriously, listened to, respected, and able to live a comfortable life with our friends and family members. We forget that we all want equity, justice, opportunity, possibility, and love. We forget, in other words, that we all want for ourselves, our parents, and our children to be seen and treated as human beings.
In a “We are Human” Campaign that the Project for the Advancement of Our Common Humanity (pach.org) conducted, we asked police officers and community members across the state of California (Oakland, Richmond, Stockton, and L.A.) and students, faculty, and administrators on the NYU campus in Abu Dhabi about their fears, hopes, experiences of trust, and favorite memories. What we heard was that a common fear was losing a loved one; a common hope was finding a partner and having children or having their children find happiness and success. Across race, gender, class, religion, and nationality, people spoke of trusting their mothers, fathers, spouses, siblings, and best friends and their favorite memories of togetherness with their family and friends. When asked the question “if you really knew me, you would know...” men and women from different communities and parts of the world said that they are caring people who want to help others and make the world a better place.
The answer to King’s question is that we must remember what we know already which is that we are human and thus have extraordinary capacities for care and empathy. Love must win but not, as King warned us, a “sentimental and anemic love,” a “demanding love” or a love that insists on our own humanity and the humanity of others if we are to live in a more just and humane world.
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