Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Illustrious and Mythical Order of Being

I've been reading a lot about disability rights abuses lately, especially in the following locations:

It does seem ridiculous to violate human rights under any circumstances. But it also begs some deep thought about beingness and the basis by which we assign rights. What does it mean to be human? Who gets to decide who and what deserves rights? If I think it's wrong to violate the human rights of people who are unable to communicate or use bathrooms even as adults, then am I not a hypocrite for not being Vegan and fiercely anti-abortion? For if it's hard to tell whether humans are sentient or not and to what degree based on their outward behaviors, couldn't all the animals I like to eat be just as sentient as some humans? And even though embryos can't communicate or breathe or eat independently yet, there's a better chance than not that they will be able to if they are allowed to survive to birth if they can, right?

Every attempt to find some intellectual or physical quality - besides the small portion of the human genome that differs from that of chimpanzees, and the closed breeding circle that defines a distinct species - that "makes us human" has pretty much fallen by the wayside. Complex communication (language), self-awareness, awareness of death and dying, high intelligence, and tool usage have all been found in other animals. So what have people done? They've simply narrowed the meaning of these in order to try to make them human-exclusive again. "Okay, other animals may have complex communication, but it's not language because it doesn't have all the features of human language." (Okay the, are plants not living because they don't have all the features of animal life? Some Buddhist philosophers have traditionally thought so, but modern biology says otherwise.) Or "They use tools, but they're not nearly as inventive as human tools are." Or "They may be able to recognize and seemingly mourn their own dead, but they probably can't anticipate death and dying quite the way we do."

And it isn't just animals whom we've sought ways to exclude and define as a "them," it's also other humans. Humans who were female, from other tribes/ethnicities/nationalities (especially tribes/ethnicities/nationalities unrelated to yours or with which yours waged war), from lower social classes, disabled, or "different" in any way that the society deemed repulsive have all, at some time and place (and sometimes even now), been considered to be a kind of non-human. That is, a "them" who are unworthy of full human rights.

So there's no obvious, undisputable place to draw these kinds of us vs. them lines.

Right now, I practically don't believe in "orders of being" anymore. I don't believe in evolution as a march of progress; it's just a matter of living things stumbling into new niches in an ever-changing biosphere. I don't believe that intelligence is either (a) accurately measurable via any single thing like test scores or academic ability or articulateness in communication or (b) an indication of a higher consciousness or order of being, although I used to strongly believe both of those things and always fear that I was not smart enough and thus not a high enough being. Emotionally, I'm still not over that belief: I still automatically envy people I perceive as "geniuses" or otherwise "smarter than I am" (e.g., people who skipped grades in school) and fear being "stupid" or inadequate before I have a chance to come to my senses.

Since I know how damaging the concept of intelligence as an easy measure of one's "order of being" can be via my direct experience with adopting that concept and beating myself down with it even though almost nobody other than myself has ever called me "stupid," I think it's something that ought to go. "Lack of intelligence" should never be used as an excuse for treating people like throw-away toys. And I don't even like the idea of making fun of people who aren't very interested or talented in so called "intellectual" realms, because there's really no reason to think of them any differently than you'd think of anyone else who just doesn't share your interests or just isn't on your wavelength. Even when aspies do it to the NTs who have discriminated against them, it's still not cool, because it continues to promote this idolization of the "intellect," which I think is in large part socially constructed anyway. (What is considered "intellectual" and why? Is the brain not also in charge of various practical skills and motor skills as well as reading, writing, and arithmetic?)

I don't think we need the amount of competition and hurt and egotism that's perpetuated by the notion of higher and lower orders of being, particularly within the human race. I'm tired of matters of consciousness, sentience, intelligence, and order of being not only being used to promote atrocities, but also inadvertently making even those of us who are as normal as the wall is to the floor feel bad about ourselves and anxious about not being valuable enough due to the quality of our "intellect." I'm not ready to be a Vegan, an anti-abortionist (though I think abortion should be minimized, done as early as possible, and not done eugenically), or a political organizer, at least not yet, but I want to challenge "order of being" assumptions as applied within the population of born members of the human race where and when I see them, especially in myself. I think there's a lot of room for improvement within my own life as I come to believe in a more heartfelt way that human beings are human beings no matter what they do. Yes, even criminals. Defense measures should be taken against them as needed, and if they try to kill you then it's not unethical to kill them in self-defense, but beyond that, well...they're not much different from the rest of us, and systematic indignities on the order of the Stanford Prison Experiment are not necessary to maintain our safety and community integrity.

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