Humanity, Recognition, and Interiority

Illustration from

Illustration from

A couple of weeks ago my husband and I were in the car together and I asked him who he “talks” to–you know, who he’s traditionally turned to when he was upset, or his heart was broken, or things in general just weren’t going well. My husband and I have a very communicative relationship and we talk all the time (on our first date I was impressed by his excellent conversation), but he certainly doesn’t psychologically “dump” on me the way I sometimes do on him, and the way my sisters and childhood best friend and I have long “talked out” our disappointments, problems, and fears.

To my surprise and discomfort, he said he doesn’t, or at least not with any regularity.

My first impulse upon hearing this was sadness; I felt that my fun and social and considerate husband was somehow missing something important in his life. But TC says he doesn’t always need to “talk out” the way I do. His friendships aren’t built using all of the same blocks as mine (verbal sharing of Costco-sized amounts of psychological/emotional weight is not the only way to maintain strong bonds, as it turns out), and his emotional needs are, quite simply, different from mine.

So now my feeling is weirdness and discomfort. Intellectually, I accept that different humans are different. But it’s weird. Weird because for me talking (and, by extension, writing) is almost a medical necessity–I’m fairly convinced that if I didn’t share whatever is on my mind at some point, even good happy very exciting things, they would fester and eventually choke me. Discomfort because apparently it’s not the same for TC, and I don’t know how to process that. How can a need that is so significant and vital to me be almost non-existent in another person, especially a person that I usually feel so emotionally in tune with?

It’s especially discomfiting because despite my attempts to curb my natural self-interest, I sometimes have a hard time remembering that other people have inner lives, and that their inner lives are just as deep and rich and important as mine. For me, talking (or writing) is a huge part of the expression of my inner life–it’s how I remind the world, and myself, that I’m here. But some people don’t feel the need to prove the existence of their inner lives, or instead find other ways to express them. And I am so wrapped up in my own perception (one that sees through the lens of my inner life) that I fear I am sometimes in danger of assuming that an absence of expression (in a language I readily understand) equals an absence of interiority.

Recognizing the interiority of others is incredibly important. Not only does it make us better partners, family members, and friends, this recognition is vital to the way we treat each other as human beings. Many an injustice has been perpetrated against specific “other” groups of people by using the excuse, “They just don’t feel the way we do.” For examples of this excuse in action, we could look to former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. William Westmoreland’s statement that “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner” in the Vietnam war documentary Hearts and Minds, or Voltaire’s many and virulent assertions that the Jewish people, due to some inherent racial shortcoming, do not possess the capacity for generosity, decency, or hospitality (as you can imagine, Voltaire’s opinions on this subject gained a lot of traction with infamous anti-Semites like Adolf Hitler and continue to be quoted with glee in extremist fanatic corners of the Internet). When we present others as lacking interiority, we present them as “sham” people–hollow pretenders who deserve our hatred and prejudice–rather than as people whose experiences and pain are as legitimate as ours.

Humane treatment of others requires us not only to recognize the interiority of others as legitimate, but also to assume interiority even when it is not, or cannot, be expressed. Failing to do this has, historically, had serious implications for our treatment of non-verbal and/or non-communicative people, including the mentally ill, people with cognitive or other medical disabilities that prevent traditional communication, and infants. Did you know that as late as the mid-1980s (in the U.S. at least, but likely in Canada too), doctors erroneously believed that infants could not feel pain, and serious surgeries were routinely performed on babies without anesthesia? Apparently, their cries, grimaces, and physical attempts to push away painful stimuli were considered merely “reflexes” and though infants were given a muscle relaxant to prevent these “reflexes” from getting in the surgeons’ way, they were awake and aware for every excruciating moment of their medical procedures. If someone did this to an adult, it would be the very definition of torture, but because babies cannot verbally communicate their pain they way we do, it was assumed they couldn’t feel the way we do either.

It should be common sense to us that any human being, when cut with a scalpel for example, would feel pain. Our reason should tell us that this is the case regardless of the age, gender, race, religion, class or culture of the person involved. The problem, however, is that despite the earth being peopled for tens of thousands of years with folks whose biology, physiology, and psychology have remained relatively constant, the definition of who qualified as “human” has, until very recently, only included adult white males. Children were not human beings. Women were not human beings. People of colour were not human beings. Because these marginalized people were not considered “human”, it was assumed they did not have the same rich interior life as a white man (Freud, for example, despite the fact that most of his patients were women, did not actually believe women possessed complex psychology and so his theories were actually written exclusively for/about men). This lack of perceived interior life was then used to defend the inhumane and demeaning treatment women, children, and people of colour received (though of course a white woman or child would have been and usually still is a lot better off than a person of colour). It’s worth considering whether or not the fact that these “non-human” people weren’t usually ALLOWED to express themselves has anything to do with the perception that they had nothing to express, and the ways in which prejudice (and the mistreatment it engenders) is self-perpetuating.

The fact that the Western world eventually (and begrudgingly) extended the title of humanity to the poor, women, children, people of colour, and people with disabilities isn’t too much to pat ourselves on the back about. Recognition of our shared humanity was not given out of beneficence–it was wrested from the hands of the status quo by marginalized people (or, in the case of those who could not speak for themselves, by their passionate advocates) after long, difficult, exhausting, often violent, sometimes deadly struggles. And serious injustices continue in the present day, although slightly less overtly. At the same time, some formally very marginalized groups have gone on to oppress others in turn (white feminists, for instance, have frequently been accused of throwing women of colour under the bus to further the aims of a feminism they find more palatable). We aren’t done yet–we still fail at recognizing others’ humanity in so many ways.

I’d like to believe that most of us aren’t monsters. But many of us find it difficult to see the world through another person’s eyes. Most of us, for example, probably grew up believing that gender binaries were pretty simple and set. Boys were boys and girls were girls and though boys could be “girly” and girls could be “tomboys”, everyone seemed to agree on who was who and what was what, just as we agree the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. But we were wrong. Gender is NOT that simple, and not that set. We know this because it turns out that for people who are transgender, our assumptions didn’t add up. We know this because trans* people have TOLD us this is so, and TOLD us who they are. And yet, for some reason, many of us believe the reality of others is something we can have an opinion on, or that we need to agree with in order for it to exist. As if trans* people do not have a legitimate enough inner life to KNOW who they are, and to KNOW whether or not the gender they were assigned at birth (based on their physical characteristics) was correct. As if trans* people do not feel as threatened and humiliated as a cis-gender person would feel if they were forced by society into using the wrong gender’s bathroom. As if the countless indignities experienced (and recounted) by trans* people don’t exist, simply because we’ve never experienced them ourselves.

These attitudes are just plain silly. I’ve never had cancer (and hopefully never will), but that doesn’t mean cancer doesn’t exist, or that cancer patients are either lying or simply “confused” about their condition or the pain they’re in. We shouldn’t need to experience something first hand to accept that it is real, and to extend support wherever support is requested. Unfortunately, our inability to acknowledge and respect the interiority of others isn’t just silly. It’s dangerous, and it causes pain and suffering. Trans* women are raped and murdered at alarming rates. Gay teens kill themselves at alarming rates. African American men are shot and killed by police at alarming rates. Women are sexually assaulted at alarming rates (and then repeatedly asked if they are sure an assault is what really happened, if they are sure they didn’t want to have sex with their rapist). Even children, for whom we often claim we would sacrifice anything, are commonly treated by adults as if they are possessions, not persons; empty vessels for their parents’ or governments’ ideology, rather than thinking beings in their own right.

At the end of the day, it comes down to respect, whether it’s respect for the inner experience of your friend or loved one, or respect for the inner experience of a stranger, even a stranger whose culture, experience, orientation, and existence in the world is completely different from yours. Respect for those who have told us who they are and what they need, and also respect for those who haven’t, either because they lack the ability or because they simply don’t want to. An interior life can be just that–interior. Hidden. The red cells flowing through the artery, under the skin. No one owes us proof that they bleed and hurt just as we do, and the world would be a much better place if we could offer our respect without demanding to see the scars.

[Note–the debate about whether or not the recognition of an interior life can/should reasonably be extended to animals is taken up in J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, and though the book itself reaches no particular conclusions it is a great addition to the discussion.]

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