i am only human: what is human

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To quote the legendary rapper Snoop Dogg  I ask “ Who am I”? Prior to last year, I would have answered the question of ‘who am I’ with some abstract, philosophical, spiritual, or trivial statements like “I am that I am” or “ I think therefore I am”. While I find these ideas to be profound for the way they simply answer the nature and reality of human existence, I, however,  find these ancient ideas to be insufficient for a 21st-century audience. Today we are obsessed with receiving information and data instantly. Through gaining information instantly we rarely take the time to seek and search where we are getting information from, or how the information is being delivered to us. This obsession with receiving data instantly is very dangerous for a multitude of reasons but primarily because we have become more fascinated with data, information, and materials than we are with our own humanity. This is to say we no longer examine our existence in the world and how systems like language, gender, race, and capitalism affect our ontology and movement throughout this place called Earth. Well, you might say to ask these trite questions or examining such areas of life there is little value in these efforts. However, I personally believe to practice such examination and questioning may be one of the most valuable actions an individual can take in their lifetime. 

These practices may not be important to you as an individual because you may feel as if systems like language, gender, race, and capitalism do not affect the way that you believe you choose to live your life and you feel as if you have the autonomy to ignore these systems. However, the reality is you are just an individual in an expansive ecosystem where many other individuals exist and who do not have the privilege or the autonomy to ignore such systems because their ontology is constantly being threatened and put at risk by these systems. Therefore it becomes increasingly imperative we reattach ourselves to the human experience and see others around us as human as we see ourselves and question the systems that rule the world we live in. While I find it important to do this recognition of the humanities of others I question the power of an individual’s recognition because you are only one person, so how can you make a change by yourself. Well, I guess Gandhi did say “You must be the change you want to see in the world”. But I still do not buy the idea that an individual can truly change these systems by themselves. However, I am not downplaying a person’s ability to lead a movement of people. But what I am saying is the systems of language, race, gender, and capitalism are old as time and they have been built by man to benefit man. And I am using strategically the word man here because historically and contemporary these systems have exclusively benefitted white men. These systems have always been around and they have always been used to marginalize and subjugate individuals while also uplifting others.  

There have been many attempts to tear down these systems but these attempts have resulted in failure and these systems only continue to get stronger and more restrictive. The thing about these systems is that they are insidious in the sense they use ideologies to implicitly restrict and control individuals by ascribing ideas like certain colors, words, images, and tastes to individuals. Thus by attaching these ideas to individuals these systems mark individuals as something other than their ontological human existence as a way to rob the individual of their humanity to be controlled by those who benefit from the systems.

 Therefore, in this epistle, I build off the work of Italian Philosopher Antonio Gramsci and ask what is human? I ask this question because if an individual is marked by ideas is there any humanity any more? Additionally, if these systems are so restrictive and controlling do individuals actually have free will or are they acting in accordance with the laws or norms which the systems have established? Moreover, I want to restate my primary question because I find it to be the most pressing question in 2021 which is “What is human?” because if we do not have an answer to that question then we cannot move forward as a collective people. In order to answer the aforementioned questions, I will begin by outlining these systems that reduce and control our humanity. Then I will show how this control is put into practice through Ideological State Apparatuses, and finally, I will close with my idea of how to recognize and value humanity in such a society.

How do these systems work and what are they? Now it should be stated that it can be hard to define these systems in concrete terms because there is nothing natural about any of these systems as they all are man-made. Therefore, due to the subjectivity and the unnatural nature of these systems, as an American Studies scholar, I will be using definitions from various key American Studies texts so that we can have agreed-upon terms. So let’s begin with race.  I know talking about race can be uncomfortable for some, but we cannot ignore this conversation because the system of race works day to day to marginalize folks. Thus, “race has shaped the meaning and profile of citizenship, and labor. In relation to corporeality, race has rendered the body into a text upon which histories of racial differentiation, exclusion, and violence are inscribed. Analyzed in terms of subjectivity, race helps to locate the ways in which identities are constituted” ( Burgett & Hendler, 2020,p.191). This is to say “[Race] has established who can be imported and who exported, who are immigrants and who are indigenous, who may be property and who are citizens; and among the latter who get to vote and who do not, who are protected by the law and who are its objects, who are employable and who are not, who have access and privilege and who are (to be) marginalized” (Burgett & Hendler, 2020, p.191). To put in more concrete terms race is a system that has been utilized by those in power to mark those as less than based on skin color in order to control them and maintain power. 

Similarly, gender is a system that works in a similar way to race. Often sex and gender are used interchangeably, but we should be very CLEAR THEY ARE NOT the same idea. In recognizing the confusion and where the confusion may lie I will try to lay out the difference as explicitly as I can. Therefore, sex, “sexed nature” or “a natural sex” is produced and established as “ discursive”, prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts” (Butler, p.7). To put this in laymen’s terms when a child is born they are neutral, they just are human, however, their human autonomy is stripped from them shortly after their birth when they are assigned a sex either male or female based on their genitals. And once that child is sexed then they are gendered, if they are sexed as a male they are then gendered as masculine, or if they are sexed as female they are gendered as feminine. Thus gender works on a socially constructed binary masculine and feminine. This binary comes with certain expectations to follow and children are conditioned once they are named. Additionally, masculinity expects its gendered individuals to be tough, athletic, strong, heterosexual, along with trivial things like liking the color blue. Alternatively, feminine subjects are expected to be sensitive, submissive, nurturing, domestic, and they must love the color pink. However, for a person who defies their ascribed gendered binaural expectations, they are marked by society and those in power as different, thus leaving themselves subjected to violence, discrimination, marginalization, and inequality. 

 The next prevailing system that affects and restricts human ontology is capitalism. In recent years there have been many conversations around capitalism and its cruelty. However, I believe these conversations to be surface-level at best because they rarely show how expansive and entrenched capitalism is in the human experience. So let’s begin with what is capitalism? Simply, “capitalism” refers to a system in which capitalists are able to produce commodities that will, at least in principle, yield them a profit. The source of the profit is the value created by the laborers who have been forced (historically, through a process Marx referred to as “primitive accumulation,” and, socially, through capitalist institutions and cultures [1867, 871–940]) to exercise the specifically capitalist “freedom” to sell their ability to labor as a commodity”. (Burgett & Hendler, 2020 p.34)  Moreover, in a capitalist world profits and consumption are key, therefore, capitalists and the owners of the commodities are driven by finding the most efficient ways to increase profits. Often this means the exploitation of laborers and humans ultimately.

 So, the conversations I mentioned earlier definitely call out these capitalists for their abuse and exploitation. In these conversations, there will be the call to end capitalism and eradicate it as a system, which is more than a great idea because people SHOULD NOT BE ABUSED AND EXPLOITED FOR PROFITS. However, this call to end capitalism is fruitless because  “The culture of societies in which capitalism exists is stamped by the effects of such class struggles. The keyword “capitalism” thus designates not just an economic structure, but also the conflicts and contradictions inherent in that structure. Both the initial emergence and the continued reproduction of capitalism, if and when they occur, can and often do lead to tremendous social dislocations and acute crises; they are also conditioned by the most varied cultures and social identities” (Burgett & Hendler, 2020 p. 34).  This is to say capitalism is just not a material system but it is a cultural system that governs the consumer society we occupy. Meaning, “ our society remains a ‘ society of production’, it is a which economic growth is pivotal, and it is a society which consumer expenditure, both on the part of individuals and the community, continues to rise and needs to do so” (Baudrillard, 2017p. 5). Furthermore, our own interest in consuming everything and anything from watching Netflix shows to eating a salad drives production which only drives the inequities and deaths inherent to capitalism. To be dramatic, our consumption has led us to a point of no return with capitalism, therefore, capitalism controls humans by limiting our imagination of a world in which humans are no longer exploited for profits.

And the last system that I will talk about, ironically, is language. Now you probably would not think language is a system of control, right? You think you just use language to speak. However, “To speak means being able to use a certain syntax and possessing the morphology of such and such a language, but it means above all assuming a culture and bearing the weight of a civilization” (Fanon, 2008,p.1-2). Therefore, language is a system to regulate and control an individual’s speech. Meaning, every language has certain rules or grammar principles, patterns, common phrases, and there are certain words that are acceptable to use in certain situations.  For instance, the language police would not be very happy if I said “ Fuc  dis ALL gawd Damnit”. Rather, it would be accepted and not as policed if I said “ Currently, I am not very happy with this administration”. As you can see we have been conditioned into following these rules of language since we took our first words and the conditioning only intensified in grade school (which is whole another system we could talk about). Not only has language provided us a rule book for speech it also has provided us with a culture and a history. It is important to note here that words are so powerful because you use them to express your feelings and thoughts, but they are also how you control your thoughts and actions. Now with that being said, we can understand culture as your way of life. However, if you are not speaking your preferred language and are being forced to speak a language then you are no longer living your culture, rather you are living the culture of the oppressor or power structure and you are thinking in that mindset.  In practice, this looks like in the United States of America, there is no official language  (this is facts), but we have been conditioned to speak English, therefore Americans have developed the mindset of a westerner which is grounded in capitalism. With this mindset when we hear the common phrase “ Time is Money” we do not flinch and we fail to recognize that “Time is a rare and precious commodity subject to the laws of exchange-value”(Baudrillard, 2017,p.171).  Using language here we have been conditioned to believe that time is to be consumed or worked on for profit. This is just one example of how language works to control us but language works with gender to control us through the use of pronouns. And, language teams up with the system of race to control us in so many ways but a very simple example is by making non-English speaking children take English as a second language classes. If we do not understand how language controls us then we are stuck and we will never be able to escape from the shackles that keep us bonded from living our fullest human potential. 

Now I have just been describing what the systems are without really saying how they work. So let me do that real quick. These systems all function through ideologies. This is to say a system is a vehicle for certain ideologies.  Now an ideology is a ‘ representation’ of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” ( Althusser,1998, p.52). Now, what does that mean? Essentially, it is the idea of creating a meaningful relationship between two objects that do not necessarily relate.  For example, gender is the system it drives the representation of masculinity which conditions the relationship that male subjects must be strong and should not show any emotion. This is a bizarre phenomenon because it creates the allusion that if you’re a male there is an inherent relationship with your ontological existence and toughness, however, we know this not to be true, but we still are largely forced to believe that all males are tough. We are conditioned to believe these ideologies through what Louis Althusser calls Ideological State Apparatuses. To define Ideological State Apparatuses we can think of them as social institutions that “ function massively and predominantly by ideology, but they also function secondly by repression, even if ultimately, but only ultimately, this is very attenuated and concealed, even symbolic” (Althusser, 1998, p.51).  In sum, Ideological State Apparatuses are social institutions that teach and enforce ideologies but if the teaching does not work violence will be used to force these ideologies. Some examples of Ideological State Apparatuses include but are not limited to churches, schools, sports teams, media, and political parties. All these Ideological State Apparatuses work to push ideologies onto people to either have them act in a certain manner or have them believe certain ideas. 

To understand this process further I want to look at the story of  Luther Standing Bear an American Indian who explains in his book titled My People the Sioux how he and serval other American Indian boys at the Carlise School had American ideologies forced upon them in order for them to be Americanized. Standing Bear in his book offers up many examples of how as a boy at the Carlise School he was socialized to American ideologies. America has many ideologies but the two that stand out in this chapter are whiteness and Christianity.  One way that Standing Bear conceptualizes whiteness as a boy is through clothing. Normally, clothing is just clothing but clothing became a representation of whiteness because of the way he and the other boys were perceived by the teachers when wearing the clothes they were given. When the boys first arrived they were in their traditional native garb, but after a while, they were given what they called ‘white men’s clothes’. They were given “some sort of dark heavy gray goods, consisting of coat, pants, and vest. We were also given a dark wooden shirt, a cap, a pair of suspenders, socks, and heavy farmer’s boots” (Standing Bear, 1975, p.142).  The clothes that the boys were given were not clothes that they would traditionally wear but the school forced them to wear these clothes. Standing Bear shares that “ The boys made all kinds of remarks about our outfits, and called us ‘white men’. But our teachers and the other white people were greatly pleased at our new appearance”(Standing Bear, 1975, p.144). Not only did the teachers take away part of the boy’s heritage but they also reinforced the American ideology if you want to be accepted in America you must fit the mold of whiteness. 

 Christianity is an inherited part of American life. Standing Bear and the rest of the Indian boys found this out real quick when they got to the Carlise School. One of the first things that all the boys experienced in the classroom as students there they were all able to ‘pick’ a new name. The boys were given the opportunity to pick a Christian name for themselves off of the blackboard. Standing Bear took the name of Luther.  With these new names, the boys were expected to go to Sunday School.  Standing Bear says on Sundays they would get inspected and “ get ready to attend Sunday School in town”( Standing Bear, 1975, p.144). Now, the boys were not ‘forced’ into Christianity but they “were given permission to choose the religious denomination which appealed to them best, so they were at liberty to go where they pleased to Sunday School. Most of us selected the Episcopal Church. I was baptized in that church under the name of Luther” ( Standing Bear, 1975, p.144). Through giving the boys Christan names, the Carlise School emphasized to be American you need a Christan name. Secondly, through setting the expectation of going to Sunday School the Carlise School established that an American ideology is Christianity and if the boys wanted to be American they must be Christan. 

Standing Bear and his story is just one way that an Ideological State Apparatus like the Carlise School uses ideologies of whiteness and Christianity as means to strengthen the systems of race and religion, to ultimately strengthen the control of the state and those in power. Now we can see everyday examples in which Ideological State Apparatuses use ideology to strengthen the systems of gender, race, capitalism, and language through apparatuses like dress codes in school, censorship on speech, 9-5 work weeks, and redlining in communities of color. Now all these seem like mundane things we do not think about a lot and question but all of them are ways that power systems work to limit our agency and ability to choose. Therefore, if we are not questioning these things then we are ultimately just going along with the systems. Moreover, if we just go along with these systems are we acting freely, or are we letting the power systems make decisions for us? So, I am stuck with these two questions do we have free will? And, what does it mean to be human? 

Now I must return to my earlier previously stated primary question of what is human? While this is a very broad and abstract question that may not have a concrete answer, over the past nine-plus pages I have shown how the systems of language, capitalism, gender, and race actively work to dehumanize people by conditioning people into boxes as a way to limit our agency and autonomy to make decisions from free will. Therefore, in the effort to define humans I draw upon the words of Antonio Gramsci who said “ All men are intellectuals” (Gramsci,1987). Moreover, using this definition I too believe all humans are intellectuals who have the capacity to gain knowledge as intellectuals. However, we must hold on to our childhood curiosity and imagination and begin to think and learn about the world we inhabit to obtain a knowledge of self. In addition, we must actively question these systems of oppression as a way to learn about how they affect not only our own lives but the lives of others. We must take this step because the human experience is supposed to be shared through love. Thus, I contend that to be human is to be loved, and to love is to be human. However, love and humanity are only possible through learning and gaining knowledge about ourselves and others. Although it should be stated to achieve knowledge it is a long process and it is not something we can get instantly. So, I do not know if we can achieve humanity at the rate and speed that society operates at now, but, I have “pessimism of the spirit; optimism of the will” (Gramsci,1987 )  because I believe in love.

Althusser, L. (1998). From ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’. A Critical Cultural Theory Reader, 4, 50-57.

Burgett, B., & Hendler, G. (2020). Keywords for American Cultural Studies. New York University Press. 

Baudrillard, J. (2017). The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. Sage.

Butler, J. (1989). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge. 

 Fanon, F. (2008). Black skin, white masks. Grove Press.

Gramsci, A. (1987). The modern prince, and other writings. International Publishers. 

Standing Bear, L. (1975). My People the Sioux. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska.



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