There are many labels which are fitting to me: Canadian, female, university student, heterosexual, adult, ex-Christian, skeptic, lover of aspartame, etc. Although all these labels and numerous others are correct, which, if any, is the label that I primarily associate myself with? Which is the one that “defines me,” that makes me who I am? The label which I have chosen as my primary one is “human.”
The reason I choose “human” as my primary definition is not because I think humans are just a swell bunch and I like to associate myself with them. I choose “human” because I feel compelled to, because I feel that “human” captures the essence of who/what I am more than any other term. There are many other perfectly legitimate labels a person could use as their primary one. The primary label a person chooses is based on the essential characteristics/actions required to have the label, and whether those essential characteristics/actions are essential to what that person considers themselves to be. For example, for a person to fit under the label of “university student” the essential characteristic/actions required are: to be accepted into a university, to have handed over the thousands of dollars required for tuition and to have enrolled in courses. But are the essential characteristics/actions required to be a “university student” also essential to a person’s particular being? I don’t believe that anyone would use “university student” as their primary label because choosing not to be a university student doesn’t change the essence of who a person is.
Other primary label options could include “sentient being,” which is more broad than “human.” A person with this as their primary label would likely be very in tune with nature and would feel more affinity for [non-human] animals than other people might. Someone could use the primary label “female” if they were a staunch feminist, or they could use the label “atheist” if they believed that their lack of belief in a god really defined who they were. There really are countless options here (including not choosing a primary label), but the one I choose is “human.”
I choose “human” because I believe that, first and foremost, that is what I am. My humanity defines me, makes me what I am. The fact that I am human is not dependent on where I was born or how old I am. It doesn’t change because of what I’ve experienced or what I believe. As long as I am, I am human. This is why, to me, my humanness is most basic to my being and is the title which I believe is most fitting to me.
By making my primary label “human,” I have now placed myself within a category, that is, humanity. The same things that are primary and basic to my being are also primary and basic to nearly 7 billion other beings. So, in a primary and basic way, there are nearly 7 billion “other myselves” out there. Because of these shared essential characteristics, I am bound to the rest of humanity. I am bound because I see myself in them and I cannot escape from them any more than I can escape from myself. I see myself in them and feelings of love, hate, empathy and disgust are aroused. I see myself in them and know that they also see me, and understand me in some basic way. Their gaze causes me to feel pride, and shame. I see myself in them and I critique and judge them. I see myself in them and desire to be loved by them, to be around them, to gain approval from them. I see myself in them and I am hurt by them, and encouraged by them. I see myself in them and I understand their pain, and their pleasure. I see myself in them and I begin to understand myself better. I see myself in them and understand that the struggles we both face trace back to the same roots.
No other being affects me more than the human being, because that is my own being. Primarily and essentially, I am human. Primarily and essentially, I am bound to humanity.
This is what I mean when I say that I am a “humanist.” It’s not what I value or even what I believe. It’s simply what I define myself as.
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