A New Year and a new baby have sparked my inner Carl Sagan, pondering the next century, musing on the meaning of life. That sort of thinking delivered me rather quickly to Thomas Jefferson.
Speculation about the future remains a dark art. When I was a kid, people imagined life in 2016 would be like The Jetsons (which, btw, takes place in 2062) not Downton Abbey with an internet connection. Extrapolating trends, the pundits prophesied both horrors and nirvanas. We watched 2001, A Space Odyssey and were convinced by its promise. We lamented never seeing a tight-suited Mick Jagger singing about Satisfaction again. Oh, how we were wrong.
Humanitarian crystal balls fare no better than others. When it comes to such predictions, I produced this piece in 2010, looking forward to 2020. Much more serious analysis can be found, for instance, in Randolph Kent’s work with the Humanitarian Futures project (e.g., see here). What about the far future? Not 2020 or 2050. What about a century or two from now? That’s where Jefferson comes in.
It would be difficult to identify a more brilliant politician, philosopher or steadfast champion of democracy, liberty and equality. Enter, stage left, the inconvenient truth that the man who found it “self-evident” that “all men are created equal” also bought and sold men as slaves. Let’s avoid a discussion of the historical and moral context circa 1775. The more pertinent question: When they study the current humanitarian age, what will prove our Jeffersonian blemish? What will leave people in 2116 shaking their heads, outraged at our deep moral and logical flaws? What constitutes our unrecognized racism? One answer: speciesism.
In scores of presentations during my MSF days, I used the slide below (stolen, with thanks, from JAB) to highlight the critical specificity of humanitarian action, distinguishing it from the much broader remit of do-gooderism issuing from a ‘humanitarian’ spirit (development, rights literacy, democracy promotion, gender equality, etc.). As the colored lines appeared, I asked participants whether they thought it a suitable definition of ‘humanitarian.’ Moving left from “doing good for people”, after a few iterations I would then jump out to ‘animal humanitarianism’ for comic relief, perhaps making fun of the (surprisingly successful) organization Donkey Sanctuary. “Has somebody lost the plot?” I would ask. “Is there some confusion over the first five letters of the word ‘humanitarian’?” Hell no doubt reserves a special pitchfork for the sanctimonious.
The paramount principle of humanity places the fundamental human dignity of all people at the heart of the humanitarian ethos. This amounts to and is part of a larger exceptionalism – granting to humans a set of protections that are denied to other species. It yields a classification, as did race, onto which we graft great significance, including a conviction in our own superiority. There is too much similarity with racism not to wonder whether a future enlightenment will unfold, one holding that all life merits an equal degree of reverence, or at least conceiving of all life as possessing a magic, a magic so singular and astonishing that it renders irrelevant the differences between all of life’s diverse forms.
Right now, there are six boneless chicken thigh filets marinating in my fridge. In other words, I have not yet gone off the animal rights deep end, nor have I adopted dubious New Age philosophies such as Why I Identify as a Mammal. It seems almost inevitable that the proud leaders of humanitarian action today will have their names sandblasted off memorials in the future, with 22nd Century students protesting our virulent speciesism and moral decrepitude (i.e., when we become history, we are not likely to become the heroes we secretly yearn to be).
The import of speciesism to humanitarians is to consider whether the most powerful way to protect humanity would be to stop pushing human exceptionalism. Why does humanitarian action neither embrace nor deploy a reverence for life itself, and does this deficit undercut respect for its central message that family, clan, tribe, race, gender and nationality must be subordinate to the single family of humanity? Perhaps all exceptionalism warrants condemnation because exceptionalism, be it that of Joseph Kony or the US government, inexorably yields atrocity. The Jeffersonian problem, of course, is that we may have to live another hundred years of tomorrows to recognize the atrocities of today.