For some reason, we human beings have a real problem with the concept of intrinsic human value. If a group of people doesn’t look like us, or has different customs, or lacks some of our abilities, we think it’s obvious they’re not truly human. Have we ever been right about this? Ever?
I came across this appalling description of the early days of Australia in Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country:
For most Europeans the Aborigines were simply something that was in the way—“one of the natural hazards,” as the scientist and natural historian Tim Flannery has described it. It helped to regard them as essentially subhuman, a view that persisted well into the twentieth century. As recently as the early 1960s, as John Pilger notes, Queensland schools were using a textbook that likened Aborigines to “feral jungle creatures”…. Such was the marginalization of the native peoples that until 1967 the federal government did not even include them in national censuses—did not, in other words, count them as people.
In Taming the Great South Land William J. Lines details examples of the most appalling cruelty by settlers toward the natives—of Aborigines butchered for dog food;…of another chased up a tree and tormented from below with rifle shots…. What is perhaps most shocking is how casually so much of this was done, and at all levels of society. In an 1839 history of Tasmania, written by a visitor named Melville, the author relates how he went out one day with “a respectable young gentleman” to hunt kangaroos. As they rounded a bend, the young gentleman spied a form crouched in hiding behind a fallen tree. Stepping over to investigate and “finding it only to be a native,” the appalled Melville wrote, the gentleman lifted the muzzle to the native’s breast “and shot him dead on the spot.”
Such behavior was virtually never treated as a crime—indeed was sometimes officially countenanced. In 1805 the acting judge advocate for New South Wales, the most senior judicial figure in the land, declared that Aborigines had not the discipline or mental capacity for courtroom proceedings; rather than plague the courts with their grievances, settlers were instructed to track down the offending natives and “inflict such punishment as they may merit”—as open an invitation to genocide as can be found in English law…. Sometimes, under the pretense of compassion, Aborigines were offered food that had been dosed with poison (pp 187-188).
Subhuman, not counted as people, openly and casually killed because they were “in the way.” This is what human beings do to other human beings. The group of people being disposed of might change from century to century and place to place, but the reasoning used against them remains the same: they don’t look like us, they can’t do what we do, they’re not fully human.
In Australia in the 1800s, there was a culturally accepted standard for qualifying as a human being, and the Aborigines didn’t meet it. When, for the first time, white people were convicted and hanged for slaughtering a group of them, “two of the accused protested, with evident sincerity, that they hadn’t known killing Aborigines was illegal” (p. 189).
How is it possible they didn’t know they were committing murder? Can you see our capacity for deceiving ourselves when it comes to the subject of which human beings are “truly human”? After all the evidence of our past egregious failures, why would any of us trust ourselves to set a line defining who’s in and who’s out? And yet, we do. We are.
We always recognize the horror of defining human beings out of the human family after the fact, once we no longer have anything to gain by oppressing those particular people. But how can we prevent these atrocities from occurring in the first place? How can we end the one we’re in the middle of? We have to recognize and then fight the human tendency we have to deny the value of people who are different from us. We have to teach intrinsic human value—the value of every human being, regardless of his looks, his size, or his ability—because our selfish drive to remove people who are “in our way” prevents us from naturally seeing and accepting universal human rights.