From The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/22/opinion/we-are-not-born-human.html
By Bernard-Henri Lévy
Mr. Lévy is a French philosopher, filmmaker and activist.
Aug. 22, 2018
What does it mean to be human? The immensity of this question can be boiled down to an old principle proposed by the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, which he attributed to fellow philosopher Baruch Spinoza: “Determination is negation.”
But negation of what?
First, of God. In the beginning there was God — the source of infinite action. In the Western tradition, man has no purpose without God. For Christians, man was created in God’s image; for Jews, God is a good worker who lends a hand. For atheists (who, let’s not forget, are Judeo-Christians in their own way), man’s purpose is in part to topple God from his throne. If this isn’t a complete negation of God, then it at least limits his power, as humans come to occupy the space formerly reserved for God alone.
Determination is also a negation of nature. Nobody will deny — most of all not Spinoza — that a human is “natura naturata,” a thing among things, a nature among natures, a figure of the world woven from the same fiber as all other ordinary figures. But to be human is also to desire transcendence, to aspire to be more than merely a sliver of nature.
In his day, the philosopher René Descartes pondered the difference between humans and machines. Today, on the cusp of a revolution in artificial intelligence, we are pondering a similar question: How will we be able to tell a real human from a synthetic one?
A real human is “res cogitans,” a thinking thing, as Descartes put it. A source of “intentionality,” as the philosopher Edmund Husserl wrote. Being human means taking a leap out of the natural order. To be human requires an escape, in one way or another, from that mass of atoms, cells and particles from which you and I and everything else is composed. It is to be endowed with a soul, which — even if it is immaterial, without expanse or density, even if it is perfectly invisible, impalpable and inconsistent — acts as a passport out of nature and into our human essence.
This systematic denaturalization, this confidence that a piece of oneself can escape from the natural order of the world, is akin to a second birth. Nature is the first stage of humanity; but it can, under no circumstance, be its horizon.
But there is also a third birth. To be human, of course, is to be part of another entity that we call society. With all due respect to the “Rousseauism” of those who have never truly read Jean-Jacques Rousseau, man has never existed entirely on his own, with no attachment to a community of others.
But here, we must be very careful. To idolize the social sphere, to passively accept the constraints that result from the imposition of social laws and norms, can prove fatal for human striving. Here lies the bleak realm of Martin Heidegger’s “we.” Here are the nameless, faceless mobs prophesied by Edgar Allan Poe and who today have been unleashed on social media.
To be human is to preserve, inside oneself, against all forms of social pressure, a place of intimacy and secrecy into which the greater whole cannot set foot. When this sanctuary collapses, machines, zombies and sleepwalkers are sure to follow.
This private power may not be accessible to us at first. We aren’t born human; we become it. Humanity is not a form of being; it is a destiny. It is not a steady state, delivered once and for all, but a process.
To be human also means knowing that one can win battles, but never the war. Death will have the final say. If this seems all too tragic, if we are troubled by the sense that the inhuman is the rule and the human the exception, we must come to understand it as a source of salvation.
Ultimately, I am sure of nothing. Philosophy is strictly concerned with the field of the possible, not the knowable, so I can only wager on what may be.
But I do know one thing: The history of this past century teaches us that when we place our bets on nostalgia — when we dedicate ourselves to the search for some lost native land, for something pure — we only pave the way for totalitarianism. We trigger the machines to clean, purge and wash us away.
When we instead commit ourselves to moving forward, to diving into the unknown and embracing our humanity in all its uncertainty, then we embark on a truly beautiful and noble adventure — the very road to freedom.
Now I am an old woman…
A self described old hippie dyke with fond memories of a very special time, a magical period when songs of liberation and freedom rang forth.
We were going to change the world, eradicate oppression, end racism, sexism, homophobia so that we could in the words of Sly Stone be “Every Day People.”
Our enemies may have been Goliath but we were all Davids with our slings, brave and crazy, gonna save the world.
I remember reading about beatniks in the late 1950s and later the folksingers of Greenwich Village. After the Cuban Missile Crisis I started listening to Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs. I started taking a stand for the civil rights of others.
It was the 1960s and Betty Friedan had a book called The Feminine Mystique, my mother knowingly told me to read it, hoping to discourage me from walking my path in search of my truth. I saw it as speaking to her generation, not mine, after all we were involved and going to change the world.
I was so naive at that point, filled with desire, driven by a hunger for life, by my need to be true to myself.
When I left home and went to first the Haight Ashbury and then to Berkeley. Well, as Bob Dylan sang I didn’t need a Weatherman to see which way the wind blew. It was easy to see that women were relegated to a secondary role within the movement and within the “liberated” hippie movement.
Still I needed to come out and be true to myself and being true to myself meant being honest about the oppression of women rather than embracing that role decreed by gender indoctrination.
Oh, Hard is the Fortune of all Womankind
She is always controlled and always confined
Controlled by her parents until she’s a wife
A slave to her husband the rest of her life
We forget how true those words were. How the social constructs of gender limited women and kept us in our places. And yes, if you were transsexual and seeking treatment to be yourself the Doctors expected you to embrace those gender role stereotypes. Some Doctors expected a lot more conformity than others. Being a cute hippie girl/woman in the Bay Area where the Doctors were more enlightened than they are reported to have been in other parts of the country, meant I got cut a whole lot slack.
One of the secrets about that period is that hippie women were able to clean up a lot easier than the guys and often supported the communes and collectives by working straight jobs. (It was a better country then, we didn’t have employer mandated drug testing.) I was able to present the image the Doctors wanted.
I had a set of hippie ethics I tried to live by even during the times of chaos and at times when I was surrounded by friends whom I view in retrospect as having at best questionable ethics and integrity.
When I gave myself to movements I gave completely, that doesn’t mean I didn’t question the motivations of people who surrounded me.
Being a Token meant being silent, even when you saw behavior that was clearly hateful and unethical. Sometimes it meant silently standing by while other women you knew and admired were accused of all sorts of horrible offenses. See: The Dark Side of Sisterhood by Joreen Freeman.
Robin Morgan edited a book titled ‘Sisterhood is Powerful” like many powerful feminist books of that era it is long out of print and copies now cost a lot more than they did when they were new. Rereading them now 50 years later, after 50 years of war upon the 1960s and everything they stood for, books like “Sisterhood is Powerful” and “Sexual Politics” seem both dense and naive. It is hard to imagine the excitement they caused when they were new.
In 1969 I was part of the Weatherman faction of SDS. Our name came from a line in Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: “You don’t need a Weatherman to know which way the wind blows..” I had started hormones and had gone full time. I didn’t need a consciousness raising group to see how the abuse I had received as a kid for being transsexual and the oppression of women were threads in the same blanket of oppression Simone de Beauvoir had written about in “The Second Sex”.
It was hard to be transsexual, even post-transsexual and be part of the feminist movement. It meant ignoring some grossly bigoted actions and writings by women such as Robin Morgan, whom I otherwise highly admired. But rationalizing those bigoted actions meant internalizing and swallowing hatred directed at people who were members of a class which included me.
We had a word back then… Token. The Token Black, The Token Woman, The Token Gay, The Token Transsexual. For that was the role many of us played for acceptance within the Feminist/Lesbian Feminist Movement. This meant being silent, even when you saw behavior that was clearly hateful and unethical. Sometimes it meant silently standing by while other women you knew and admired were accused of all sorts of horrible offenses. See: The Dark Side of Sisterhood by Joreen Freeman.
We had TERFs back then too. Women who took pleasure from causing women who were born trans great emotional pain. They did this in a manner which invalidated all the morally up lifting rhetoric about Sisterhood Being Powerful.
Since the mid 1990s the internet has become a source of information, an on line community of support for many. It is hard for people to understand just how lonely it was for trans-kids back in the late 1950s and throughout much of the 1960s. Some of us knew that a few of us existed, mostly in far away European cities. A few of us even knew that SRS was available in Casablanca and that women like ourselves had gotten surgery there. Even with that knowledge we were still alone. Our learning of gender was from popular culture.
By the 1970s popular culture included Women’s Liberation, just as it had the Hippies. Some of us who had transitioned and had SRS wanted to be part of that movement. We wanted that sisterhood, that belonging. Many of us were damaged, had very low self esteem, many of us saw that traditional roles for women were closed off to us and that feminism opened doors for women in non-traditional positions.
One of the accusations against us was that we hadn’t been socialized as girls. There was an element of truth to that one as pop culture really hadn’t prepared us for some of the social games played by mean girls who had grown up to play the same sorts of mean games as adults. The cliques, the gossip, the back stabbing and all the other aspects of the darker side of sisterhood. (see Phyllis Chesler’s Women’s Inhumanity to Women.)
As I write this I can’t help but reflect back on a period that was at once so sweet and yet left me with such mixed feelings and sadness. The price I paid to be part of something where others like me were being abused, how I had to keep my mouth shut least I suffer the same fate
Over the last 30 years a number of women have written somewhat bittersweet memoirs of their time in the Second Wave. Both Shulamith Firestone and Kate Millett suffered mental breakdowns as a result of trashings, others like Susan Brownmiller retreated from prominence.
Now I am old. I write. I have the joy of being married to my partner of many years.
The Rabbi Hillel left us the phrase: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”
I took from the Second Wave what worked for me, a feminism of the individual. Years later I discovered a wonderfully diverse community of trans-women and trans-men. We often fight. Most of us are parts of yet smaller tribes or families within this community that has a hard time agreeing on anything other than a shared hunger in our lives.
I grew up with a strong attachment to ethical behavior, a strong sense of justice and a hunger for dignity. Life has been one of struggle. Way too many friends, indeed almost all the people I knew in the 1970s have passed away. Memories written on the wind.
The struggle continues and the torches are passed. I will continue doing what I can as long as I can.