Rachael Devecka on Quillen “Being Human” Lecture

Professor Quillen’s lecture began with a critique of liberal humanism (a la John Locke) and its definition of what is a human. As she explained, as soon as we define what a human is, we also define what it is not. The issue of universalizing––or standardizing––language of any sort is that it leaves no room for difference. We’re currently discussing this problem in my Human Rights class with such examples as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One claim of the Declaration is the right to work. However, as we asked: How does a country guarantee the right to employment? Does this mean everyone gets a job? Is offering social security enough? What does “work” even mean across cultures? And, as Professor Quillen would likely point out, if someone doesn’t have a job are they not human?

Furthermore, rights are usually politicized. Everyone will agree that we should all have the right to life in its abstract form, but it’s a lot harder when we get down to specifics. What about the death penalty? Rights also ask us to pass moral judgement very quickly. If we let politics, social groupings, and ideas of rights come between us, we become polarized very quickly.

Professor Quillen’s suggestion is to start with stories. As she points out, we don’t have to decide right away if someone is good or bad, or similar or different. All we’ve got to do is listen to their experiences. This can be a way to find common ground, or just to learn––because sometimes their stories don’t overlap with ours at all, and we don’t have to force them to. That’s not how time moves anyway.

I love the idea of listening to people’s stories, without trying to put them into my terms. However, I also see a few limitations in this idea. The first, which was brought up during the lecture, is the idea of privilege: who is actually able to speak? Who is able to safely listen?

Secondly, there is the issue of cultural lens. Can we ever really get into someone else’s head? We are, to some extent, bound by our own perspective, and it’s really hard to listen to other people without trying to fit them into our own understanding of the world. This also connects to the question of language. How do we connect with others’ stories if we don’t share a common language? I’m not trying to be pretentious with this question, I actually mean it. I speak English and Spanish, and am learning Arabic, and I can already find several words in each language that don’t have direct translations. Doesn’t that create a barrier between people in understanding one another’s stories? Does it count as telling your story on your terms if it has to be translated?

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