The fundamental building block of interpersonal relationships is the acknowledgement of others’ humanity or personhood. Obvious as this may seem, denial of this fundamental precept – or the absence of this fundamental understanding, as the case may be – has led to the severe denigrations of personhood seen in genocide and slavery.
As we proceed through the levels of development, we will see a progression. In interpersonal relationships, we begin at level one by acknowledging others’ humanity. Understanding the other characterizes level two. Appreciation for the other, representing and enhanced understanding that is informed by the intellect and buttressed by an emotional understanding (empathy, compassion, etc.), characterizes level three. Wisdom characterizes level four: it refers to a quality of understanding that surpasses the norm. As we proceed through the stages, typically, the other domains of being are incorporated into the value (e.g., empathy enhancing understanding in level three of interpersonal relations).
I now feel as if I had just been aroused from sleep, and, looking back with quickened perception at the state of torment from whence I fled. I was there held and claimed as a slave; as such I was subjected to the will and power of my keeper, in all respects whatsoever. That the slave is a human being, no one can deny. It is his lot to be exposed in common with other men, to the calamities of sickness, death, and the misfortunes incident to life. But unlike other men, he is denied the consolation of struggling against external difficulties, such as destroy the life, liberty, and happiness of himself and family. A slave may be bought and sold in the market like an ox. He is be sold off to a distant land from his family. He is bound in chains hand and foot; and his sufferings are aggravated a hundred fold, by the terrible thought, that he is not allowed to struggle against misfortune, corporeal punishment, insults and outrages committed upon himself and family; and he is not allowed to help himself, to resist or escape the blow, which he sees impending over him. [Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1849), Chapter I.]
- David S. Reynolds, Mightier Than the Sword: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the Battle for America (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011). “Harriet Beecher Stowe taught whites to see slaves as human.”
- Michael Eric Dyson, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America (St. Martin’s Press, 2017). “An African-American minister urges whites to awaken to black suffering.”
History is littered with the non-acknowledgement (denial) of the full humanity of others.
- David Cesarani, Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-1949 ( Martin’s Press, 2016).
- Elliott Currie, A Peculiar Indifference: The Neglected Toll of Violence on Black America (Metropollitan Books, 2020): “. . . the details of every precious life harmed or lost this summer reveal a bigger truth about the nation. Whether the hand that pulls the trigger belongs to a white cop or to a Black citizen, the extraordinary violence against Black lives, Currie argues, is a consequence of the nation’s refusal to address the ‘longstanding structural roots of violence.”
- Tiya Miles, All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake (Random House, 2021): “. . . a new book about women and chattel slavery as framed by a single object: a cotton sack that dates back to the mid-19th century, given by an enslaved woman named Rose to her daughter Ashley”.
Novels and stories:
- J.M. Coetzee, Age of Iron (Penguin, 1998).
- Hanaya Yanagihara, The People In the Trees: A Novel (Doubleday, 2013) based loosely on a true story of a Nobel-Prize winning medical researcher who was later imprisoned for sexually abusing young boys he brought back to the United States with him from their native New Guinea.
- Helen Oyeyemi, Peaces: A Novel (Riverhead 2021): “What are the consequences of going unseen by the one person you most wish to perceive you?”
- Bola Babalola, Love in Color: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold (William Morrow, 2021): “. . . Babalola resists having her facets flattened by other people’s perceptions”.
Film and Stage
- The Great Dictator: In his dual roles as Hitler and a German Jew, Charles Chaplin expresses the idea of denying our own humanity in denying the humanity of others. Posing as Hitler at film’s end, the Jew delivers a moving address that illustrates the distinction between acknowledging and not acknowledging human worth.
- Giant, a film about racial and economic issues and an “indictment of an overbearing, racist culture”
- The Boy In the Striped Pajamas: the son of a Nazi officer befriends a Jewish boy in the concentration camp by where they live.
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Brahms’ chamber works for clarinet were inspired by his admiration for then-contemporary clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld. Brahms said that he discovered the beauty of the instrument at that time, and critics count the two sonatas in Brahms’ Op. 20 among the great compositions for clarinet. Still, these two sonatas for clarinet and piano sound a bit like two disparate voices struggling to find their way together. After all, Brahms was just beginning to experiment with this pairing. Perhaps the first step was for the participants to acknowledge each other’s ways.
- Sonata for Clarinet and Piano No. 1 in F minor, Op. 120, No. 1
- Sonata for Clarinet and Piano No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 120, No. 2