What is a ‘person’ & who gets to decide?
Originally published on medium.
I’ve got a question.
Who gets to be a person?
Or maybe a better one, how do we determine such things?
We Are Human is an at its core an idea, with the missional focus of uplifting fellow persons to a state of human-ness. Thus, I sensed it would be of some benefit to fully comprehend the notions latent in our understanding of what it means to possess humanity
The answer to my questions may seem simple on its face…
What is a person? And who gets to be one?
…but upon examination, one begins to notice the cultural fluidity of such a term.
Frankly, in a world filled with euphemisms, hyperbole, metaphors and double standards, it can be tough to pin down a universal definition of most any word in a way that satisfies and gives respect to all parties involved.
Whether trying to restore what has been broken, or to recover what has been lost — to embark upon the task of distinguishing and defining becomes crucial, especially when people are involved.
To nominally rest on standard definitions, though helpful as a starting point, does a great disservice to the unique experiences of each particular person.
For example, Oxford says that a person is someone who is to be “regarded as an individual.”
This is neither comprehensive, nor specific.
But as most all dictionary definitions, it allows us a shared point of reference from which to begin this important discussion.
So, back to the question — what is a person?
The implications of how we collectively answer that question, will determine the course of our shared future on this planet.
This is no overstatement.
The notions surrounding personhood are in a constant state of flux. From transatlantic trading of humans, to current ideas surrounding AI.
Through the periods of Jim Crow, and the destructive concept of 3/5ths, to the prison industrial system in place today.
Defining personhood is no cakewalk.
It almost seems, as through biological indicators aren’t quite enough.
To identify as a ‘Homo Sapien’ does not necessarily guarantee that you will be treated like one.
Maybe, to answer our question fully, we need to take a step back and consider what characteristics a person can possess.
Can a person own property?
Can a person BE property?
Is a person just highly evolved protoplasm?
Or a set of chemical reactions that result in the ability to self-determine?
Can a person be a ratio of another person?
Is a person still a person without proper papers?
At what point in time does one become a person?
When mom decides to keep it?
“Does a person become a person because of other persons… or, is a person a person independent of other persons perceptions?”
The process isn’t as straightforward as one may assume.
To simply serve up a generic definition from the back of a book is intellectually lazy at best, and potentially deceitful at worst.
Because our individual concepts of personhood vary, widely.
I’m not asking you to deduce a definition for everyone else.
I simply want you to pause,
and think (for yourself).
What is a person?
I’m a fan of simple definitions.
So, to me…
a person, is a human being that matters.
It then becomes incumbent on each individual to accurately assess the value of others, for in as much as I care for someone, does their identity begin to shift from “other” to “human”.
The implications here are massive.
Think about it. Our entire concept of war is built on a core idea of demonizing some ‘other’ — but, if I concede that this individual is a person just like me, then my ability to make them out as a monster is severely handicapped.
Cool. But, how do we determine who matters in reality?
A few heuristics used include job titles and tax brackets. Often, it becomes factors like these determine whom we should, or shouldn’t care about.
In my view… of ideals that make up a person, the notion of individuality is paramount. The very word, individual, implicates a sort of oneness. The final unit of division. The most basic part of a thing upon which all other systems derive meaning.
There are a few schools of thought when it comes to what makes up an individual. In my estimation, one of the more harmful strains of ironically come most alive in our Western traditions of individualism.
It’s an idea that has saturated American culture and seeped into our collective ethos. Ultimately, it’s based on the notion of self.
The ability to fend for ‘self’ is usually seen as the paramount struggle of our human experience.
“Survival of the fittest” some may call it.
Except, today on capitally derived steroids.
This is wrong.
If our value of people comes from something as meaningless and arbitrary as money, then problems begin to arise in a hurry.
The fact is, that only through relationship that we can begin to unlock the true meaning in our shared humanity and innate personhood.
Collaboration is the key to survival.
If you look back through history, and study any successful group of people; from great civilizations to fearless armies of 300, therein lies a pervasive thought which is deeply understood by members of these associations.
‘We cannot do this alone.’
The next stage of our humanity calls for us to graduate from competition. Because, at the end of the day, we are all on the same team.
It is only with this understanding that we can begin to rise above the muck of our current condition, and acknowledge that ‘equality’ does not mean rigging a system to fit our needs, but refers to appreciating each individual person as uniquely, fully, and irreversibly human.
In the context of deeply knowing, and being known, can we begin to reform ourselves into who we really want to be. In fact, the very concept of ‘self’ is only discovered through authentic relationship.
We need each other.
Both to know ourselves, and to survive. Individually, and communally.
This is what it means to truly be human.
A definition is a very flimsy thing, and how we characterize people will often depend largely on the society we exist in.
To unpack and critically assess one’s own meaning of something frees them up to recognize some of the latent biases that drive behavior.
At the end of the day, We Are Human, and although we are also individuals, we do not exist independently of one another.
News flash: we don’t control much.
But, of things we can control, the depth of our human relationships should be of utmost importance.
It is through isolation that we continually shackle ourselves to false ideals of what it means to be important, therefore it is only in relationship that we can begin to unburden ourselves from partiality, and start to sense the magnificence inherent in every soul we come across.
Because, you matter.
No matter what.