Once again, I turn my mind toward poetry this week. The poem itself is wide-ranging and powerful, covering important topics that I feel ill equipped to grapple with at this juncture. The poet is Victoria Adukwei Bulley and she composed it as part of an initiative at the Victoria & Albert Museum to wrestle with its links to slavery. I encourage you to listen to it in full but I’ll draw your attention to the first line:
Men like you say mankind and mean yourselves, your brothers, and your fathers’ fathers.
When you draw the circle around humanity, in other words, you draw it to include only people like you without thinking. When you consider the human experience, you imagine that the world, in all its beautiful and diverse complexity, is essentially experienced only one way. You do not necessarily set out to exclude but you cannot conceive of ways that are not your ways, people who are not your people, hearts that are not your hearts.
It is not wrong to be self-aware and self-reflective. It is wrong to believe that the way your self is is the only way a self can be. With every concentric, constricting ring whereby you lessen the pool of who counts, those inside lose knowledge and wisdom and empathy while those outside lose respect and dignity and often their lives. Being inside means, all too often, not only that you forget how to look outside but that you forget there’s anything worth seeing out there at all.
I am, time and again, confounded by people who say that they have finally found the limits of who counts, the limits are these, and this is the end of all possible discussion on the subject. To say–with a surety that could melt steel–that others have neglected so-and-so a group while esteeming another group overmuch. To clearly delineate the bounds of the valuable and the valueless, and often to claim that doing so is an act of Truth, Faith, and Love. To assuage the excluded by saying that it’s not so much that they don’t matter, just that they matter differently or less (by which they mean not mattering not at all).
In an odd turn, considering the poem’s colonial/historical/racial context, I’m sitting here thinking about the US Declaration of Independence. About certain truths it claims–erroneously–are self-evident. On the one hand, they were exactly right: all are created equal. On the other, they didn’t actually just say “all,” did they, and they definitely didn’t mean it. They said mankind and meant themselves.
I do not consider myself a utilitarian in the macro sense, but in the micro I think the mindset has, if you’ll forgive me, some utility. There is probably some natural inclination in humanity to seek a ‘tribe’ of those like us. And there are reasons such a drive was useful in the past and is still, in some ways, useful today. But I think we live in an era when the tribal drive has, at best, a declining utility. Not just because it’s exclusive and often very dangerous (when you arm tribalists with nuclear weapons, for example). I feel this way because I think it has limited utility insofar as it limits, at the very least on a personal level, growth. There is some pleasure in living surrounded by people like yourself but there is greater personal utility in learning difference. You will be a better person, I am convinced, when you leave your little circles behind.
It is good to say mankind and consider the wealth of life that the term can include. Perhaps it is better not to say mankind and instead acknowledge the diversity of that life. Perhaps it is best not to say anything, in turn, and simply listen to the stories that life is trying to tell you. As Rilke said, live your life in ever-widening circles.