Updated: Mar 27
When people commit crimes against humanity, do they lose their own humanity? The notion of “Our Humanity” played a central role in A Climate of Justice as one part of my book’s four-part interpretative framework. I did not address the question of whether humans can lose their humanity, until now.
In Chapter 2, I begin with an acknowledgement that we are earthlings. Our life begins when the planet’s air breathes in and out of us, and it ends when it stops. Our humanity belongs to the earth, and especially now, we need to acknowledge that the fate of our humanity and of the planet hang together. Putin’s crimes are crimes against our communal habitat.
I also wrote about our mirror neurons and Attachment theory. These refer to capacities we share with other primates. We don’t share with them our capacity for crimes against humanity.
Much of the Chapter reports on the neurobiological research of Antonio Damasio and Daniel Siegel on the development of the relational self. I proposed that Damasio’s description of the “core self” could be seen as the site for human dignity, which is then realized with the development of the autobiographical self. Damasio defines the core self as witnessing purposeful actions and reactions of the human body. In other words, when all other things are positive, we are born alive and well with a need to relate and to thrive.
What happened to Putin’s humanity or the soldiers who killed for sport in Bacha? Their behavior seems to resemble that of a psychopath. The web site, Psychopathy, which aims to dispel myths and share research on this condition, suggests three symptoms: an uncaring temperament, boldness and social dominance, and disinhibited behavior. Sounds about right. These conditions, of course, do not make someone a killer of civilians.
We always live in some world and these worlds are maintained by the stories we tell. The stories do not have to be true, as Trump’s followers have shown us. Some worlds allow, or at least do not prevent, crimes against humanity. That’s the world we live in today. This world has been a long time coming, and it has now made possible the destruction of our human habitat If Putin were a duck, our world would be his waterway.
If you give 10 children a gun, how many will shoot you? What happens if you give them dolls?
There are more causes than one’s mental state, and one’s “world,” there is also one’s agency. Putin decided to do this. He could have done otherwise. That’s what makes his crimes incomprehensible. How could someone decide to bomb hospitals and train stations?
How could a human being who is being human do what Putin is doing? We could, of couse, ask a similar question of many others. Let’s reflect on Thomas Jefferson for a minute. He was not Putin, but he was an enslaver, raped young black women, bred enslaved people for profit, and he also wrote The Declaration of Independence. How should we understand that? Was he a genius in creating totally separate compartments for his different behaviors? Was there a “basic” humanity deeper than all his desires and behaviors? Did he still have the possibility of being a witness to his own dignity or had it been destroyed?
Can one lose consciousness of oneself as a living being, as a part of a vibrant, larger whole? It seems so. It does make sense that committing crimes against humanity has consequences for one’s own humanity. Or is a loss of consciousness of one’s humanity necessary to commit crimes against humanity?
If I am correct in how this works, someone or a group that has committed crimes against humanity cannot by themselves restore their relationship with their humanity, they need the help of those who have suffered from their crimes. This is as true in our country as it is in Russia.
The first obligation, of course, is to stop the killing, and to hold the killers accountable. We could also take some time to examine how our policies are true to our humanity. As you know, we don’t live in a climate of injustice because of Putin, but because of our own violations of our shared humanity.