Dehumanization is all too easy. And as we talked about last week, it can be extremely destructive. I believe that a majority of the world’s problems could be solved if we all truly and consistently acknowledged the fact that every person is a person just as valuable as any other. People are people. It’s simple, but it’s not easy to practice day in and day out.
If dehumanization is the root of so many of our problems, what can we do about it? What does humanization—or, as is sometimes necessary, rehumanization—look like? How do we get past the tendency to treat others as “less than” and truly see them for the people they are?
That’s not an easy question to answer. And to be honest, I don’t have a perfect, comprehensive response myself. What I do have are some ideas for ways that we can practice humanization in our daily lives based on lessons from my own life. These insights were hard-earned over a good deal of time and through much failure at treating people the way they deserve to be treated. I’d like to share one of those lessons with you today, and I hope you find it helpful.
The concept of agency is a complex one, but at its root, it refers to a person’s ability to act and make decisions for themselves. Their capacity to have an effect on the world around them. Their potential to exert influence over their life and circumstances. A person’s agency is the trait that makes them an active agent in their own life and in the world as a whole. It may seem basic, but it’s a fundamental part of being human.
Far too often, we treat other people as objects rather than subjects. We act like they are passive props or, at the very best, supporting characters in the story of our lives. (We, of course, are the heroes in this scenario.) What we fail to recognize is that each and every person is the subject of their own experience, the main character in their own story, the active agent in their own life. And when we live without this recognition, we deprive others of their agency.
This has happened in gruesomely blatant ways. Slavery, of course, is a way that millions of African Americans and others were stripped of their agency in the past. Throughout history, women have traditionally been treated as inferior to men, often even as property. This, too, is an example of agency being taken away from a human being. When poor people weren’t allowed to vote, Native Americans were forced to flee the lands of their ancestors, and American citizens of Japanese descent were forced into internment camps during World War II, the agency of these individuals was attacked and limited to the point of seeming debilitation.
Though we’ve become more subtle about it, we still chip away at people’s agency today. Racism and sexism remain rampant in the policies and rhetoric of our country. The experiences of sexual abuse survivors are denied and downplayed in public discourse. Children go to school in fear of violence. Homeless people are dying in our streets. Mass incarceration has swallowed up countless individuals (predominantly people of color) who could and should be contributing to greater society, but instead, they’ve had that option taken away. They’ve had their agency stripped from them, and they’re treated as less than human.
These are mostly systemic issues, but we do it on a personal level, too. Every time we make someone feel like they aren’t good enough, like they’re “less than.“ Or evaluate someone without taking the time to get to know them. Or bring someone down in our quest to get ahead. When we do these things, we are holding people back from being their best selves. We’re taking away their agency.
If we are to be compassionate people and to have a net positive influence on this world, we must become agents of agency. We must affirm the agency of our fellow human beings and help those who have had their agency taken away from them find it once again.
That means giving people room to thrive. For someone to have fully agency, they must exist in an environment that does not limit them based on any preexisting characteristic they may have, whether it be sex, race, gender, able-bodiedness or anything else. We don’t know what it’s like to live in a world like that, but I do believe that we can create one by destroying any system, entity, or idea that perpetuates discrimination and bias. That won’t be easy, but if we truly want to support the agency of others, we must try.
It also means respecting the choices that people make. The world is far too full of prescriptive voices telling people what they should do, who they should be, how they should look and act. What if we let people decide these things for themselves? It’s not our responsibility to judge every single decision a person makes or to force our ideas onto others. Of course, if someone is causing harm to others or not living up to what they claim to believe, we can and should call them out on it. But if a person is simply trying to follow their own path to fulfillment, who are we to tell them they’re wrong? Agency means respecting someone enough to accept the choices they make.
And it means lifting people up as they exercise their agency. How much different would the world be if, instead of pretending that life is a zero-sum game that we must win, we instead saw it as a cooperative effort toward common goals? What if we supported one another as we each pursued our own good and the good of the world? Wouldn’t that be nice? We can start creating that reality right here, right now, by empowering one another and affirming the uniqueness, wholeness, and sufficiency of every single person around us.
There are a lot of elements that go into treating each other as human beings, and I can’t wait to get into all of them. But I think that agency is an important starting point. We are each agents, subjects, humans. And we each deserve to be treated as such. May it be so in our lives today and every day.