Words slice reality into bite size chunks. Otherwise, this shit would be a mouthful.  Words are how we distinguish between a chair and a dog and where the sidewalk ends. For day to day life, words are accurate and hyper-efficient. Our smart brains serve us words like line cooks at a fast food joint. Unconscious, automatic, mechanical.

We’re addicted to our fast food. We our words up. We love them. Words are what makes us special. Human, as opposed to the grunting Neanderthal and inarticulate nematode. We largely live by and with and for words. Our Founding Document protects our God-Given right to words unlimited (First Amendment) and our right to hoard our words as we see fit (Miranda Rights). With just two words, we marry people (“I do.”)! We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on tuition for some words (“PhD”). When it comes to the human scale, words are the perfect size. But for anything the size of humanity, words have proven near disastrous.

Words help us survive, but they are not life itself. Sometimes they mislead us. We’re human. Words come quick; we can’t control their arrival. We cannot be blamed for language’s automaticity and consequent shortcomings. We can be blamed, however, if we take our automatic labels to be unquestionable truth. If we allow our short-order brain to rule, we’re not just being inhumane; we’re not being human.  

Quite often lately, I hear people throw the word “inhumane” around as an insult, but rarely have I seen someone meet this accusation with heartbreak. Most people brush it off and go back to feeling themselves. Who cares about being humane when you can be rich? Powerful? Beautiful? Known?

But being inhumane is just one letter away— just a single vocal stressor away— from being inhuman, and that (at least to me) seems like a deep insult. We  identify too heavily with our ability to produce words. We preserved it, though, in the name we gave unto ourselves: to be human is to be humane.

If automatic labels are fast food, then acts of humanity are slow cooked meals. We think our words make us smart because they imply consciousness. In fact, the ability to override our impulsive labels and to sit in non-judgement takes even more brain power.  To be humane is to be aware. To be humane is to be conscious. To be human is to be alive. It is not just a moral quirk given to the angels amongst us. It is not just a random act of measured generosity. It’s a genetic responsibility. It’s a categorical imperative. It’s a definition.

Emma Speer