Taking the pain out of ‘humane’

On art critics' use and abuse of the h-word.

Patrick Marmion

Topics Politics

Another day and another writer is commended for being ‘humane’. Andrea Levy’s Whitbread-winning novel, Small Island, was lauded by the panel of judges led by the ITV news presenter Trevor Macdonald for being ‘wonderfully observed, moving and humane’.

But what do people mean by ‘humane’? Do they even know? It’s a word that has sneaked into mainstream vocabulary, and that one hears as often as the vacuous sign-off ‘lots of love’, or ‘lol’, to give it its SMS format.

When we call a work of art humane, we mean it as a term of endearment, endorsing something we vaguely sense about the work but can’t quite put our finger on. At the same time, we make it sound like we have thought long and hard about the work and very much put a finger on its mystery. We set aside any association the word has with ‘humane killer’, the instrument used for the painless slaughter of animals. Instead we focus on displays of compassion or benevolence in the sense of inflicting the minimum level of pain or suffering. But in the case of literature and the arts, the dictionary suggests that ‘humane’ means ‘intended to have a civilising or refining effect on people’. And here we draw closest to the ideological motivation of this innocent little word. To be properly humane is to be discreetly didactic.

Funnily enough, what is censured by this euphemistic use of the word ‘humane’ is humanity itself. Only humanity is capable of being either humane or inhumane. A tree cannot be humane and it’s very hard to think of anything inhumane that isn’t specifically human. Neither disease, famine or pestilence can be called inhumane since they are not generally manmade. Indeed the most distinguishing feature of inhumanity is just how human it is. Instruments of torture are as much works of the imagination as Shakespeare’s sonnets. The thumbscrew goes hand-in-hand with the music of Monteverdi – both are highly evolved human creations. But we’d rather not think of it like that.

Those things that are not approved as humane are usually just things we’re uncomfortable with and would rather distance ourselves from: such as Auschwitz, the attack on the World Trade Centre, or Guantanamo Bay. Often blamed on God or performed on God’s behalf, these are works of humanity as much as the Hubble telescope or the Sistine Chapel. Then there are those things with which we are uncomfortable, but are still prepared to recognise as good: the Second World War, surgical amputation, and other necessary evils. Aristotle described such ambivalence in Greek tragedy as the conflict of ‘pity and fear’. But when people use the word ‘humane’ in their literary judgements it usually means pity without fear. Something lovely and warm that transcends all the badness; empathy with the minimum pain. And so was the Hollywood Box Office built.

But people who readily use the h-word aren’t necessarily shallow or stupid. They use the word to express something deep and reflective about their responses to art, something beyond good and evil. The trouble is that this means judging without appearing judgemental. Judging is one of the deadliest of contemporary sins. Judge not and ye shall not be considered politically incorrect. To judge is to be inhumane, never mind the fact that every society and all social interaction depend on judgements. Without judgement we wouldn’t be able to decide to get out of bed and go to work in the morning. Judgement, and its correlative, justice, are actually characteristically humane.

Often people use the h-word simply to endorse some sense of psychological, moral, or political complexity that they perceive in a work or art. But to call such things humane is a tautology, like assessing a dog’s behaviour by calling it canine. Besides, ‘complexity’ is itself an all-too-often simplified word. When people talk of a writer creating the illusion of psychological complexity in a fictional character, they usually mean the character is well balanced. But balance is too bland and insufficiently dynamic a word to describe humanity in all its colours.

To praise someone or something for being humane is a secular appeal to some kind of unspoken, transcendent value system. This is an appeal to higher values without any duty to articulate those values. Everyone knows what you mean and will let it pass unexamined. At worst what is meant is a sentimental attempt to hive off what is ugly about humanity and distance ourselves from it. At very worst it is a blind attempt to align oneself with the lingua franca of a tribe – a free pass to the literati party.

It is tempting to suggest that users of the h-word are living in a fairytale world of make believe. But that would be unfair to fairytales. Fairytales are packed with acts of inhumanity, without which they would feel false. Hence the wicked queen who sends her stepdaughter to the forest to be murdered by a woodman who is to bring back the child’s liver by way of proof. Traditionally, the woodman is understood to show great humanity by bringing back the liver of a passing deer or some such fauna. But to focus on the woodman’s compassion rather than the stepmother’s cruelty is copper-bottomed sentimentality. And kids wouldn’t buy it. They know better than anyone that their parents have got it in for them and it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. Compassion and cruelty are equally human.

Describing a work of art as ‘humane’ has a feel-good factor sewn in. Nastiness has been padded with niceness. The artefact ingratiates itself and allows the reader or spectator to dote fondly and non-judgmentally on the work. That’s how ordinary law-abiding people are able to enjoy monsters like Hannibal Lecter or gangsters like Tony Soprano. Focus on their humanity and we can imagine these avaricious killers as loveable rogues. And yet we’d never extend that same courtesy to Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot or Adolf Hitler or any of real life’s more execrable examples of humanity. To call something humane is to suspend moral and critical faculties, not to engage them.

Humanity is much more beautiful and much uglier than we care to admit. If humanity is to hold its own in our vocabulary and if we are to show people or works of art respect, the word must embrace much more in the way of inhumanity. This includes acts of lazy venality or acts that we find irredeemably repellent, not just the nice sweet bits which dull judgement and make us fat. Sadism and selfishness are as human as kindness and altruism. Death to those infantilisers who would have us believe otherwise.

Patrick Marmion is a freelance journalist and writer.

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Topics Politics


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