For more than a generation, the idea of human rights has served as a guiding star of the liberal West. Faced with atrocities and injustices around the world, some of the most prominent and powerful institutions and individuals in the West responded by invoking the human rights of the asylees, migrants or persecuted. The force of the underlying idea is one of commonality – namely, that all people are, just like us, human beings, and that fact gives them certain rights we must recognise and protect. In this ideal of an age, humanity is more than an appeal for empathy and kindness; it is a philosophical bedrock obligating protections for the vulnerable and persecuted.
I am an anthropologist who worked for a year with former fighters in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda. The experience compelled me to spend a lot of time thinking about humanity as a philosophical idea. The LRA is a group of people whose humanity has often been questioned, and sometimes denied. A rebel group fighting a spiritual rebellion since 1986, the LRA have waged war in ways that others see as horrific, brutal or otherwise outside the pale of the human – forcibly conscribing their soldiers; ‘sexually enslaving’ young girls; hacking or beating to death government collaborators and disobedient soldiers; and living like animals for years in the wilderness.
LRA leaders have been charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC) with the most heinous of crimes – crimes against humanity. Eight years ago, the American NGO Invisible Children e-targeted the LRA with the social activism campaign ‘Kony 2012’, which gained widespread attention. Kony 2012 sought public support for a US military campaign to capture Joseph Kony, the Acholi spirit-medium at the helm of the LRA. In the late-1980s, Kony became possessed by spirits that instructed him to preach, heal and eventually build a rebel army. These spirits guided the LRA in its actions, which included abductions, mutilation and killing of civilians, and other forms of violence. One of the Invisible Children posters showed Kony alongside Osama bin Laden and Adolf Hitler. The campaign video went viral, setting a record for the most single-day views of a YouTube video ever at that time, at more than 30 million. Invisible Children helped to bolster public support for US military intervention against the LRA. But in 2017 the US withdrew military support, without Kony’s capture.
The effective expulsion of the LRA from humanity took place in different ways. They were seen to have committed inhuman(e) violence, killing and mutilating their enemies; they were not seen to have a ‘rational’ or clear political agenda; and they were seen to have become like animals because they lived and operated in the bush. One of the most sensational crimes against humanity alleged was ‘sexual enslavement’. In truth, it was not uncommon for abducted girls to be married against their will into the LRA, often as early teenagers. My friend Amito was one of them.
The LRA abducted Amito when she was around 11 years of age. She became a wife to an LRA officer, giving birth to their first child at 14. Initially, Amito didn’t want to stay with her husband, Onen, who already had five wives. But as their relationship developed over the years, she saw how much he loved her and how well he took care of her. When Amito was lost in battle, Onen searched for her for days, refusing to let her go. He saved her from drowning as they tried to ford a strong river. He gently nursed the wounds she suffered in combat. It was clear that he cared for her the most out of all of his wives.
One day, after six years with Onen, Amito was unexpectedly captured by the Ugandan army in a battle and returned home. Much as she did not want to leave Onen, she had been secretly longing to leave the LRA. She found life on the frontlines hard. But she was unsure how to ask Onen to send her back to her civilian life, knowing how much he wanted her to be with him.
If their marriage was a ‘crime against humanity’, they and their families didn’t see it that way
Once returned to Gulu, a large Acholi town, Amito moved in with her mother and decided to wait for Onen to come back. Her friends and neighbours thought she was crazy – how, they wondered, could she want to stay with a man who had, in legal terms, abducted, raped and defiled her? Counsellors suggested that she pray that her abductor Onen die. Instead, Amito and her mother prayed for the safe return of Onen, the father of her son. They connected with Onen’s family and intermittently communicated with Onen himself on the frontlines. It was clear to everyone that, if Onen returned, they would stay together.
The ‘if’ was important – for more than a decade after Amito’s return, Onen remained on the frontlines. She wanted to wait for him, but she also wanted more children and needed help to care for her family. She decided to remarry, going through one difficult marriage that ended in divorce. Amito was unhappy with her second marriage, and her mother, who felt that Onen was the more loving and mature man, regretted Amito’s decision to remarry. As years passed and the LRA became more isolated as a force, Amito began to doubt if Onen would ever come home.
The ICC has considered forced marriage within the LRA an inhumane act constitutive of a crime against humanity. But if Amito and Onen’s marriage was a ‘crime against humanity’, they and their families didn’t see it that way. It’s true that their relationship was forged in violence and, specifically, a violence that is particularly upsetting to modern sensibilities about love marriages. But this didn’t mean that their relationship was meaningless or violent in itself, nor that she was a passive victim of a sex crime. To condemn their relationship as a ‘crime against humanity’ is also a way of not thinking carefully about their experience, simply because it transgressed the expectations, new in history and far from universal, that marriages should take place between two consenting individuals who are already in love.
Forced marriages were just the beginning of the ways in which the LRA violated the precepts of membership in the human community, according to some. Acholi civilians in particular contested the LRA’s humanity based on where the army had lived and worked for decades – the ‘bush’ (lum). Today, for Acholi civilians, the lum, in contrast to ‘home’ (gang), is the cruel space of animals, spirits and madness, but not of human beings. While ordinary civilians might visit the lum to collect firewood or hunt wild game, they didn’t consider it a space fit for human life. Civilians imagined the LRA fighting famine, gathering wild roots, and literally dirtying themselves in the wilderness. When the LRA came out of the lum to carry out attacks, civilians saw them as they did lions and elephants – dangerous wild animals wreaking havoc and violence.
The rebels experienced the lum as a place of life, purity and development. At their base camps in the lum, they led ‘normal’ lives not dissimilar to their civilian counterparts at home – cooking and bathing, among other everyday activities. Many rebels loved the bush – it was a place of affectionate relationships, community and invaluable training. To them, it could be sacred. Rebels built holy spaces (‘yards’) from which they derived supernatural powers through holy spirits to heal and perform miracles. They saw social life across Acholi villages and towns as rife with drinking, adultery and laziness. In the lum, they abstained from alcohol, had strict rules against adultery, and worked hard, battling fiercely and travelling great distances in short periods of time through thick vegetation. They practised what they called ‘gorilla warfare’, fighting in organised military units like their primate comrades. Transformed from ‘guerrilla warfare’, the actions of a small band of insurgents, ‘gorilla warfare’ was an extraordinary style of battle unique to the feared animals that the rebels had taken up. Civilians suggested that the rebels had lost their humanity and become mere animals. But in fact, they had transcended their humanity to become tricky, fierce and respected gorillas, fighting in more-than-human ways.
Identifying as animals was not a fall from grace, but an ascension to a higher status
Many rebels did return to civilian life from the frontlines, usually via capture or desertion. Civilians and rehabilitation organisations that processed returning rebels both feared and pitied them, and subjected them to close scrutiny. The rebels were presumed to have committed terrible violence but also to be themselves victims, often of childhood abductions. For civilians, reintegration meant turning rebels who had ‘animal minds’ into ‘human beings’. They spoke of reforming former rebels as a process of ‘taming’ them by teaching them to leave behind their old ways of life in the lum. Specifically, this meant that rebels had to be taught hygiene and sociality, among other treatments, in a process that was referred to as ‘repairing [rebels’] heads’. What was clear of this process of reintegration into civil society was that these brutalised, traumatised, irrationally violent rebel-animals needed to be remade into human beings. They had violated the limits of humanity and had to be taught, disciplined or counselled to become human again.
Rebels understood their experiences in the lum and as members of the LRA differently. Yes, they killed with machetes and beat people to death with logs – but they did not always have access or recourse to apparently more ‘humane’ technologies of killing, like the guns or drones employed by state armies. Yes, they might have been kidnapped and forced to fight against their will – but they sometimes found the spiritual and political dimensions of the rebel cause sympathetic. Many regretted being forcibly taken out of the lum and returned home to towns and villages across northern Uganda, where they encountered alcoholism, unemployment and infidelity. Yes, they had been living in the wilderness, sometimes for decades, and had begun to see themselves as gorillas engaged in ‘gorilla warfare’. Yet identifying as animals was not a fall from grace, but rather a kind of ascension to a higher status of power and ferocity.
Most found the process of reintegration puzzling. They had experienced the army as a time of living a meaningful and active life amid close friendships and family. They regarded each other as brothers and sisters in the lum, united in a spirit of togetherness and mutual support as though they were blood family. Some said that their relationships in the lum were stronger and more supportive than those they had with civilians after leaving the army. Why did civilians treat them like violent, dirty beasts who needed to be taught how to be human?
Many former rebels hit back. ‘We too are human beings,’ some asserted. They didn’t want to be treated like brutal killers or traumatised victims. Yet, to me, their own claims to humanity sat uneasily. Did they not also identify as gorillas? Were they not often in the elevated, superhuman realm of the sacred, protected by holy spirits? Their claims to humanity aimed to avoid being treated as a different community of outcasts. But humanity could not recognise the truth of their own experiences, beliefs and forms of being, which often exceeded the human by entering divine and animal realms.
The struggles of the LRA veterans reveal two problems with progressive ideas and uses of ‘humanity’. First, the ‘humanity’ of Western human rights activism and law is a moral construct of a specific social imagination. While claiming universality, it separates humanity from its others, prescribing what counts as good and what counts as evil. Clearly, there are hard moral limits to experience and belief that socially delineate the human from the nonhuman or inhuman. There are human and inhuman ways of killing; human and inhuman ways of loving; and human and inhuman ways of fighting. Human soldiers kill enemies in battle with guns, while barbarians cut up and or bludgeon to death their victims. For the woman who falls in love with a man of her age and choosing, there is the teenager who is forced into marriage with a much older man. For the freedom fighter waging war to liberate her people, there is the terrorist committing wanton violence. The contemporary idea of humanity risks becoming the unquestionable moral barometer maintaining these divisions, separating what is good from what is bad, as if humanity is self-evidently all good.
Another problem afflicts the progressive Western ideal of ‘humanity’. It connotes a common condition, a sameness – ‘we are all human beings’ – deliberately homogenising difference. It proclaims a universal condition common to all, and here we find dangers. As the cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter and others point out, this notion of humanity is a very particular Western one – rooted historically in the celebration of European man and the oppression of non-European others.
This is a way to pursue equity not by denying difference, but by honouring it
More deeply, in invoking one common condition, ‘humanity’ requires that Otherness be understood through a vision of Self. In other words, recognising the Other requires processing them through a commonality machine (‘humanity’) that – in order to make sense of difference – must first understand the Other as though they were oneself. The true Otherness of the Other is adulterated through a mediating vision of connection. The emphasis or goal of thinking in terms of commonality brings advantages, namely pacifying any danger that the Other might superficially pose, but it doesn’t help in the pressing problem of recognising and honouring radical difference. Perilously, the ideal of humanity becomes a figurative road roller, flattening the diversity of life and being. Making people seem more the same can help to promote basic rights (such as human rights), but it can also misrepresent the diversity of meaningful experience.
The approach to those figuratively thrown out of humanity, then, is not to attempt to reclaim their membership in a common group whose boundaries are carefully policed in terms of modern ideology, thought and morality. When Western activists reclaim the humanity of distant others, they unwittingly perform a subtle form of violence. To claim that the Other is ‘also human’ quietly reifies the unspoken yet problematic modern assumptions about what constitutes humanity. Rather, the way out of this bind is to respect and honour difference. We can accept that people who identify as gorillas are not ‘also’ human but ‘more than’ human – especially when we understand that the ‘human’ is not a natural but a social ideal. This is a way to pursue equity not by denying difference, but by honouring it; to approach difference with a sense of possibility rather than trepidation or pity.
The legacies of racism and colonialism pressure us to resist ascribing animality to a violent African group living in the wilderness, and to instinctually reclaim their humanity as a way of resisting their barbarisation. But to recast LRA rebels as humans denies the ways in which they transcended the human, taking on the feared traits of wild predators while also living alongside and with the supernatural powers of holy spirits. As gorillas, they were fierce and respected soldier-animals, using the crafty tactics of wise apes to avoid capture by enemy soldiers. As holy warriors, they carried out God’s will while maintaining virtuous lives free of alcohol, adultery and other perceived social ills. Here, we might cautiously agree with civilians that rebels were no longer human – but not because, as civilians thought, they had fallen out of the sacred condition of humanity into a depraved state of animality. Rather, they had transcended humanity to reach extraordinary animal and divine forms of being. Their humanity does not need to be saved; it is a limiting condition they meaningfully surpassed.
There are lessons we can take from the LRA. The next time we decry the imprisonment of Latinx kids at the border without adequate space, food or healthcare as dehumanising, or attempt to defend their humanity, let us remember not only what humanity recognises but also what it erases or obscures. That is, let’s remember why they are there in the first place – even when we are not. If humanity were in fact an adequate barometer of morality, ‘humane’ treatment might consist less of baths and edible food and more of large-scale reparative justice for more than a century of anti-democratic US foreign policy interference in Central American political economy.
When we decry the conditions of children held in cages as dehumanising, are we not replicating a form of thinking that treats them like abused animals – where being ‘humane’ means not letting them sit in their own urine or be infested with lice? To ask that migrants be treated humanely is to claim some very basic forms of equal treatment – access to toothpaste, diapers and medical care, for example. While necessary, these are hardly sufficient to achieve the good – namely, the kinds of justice due after years of imperial, racist, capitalist exploitation that created the violent conditions under which they became migrants.
At the same time, we should be wary of using humanity to positively equate or compare Latinx kids in cages with their white, middle-class American age-equivalents. These caged kids are not also human; they are extraordinary beings, superhumans, having made incredible, dangerous journeys across lands to escape from the ugly margins of capitalism and empire that made them who they are (and killed many of their peers). Whatever commonalities might exist, unequal structural forces have shaped them into radically different and incommensurable forms of existence. They should be respected and recognised, rather than flattened by providing the deceptive material trappings of a basic humanity. Just as a bar of soap or a flu shot does not give them justice, neither does asserting their essential sameness to rich age-mates growing up in the heart of global empire.
Humanity’s abstract universality aims to help us connect to people in very different circumstances, but at the expense of encouraging us to wrongly think of ourselves as like them. At the same time, humanity claims to reach for the good of universal justice, when in reality its claims are shaped by particular Western ideas about justice that have historically oppressed rather than emancipated non-Western others. It might be time to give up on humanity as a byword for emancipation or liberation, and instead call more precisely on what we often ask for in the name of humanity: justice and recognition for those constructed in and deeply marginalised by past and present structures of imperialism, racism, colonialism and capitalism.