Creating a More Humane Humanities Is Not a “Nice” Thing to Do

Early in my academic training, I was part of a group of women graduate students focusing on issues of white supremacy in our university. In retrospect, I must have been a major thorn in the sides of these strong women who were much more practiced and educated in social activism and structural change. One of the concerns I voiced, which was not well received, was that members needed to feel safe and foster a sense of trusting in each other’s good intentions. That sounds nice. It is nice. But it’s not kind.

Niceness means something like “pleasant” or “agreeable.” When I tell someone that they’re very perceptive for someone of their culture, I may think I’m being “nice.” When I step in when one colleague confronts another by saying they think they’re catering to the racial comfort of white students in the classroom, I might be “nice” by stepping in to say that everyone here is trying to do the right thing. When an adjunct tells me that a faculty member has been “mansplaining” her field to her, it would be “nice” of me to tell her that he’s not trying to be sexist, he’s just from another generation. I smile. I move the conversation toward the goal of everyone “just getting along” and being friendly to one another (i.e., the status quo).

Challenging structural racism, sexism, and neoliberalism in academia is not nice. It is rocking the boat, endangering our own and others’ privileges, and disrupting the status quo. And while it is based on our good intentions, it is not pleasant, comfortable, or agreeable. It means having difficult conversations that people will not want to have. It means being vulnerable to blowback and critique, to being subversive or even destructive to unjust systems, and to holding oneself and others accountable to each other for cultivating justice and fairness.

In the context of a more humane humanities, addressing structural inequity requires a courageous kindness, one that is generous and considers the well-being of those on the receiving end of unfairness, working to support their voices being heard, listening deeply, and being present and committed to doing better in the midst of turmoil and pain. A more humane humanities involves caring and building new structures, practices, and cultural norms that may involve giving something up in the service of being compassionate. It is solidarity with those who face injustice in the forms of inequity and cruelty, noting that those who take part, either unconsciously or explicitly, in these forms of harm also deserve compassion. That compassion takes the form of accountability, as meanness and unfairness are destructive to perpetrators as well.

My colleague Yi-Li Wu notes,

Humaneness makes me immediately think of the Confucian concept of ren (仁), sometimes translated as “humaneness.” It connotes the essence of being a moral and virtuous person…. It’s about striving to develop the insight to see clearly what is righteous, and having the strength to fight for and uphold righteousness even at great personal cost. It is rooted in the idea of the transformative power of the moral individual, whose goodness constitutes a force for the betterment of society, as inexorably as water runs downwards.

Justin Ritzinger adds that humaneness involves “the moral imagination 恕 to understand the needs of others.”

None of these goals are nice, but they are kind.

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