Martin Buber and Meryl Streep: What it Means to be Human

what it means to be human

One of my goals this year is to work on a paper to present at an academic conference. I have never done anything like this before, so I am suitably nervous about attempting it. Like last month, where I publicly worked out some of my ideas for a class presentation, I wanted to attempt to do the same this year with some ideas for a paper. This post represents my first reflections and thoughts. And as always, I would love to hear your feedback!

Last night, during the Golden Globes, Meryl Streep gave a speech that has been ruffling some feathers (to say the least). I don’t usually watch events like the Golden Globes, or Oscars, etc., but I did manage to see a video of her speech. Naturally, the mention of reporter Serge F. Kovaleski and Trump’s mocking of his disability grabbed my attention, as someone who writes about disability. I witnessed mixed reactions on Twitter to her speech. Some people with disabilities praised Streep for using her platform and celebrity to raise awareness about persons with disabilities. Others were less enthusiastic and condemned her for perpetuating a subtle form of ableism.

For this second group, the offending passage was this:

There was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good. There was nothing good about it. But it was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it. I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life.

As far as I can tell, there are two things that the second group took issue with. First, the more blatant, is the reference to Trump possessing more privilege, power, and capacity. By suggesting that Trump outranked Kovaleski in privilege, power, and capacity the claim is that this is perpetuating an ableist perspective. One reason this is claimed to be ableism is because of the assumption made on the part of Streep about Kovaleski – that because he has a disability he necessarily lacks the power and capacity to fight back.

The second, and less obvious issue disability rights advocates took with Streep’s speech has to do with her emotional response to Trump mocking Kovaleski. That this incident sunk its hooks in her heart is something many people with disabilities take exception to. The reason? People with disabilities are not objects in need of pity.

At the heart of Streep’s comments, they argue, is the same perception of people with disabilities that she is trying to oppose. For Trump to mock Kovaleski requires a conception of him as less than human. And Streep, instead of affirming the full humanity of people with disabilities, instead starts from that same conception of people with disabilities as less than human and then talks, not of mocking them, but pitying them. It is the other side of the same coin.

While I can understand this position, I don’t necessarily agree. I do agree that ableism is insidious and is often unnoticed. But I don’t think that Streep’s remarks fall into that category for a number of reasons (I am more than willing to share my feelings about this with only the slightest of prompts), but I want to highlight one in particular, and it is the more controversial one.

I believe that, assuming Streep was in fact expressing something akin to pity for Serge Kovaleski, this is a good thing, not just for people with disabilities, but for all people.


I mentioned above that Trump necessarily conceives of Kovaleski as less than human. Which raises the question: what does it mean to be human? This is a question that has preoccupied my life for as far back as I dare remember.

For a number of reasons, the social imaginary we ask this question in usually frames the question in terms of capacity. What makes a human a human is their capacity for language, reason, or self-reflection. Yet, this is problematic for a vast number of people, especially people with profound intellectual disabilities. People like my brother.

Another way of framing this is in terms of substance. We usually think of the self as a substance, something that exists as separate and distinct from other selves. John Cobb describes this as the Cartesian ego, or, “an entity whose existence is prior to any particular experience.” In a recent article he expands on this substance-based worldview and the problems that come with it:

This view logically leads to thinking of a world composed of individual things that can and should be studied apart from their relations with one another. This is, of course, a picture of a material world that operates in deterministic and mechanistic ways. It’s the world as a machine, operating as clockwork.

However, this substance-based worldview is really very remote from our actual experiences. Rather than experiencing ourselves as separate and distinct “things” with certain capacities (reason, language, etc.) Cobb claims that it is events, not things, that are the most fundamental to our experiences.

The approach I advocate is to challenge assumptions that go all the way back—even to the very idea that particles are the most fundamental units of reality. I think “events” are more fundamental than “things.” The event of me typing any of the characters in this sentence now is more fundamental a fact than one of the letters in the sentence. It is the event that is the unit of reality that is irreducible.

The upshot of viewing the world as composed of events rather than things is that it becomes impossible to isolate or separate the event from the world in which it happens. Events are relational:

If we talk about energy as being the most fundamental thing there is, and events as being the only units of reality we ultimately can know, we are immediately describing a world in which everything is related—even, we can say, a world which consists of relationships.

When this event-based worldview is applied to the human realm it has dramatic implications for what it means to be human.


Martin Buber, in I and Thou, begins by stating that humans have two basic attitudes towards the world that can be summed up with two basic words: I-It and I-You. What is remarkable to me about this is it begins with an event-based worldview. For Buber, when you “say” I (saying I and being I are the same thing for Buber, hence the quotes) you automatically include in that “I” the -It or -You: these cannot be separated; saying I implies -It or -You necessarily. Molly Haslam describes the difference between these two basic words:

[Buber] identified two modes of discourse, or “words,” that reflect the two basic attitudes that human beings take or movements they make in relation to whomever or whatever she or he meets. The first movement, “bending back to oneself,” develops into the attitude where the Other exists as a value-neutral object for the projects of the self. The word reflecting this basic attitude is what Buber called I-It. The second movement, “turning toward the Other,” develops into the attitude in which the Other is valued for itself and is allowed to put its own claim on the self. The word reflecting this basic attitude is I-You*.

There is a lot more to both of these basic words, but the point I want to draw attention to here is that the I-It relation presumes a substance-based worldview, where the other is an “object of detached perception and experience… as it were an It for itself, something previously unnoticed that was waiting for the new relational event,” as Buber puts it.

The I-You relation, on the other hand, presumes an event-based worldview:

[The I-You] appears simultaneously as acting on and as acted upon, but not as if it had been fitted into a causal chain; rather as, in its reciprocity with the I, the beginning and end of the event.

In other words, the immediacy of the I-You event is missed when the other becomes an object for reflection, one that is fitted into my past understandings of other objects. This type of reflection and detached observation is characteristic of the I-It relation.

So to enter into the I-You event, where the other is valued for itself, there is a certain immediacy required. Haslam also points out that this event can only happen in an embodied way:

Preceding their separation through reflection, the I and Thou encounter one another in temporal and spatial immediacy, body-to-body and face-to-face, with awareness of the sheer presence of the Other.

Only through encountering the body and face of the other can we enter into the event of the I-You relation. This is not something that can be done abstractly, it cannot be imagined or projected – that is the substance-based realm of I-It. Rather, only in an actual, physical, and embodied encounter with the other can the I-You event occur.


Coming back to Meryl Streep and Serge Kovaleski, I want to try and make a (brief) case for pity. Whether or not Streep was expressing pity for Kovaleski is not something I’m able to know. My point in bringing it up is to respond to those who do believe that in her statements Streep was (unknowingly, perhaps?) perpetuating ableist attitudes towards people with disabilities in general, and that they come from a place of pity more specifically.

I know this is a controversial topic – many people, not just persons with disabilities, detest pity. And as I have written elsewhere, I have mixed feelings about it, too. Yet, I cannot help but believe pity is an important aspect of human relation.

More than being an important aspect, I believe that it is, perhaps, the essential path of entering into the I-You event. Like I mentioned at the beginning, this is a work in-progress. Keeping that in mind, here is my case (so far) for why I think feeling pity for another, whether they have a disability or not, is vital to being human.

There are two parts to this, the first being a description of why I believe pity is an essential path to the I-You event, and the second being an explanation as to why that is essential to what it means to be human.

First, I want to recall Charles Taylor’s description of Ivan Illich’s use of the Good Samaritan parable:

The Samaritan is moved by the wounded man; he moves to act, and in doing so inaugurates (potentially) a new relation of friendship/love/charity with this person. But this cuts across the boundaries of the permitted “we’s” in his world. It is a free act of his “I”. Illich’s talk of freedom here might mislead a modern. It is not something he generates just out of himself; it is that he responds to this person. He feels called to respond, however, not by some principle of “ought”, but by this wounded person himself. And in so responding, he frees himself from the bound of the “we”.

Compare this to Buber’s description of encountering another:

When we walk our way and encounter a man who comes toward us, walking his way, we know our way only and not his; for his comes to life for us only in the encounter. Of the perfect relational process we know in the manner of having lived through it our going forth, our way. The other part merely happens to us, we do not know it. It happens to us in the encounter. But we try to life more than we can if we speak of it as something beyond the encounter. Our concern, our care must be not for the other side but for our own, not for grace but for will. Grace concerns us insofar as we proceed toward it and await its presence; it is not our object. The You confronts me. But I enter into a direct relationship to it. Thus the relationship is at once being chosen and choosing, passive and active.

There is a decisive action being described here, and action that was not taken by the preist or the Levite, but by the Samaritan. It is only by freely answering the call the other demands of us that we can enter into the I-You relation. What I want to point out is that it is the pity the Samaritan has for the wounded man that moves him to act. It was pity that led to the encounter. Not empathy nor sympathy, but pity.

The second issue is explaining how the I-You event is essential to what it means to be human. Turning again to Buber:

The human being to whom I say You I do not experience. But I stand in relation to him, in the sacred basic word. Only when I step out of this do I experience him again. Experience is remoteness from You. The relation can obtain even if the human being to whom I say You does not hear it in his experience. For You is more than It knows. You does more, and more happens to it, than It knows. No deception reaches this far: here is the cradle of actual life.

Just as events are irreducible, as opposed to things, here the I-You is irreducible – it is the “cradle of actual life.” Not through experience (which is the realm of things, of I-It) but only through relation, through encounter with the other, can I come into being. As Haslam puts it:

… we must realize that it has noting to do with the existence of things in isolation from each other. It has to do rather with our existence as persons, which occurs simultaneously in the event of meeting, in mutually responsive relations in which I effects [You] and [You] effects I… both the I and the [You] come to be on account of the Other.

In other words, we are human so long as we are in relation. The defining characteristic of humanity is not our capacity for reason, language, or self-reflection – it is relationality. I come into being through the event of relating to the other, and vice versa.

Now, part of the work ahead of me is to reclaim the word pity. It has a lot of baggage, which is no doubt why it is rejected by many disability rights advocates and people with disabilities. Nonetheless, I believe pity is essential to our human experience. For if pity is an essential way to enter into the I-You, and the I-You relation is how we understand what it means to be human, then we cannot abandon pity lest we deny our humanity.

*Haslam actually uses I-Thou here and elsewhere. I have changed it to I-You throughout for consistency and clarity.

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