STEFAN KELLER — Staff Writer
If you were to see a person pushing a shopping cart through the street of downtown New Haven, you would probably describe them as a homeless person. If you saw a person in a wheelchair, you may be inclined to describe them as a disabled person. If we were to see a person on the news that was arrested for a crime, you would likely describe them as a criminal. Notice how in the first two examples the words “disabled and homeless” precede the word person, and in the final example person is removed completely from the description.
Now, this is not necessarily a gripe about the choice of wording, but the meaning behind the wording we choose to use. Words themselves carry no inherent meaning. They are human creations, but the meaning we add makes them powerful symbols. For example, when we use the wording “homeless person” we are preceding the fact that person we are speaking of is a human being with a temporary, and in this case socially negative, condition. This choice of wording invokes a feeling of separateness between that person and us. We can say “that person is homeless and I am not” and feel as if we are in a totally different, disconnected world from them.
While it is true that each of us carries with us our own set of thoughts, feelings and life experiences, we all have many similarities as well. Taking the example of the person who is homeless, the two of you may live in the same community, attend the same university, or work for the same employer. There are so many ways your lives may be connected. Even if they are not connected in any of these ways though, you are still connected by the common bond that threads us all together: the fact that we are all human beings.
Even society tends to ignore the humanness of people. We speak of social problems such as homelessness, poverty, racism and educational inequality, and we group people into impersonal categorizations such as the homeless, the poor, the middle class and the underemployed. None of these words indicate whether they are referencing actual people or simply faceless groupings.
So what does being human mean? Technically speaking, it means belonging to the species Homo Sapiens. However, on a more personal, less scientific level, I would argue that being human includes our physical, emotional and intellectual selves. It brings with it a certain level of consciousness and a need for connection and relationships with others. Also, I would argue that being human brings with it a certain level of deserved respect and dignity from others, no matter who we are.
So, what do we do with this knowledge of our shared humanness? As mentioned earlier, it does not necessarily mean we need to change the wording we use. Whether we use the term “homeless person” or “a person who is homeless” it does not change the fact that the person we are describing is homeless. However, no matter the wording, the point is to recognize the shared humanness that exists between all of us no matter how we categorize each other. It is recognizing that each of us brings our own unique experiences to the life that we live and that no categorizations should make anyone more or less human.
We all stand on an equal playing field and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. Yes, we need to respect and value the difference and uniqueness in all of us. Nevertheless, no one deserves any more or less dignity and respect than anyone else.
So whenever you cross paths with someone, treat them with dignity and respect, recognize your shared humanness and appreciate that each of you has your own unique story to tell.