What Makes Us Human? Essay

Bri and Jeremy Vine - Debating
Bri and Jeremy Vine – Debating

This was an unusual brief – “Write 700 words on the subject of what it is to be human … and read it live on air, on Radio 2”.

Then answer questions on basically the story of my life. I kinda said “yes” before I had time to question it … and hurriedly wrote my piece a couple of days before. In fact, I knew it was too long, and I just let them edit it down to the required length.

I’m usually more careful and controlling than that! But life is insanely busy here, and they seemed like a good lot. I think my trust was entirely justified – Jeremy Vine had handsomely done his homework, and has a great background of knowledge anyway, and his style seemed to be penetrating without being destructive.

OK. Here’s the piece – re-transcribed by Jen. [We hope to add transcript of the interview that followed. See also on Youtube.]

By the way, thanks for all the great comments you already sent me, folks. I was amazed, actually … because I thought some of what I was saying might seem on the edge. In fact there seems to be a lot more awareness out there than I realised, of how decency in this country is being eroded.


13 May 2013
and featured in The New Statesman Magazine 13

May 2013


Question – What Makes Us Human?

BRIAN MAY: Well, we’d have to define ‘Human’, wouldn’t we?  Apart from the trivial meaning of pertaining to a member of the homo sapien species, the word is usually used in two ways, which are relate.  The first wa: characteristic of people as opposed to God, animals or machines, especially in being susceptible to weaknesses, for example “They’re only human and therefore mistakes do occur”.  The second definition is: characteristic of people’s better qualities, such as kindness or sensitivity, for example: “The human side of politics is getting stronger”.  Well that would be nice.

These definitions are straight out of Apple’s dictionary and probably typical.  So here we see the qualities, which we hope are to be found in us and it’s noticeable that they’re not the qualities of accumulating riches or power, or dominating what surrounds us.  On the contrary, the qualities, which we instinctively make us special as a race are the opposite of what so much of the world actually strives for.

We apparently admire vulnerability, consciousness of our own weakness and consideration of other beings around us – being human.

So it doesn’t take 700 words to define what makes us human.  By common consent it’s “kindness”.  But if this the common perception of what’s to be proud of in human behaviour, why is it that when we look around we see the very opposite?  We see decisions made purely on the basis of money or to benefit the careers of those wielding the power.  We see people being cruel to children, to the disadvantaged and to the other creatures with whom we share this glistening, blue planet.  We see people enjoying the pain they can inflict on other beings and vigorously defending their right to do so as a ‘civil liberty’.

It’s almost impossible for me to believe but there are people at this moment working night and day to keep hold of their right to indulge in despicable cruelty.

Once upon a time it was legal to keep black men in chains, to burn so-called “witches” at the stake, to dig out badgers and use them as bait for training dogs to be vicious, to hunt wild animals with packs of dogs, who would literally rip the quarry limb from limb.   All of these things are now illegal, but every day and every night there are teams of people working to bring back blood sports, these inhuman behaviours.  And in fact these people are supported by many rich and powerful people in Britain today.  Some of them are in our Government.

It’s worse than this.  Just as the laws, which protect children from abuse are flouted behind closed doors and time and time again atrocities are exposed, the laws such as they are against wildlife crime are routinely being broken in the countryside.

Law and order has broken down.  Thousands of badgers are now being slaughtered and thrown on the roads.  Many Fox Hunts regularly hunt foxes to death in contempt of the Law, which the present regime is refusing enforce.  The sickening practice of badger baiting is rife and actually increasing.  It appears the inhuman side of humans is winning, but only if we let it.

It’s been said that for evil to flourish, it only takes a few good men to do nothing about it. Perhaps after all the most laughable, simplistic generalisation is true? 

Perhaps there are two kinds of human being? – on the one hand, those that understand that we are all, human and non-human, just animals, and the gift that’s been given to Man is awareness to make the world a kind place for all.  And on the other hand there are those who don’t get it and cling to the idea that Man, or more accurately ‘they’, are the only thing that really matters on this planet and that all other beings – men, women, children and animals – are to be used and abused at their pleasure.

It’s shocking to see, but after the past few years when I’ve been campaigning, I’ve seen so much awful cruelty and so much shining goodness as well, it seems to me that nobody’s mind ever changes.  It seems that the good can never persuade the bad to change, and vice versa.

The amount of wasted effort is enormous and depressing. 

All we can hope for, it seems to me, is a decent, benign, compassionate Government one day, who will outlaw the cruelty of ALL kinds and enforce decent behaviour on those who cannot see they’re doing anything wrong.  That’s been the pattern of progress in the past.  That’s Wilberforce.

But are we human?  Are we a humane race?

Looking around at the world of concrete we’ve created in which the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and the weak get persecuted to extinction, I seriously wonder if we have the right to call ourselves as a reach “Human”.  We have a hell of a long way to go.

JEREMY VINE:  Brian May, thank you. 

Brian and Jeremy Vine
Brian May and Jeremy Vine – at BBC Radio 2

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