“We’re all human” is, we hope, a common attitude. It stems from empathy and solidarity – the idea that, despite our differences, we are all the same.
However, whilst it seems like a positive attitude on the surface, the well-intentioned “We’re all human” is more complex than this. It has a darker underside of erasure. Used improperly, the suggestion that everybody is the same can be used to minimise problems that are faced by particular communities under the guise of common humanity.
Examples of this can be seen in responses to attacks on a range of oppressed social groups. It can be seen in the All Lives Matter response to the Black Lives Matter movement, and in the need for a #YesAllWomen reaction to #NotAllMen -a hashtag which was initiated after a man instigated a mass shooting in Santa Barbara due to a lack of sex from women. Now, it can be seen in the aftermath of the horrific homophobic attack in an Orlando club.
Take a recent television interview about the Orlando attack, whereupon journalist, activist and LGBT person Owen Jones stated, “It is one of the worst atrocities committed against LGBT people in the Western world for generations, and it has to be called out as such”.
The immediate response to this statement was, “Well it’s something that’s carried out against human beings isn’t it”. Later, when Owen attempted to reiterate, “This has to be called out for what it is. It was an intentional attack on LGBT people”, the interviewers again responded with “On the freedom of all people to try and enjoy themselves”, (italics added).
In this case, the worst LGBT attack in the Western world for generations is being dismissed with “We’re all human” rhetoric. The intention of the reporters was not to show empathy and share in the grief of this attack, but to dismiss the fact the attack was targeted against LGBT persons specifically.
As such, we cannot use ideas of common humanity uncritically. There needs to be some balance between “We are all people” but also, “We are not the same, and that is to be celebrated. Because we are not the same, I will listen to your struggles, which may be different from mine.” That is, being the same and being different are not mutually exclusive.
There are lessons to be learned here – not just about social injustice, the links between prejudice and violence, and how not to conduct oppressive media interviews, but also about how professionals can work with people who are from such oppressed groups. Particularly, such wider societal issues have relevance to mental health.
Firstly, we can evaluate the extent to which we consider people’s distress in wider context. People’s social circumstances have a significant impact on mental health. Especially when we are working with ethnic minorities, women, LGBT+ individuals, and other such persons, we must consider why that person may be in distress, in addition to what is troubling the person at that time.
For example, if an LGBT person has beliefs that strangers are out to hurt them, how ‘delusional’ can we call those beliefs? If an unemployed Black man experiences moods of anger and intense need to act, followed by periods of deep sadness, to what extent do we attribute this to faulty brain chemistry? If a new mother in financial debt feels helpless, can we suggest this is down to rumination and negative thought patterns?
Taking these factors into account can help us to keep a person’s lived experience at the heart of our mental health interventions. It may also support professionals to maintain hope, because interventions can be realistic and appropriate to a person’s circumstances. A psychotherapist, for example, may realise that connecting with Social Services or getting in touch employment support is a key factor in recovery – rather than feeling that the therapy is failing if things are not changing.
Secondly, we should bring people together and empower them through common experience. Examples of this include Recovery Colleges, whereby educational courses about wellbeing are co-created and co-facilitated by peers with lived experience of mental health problems, ‘sober bars’ for people with prior alcohol addictions, and supporting people with learning disabilities to go to parties, festivals and clubs. Sometimes, hearing a “me too” from someone in similar circumstances can be a powerful intervention in of itself. Where safe spaces have been compromised, new spaces need to be built and existing spaces reinforced.
Finally, we can use common humanity to engage and connect with others. As professionals, perhaps there is a role for being an ally, and acknowledging the limitations of not having lived experience of a particular thing. One powerful way to honour our shared personhood is to say: “I am not the same as you in this respect, and I also stand by you”. Professionals could, in this vein, engage in campaigning for change at a wider level. For social groups which experience high levels of violence, wouldn’t preventing the violence in the first place be the best intervention?
These concepts fit into a less well-known psychological approach called liberation psychology. By bringing people together in dialogue, we can encourage them to take action to address their social situation. By being alongside people, we can offer our support and potentially our power. And, by speaking out, we can help to change the social world within which we are all trying to get by.
We cannot change the atrocities which happened in Orlando. At the same time, we cannot shrug off social responsibility for collectively supporting a culture of violence against LGBT persons with our silence. Yes, we are all human. But no, not all humans are treated equally. Let us tap into that common humanity and stand by those who have been affected – without erasing the reality.