What Does It Mean to Be Human?
– Speech by Actor and UNICEF Global Goodwill Ambassador Edgar Ramirez at the #HeForShe Second-Year Anniversary
Museum of Modern Art, New York City
September 20, 2016
His Excellency President of Finland,
It is my honor and pleasure to be here tonight as part of this HeForShe Second-Year Anniversary. It is a huge pleasure, because personally, it is a real special night for me. Some of you may know me as an actor, but one of my early career ambitions was to be a diplomat or a politician, so I am definitely getting to live my second dream tonight.
I’d like to begin my remarks by posing a question: what does it mean to be human?
I know this is a big question, and I am sure we all have our own ideas, but I’d like to share my perspective.
During my university days, I was attracted to a number of different fields. To name a few: politics, sociology, journalism and acting. I ultimately became a journalist, and then an actor.
At first sight, they might seem very dissimilar to each other, but looking back, I see a common thread that connected them: a profound fascination with the human condition. I wanted, and still want, to better understand humanity: what motivates us, what inspires us, what makes us do the things we do.
By pursuing acting, I may have chosen the most poetic among these disciplines, but each of them, offers a piece of the truth and partly answers the question: what does it mean to be human? I am able to discover this truth by exploring the nature of my characters and their contradictions. When I approach a role, it is often first with the eye of a journalist. I begin by documenting as much as possible the historical context of a character, the spirit of his time, the events surrounding his life. If my character is based on a real person, which I’ve, you know, done plenty. I hold interviews wherever possible. By posing questions to someone I am cast to play, or to a family member, or to a close friend, or someone who can provide me with a sense of his public perception – I get the first insights into my character’s humanity.
But as an actor, I must go even deeper: I have to go the core of my characters’ feelings. To give an honest performance, I have to fully establish empathy: Acting is nothing but an act of empathy. I have to get inside their emotions, and feel what they feel. And through this process, one of the things I am reminded of over and over is that all people feel and they feel deeply; and all people struggle with their feelings, because feelings inherently exist in contradiction. This is part of what it means to be human.
Our feelings and our contradictions are as human as our blood and our bones. And in the same way that we struggle with our internal contradictions, our society struggles with its own. For instance, how does a being, a person who feels so deeply – as we all do – thrive in a culture that discourages his feelings? That is a reality, and it’s a reality for many people around the world, and particularly acute for men and boys. And I know it well, because I was one of those boys.
In the macho-normative culture that pervades much of the world, little boys are told not to cry. They are taught to suppress their fear, or to turn it into anger. Male adolescents are given the message that their role is to dominate, and that studying art, music or drama is somehow not masculine. Cultural messages about masculinity often involve being tough and disrespecting women. As boys grow into men, they are told that being a man means having power over someone, or being incredibly successful and earning lots of money.
Men are taught, that if we are not the ultimate provider, then we are a complete failure. We have to be No. 1 in everything we do. There is nothing more delusional or more paralyzing than what I just described.
As a student of the human condition and a man in a macho-normative culture, I have seen first-hand that this paradigm sets many men and boys up for failure. To be taught that our sadness and fear, anguish and grief – the very things that make us human – our feelings – are shameful. To be encouraged to suppress our humanity and conform to socially-accepted views of what it means to be a man. To absorb in our skin a version of success that is burdensome, unnatural and excessively competitive.
These distortions come with grave consequences for men, women and societies as a whole. When men lake a healthy way to express despair, or grief or rage, it often turns inward in the form of depression or even suicide. Suicide rates tend to be about three times higher for men than for women. As Emma Watson mentioned in her 2014 UN Speech – in the United Kingdom, suicide is still the greatest killer of men . Yet the discussion of male mental health is completely taboo in many parts of the world.
On the flip side, when men’s un-channeled emotion, particularly anger, turns outward, it is often deadly. Men are much more likely to commit acts of violence, including sexual assault and domestic violence. Some have even postulated that the recent epidemic of mass shootings is related to a culture of toxic masculinity and its unfortunate byproduct – isolation.
It is not my purpose to let anyone off the hook for their actions. Personal responsibility is still paramount. And violence against anyone of any gender is completely unacceptable. But we cannot ignore the role of confining and destructive social norms. Doing so jeopardizes us all.
There has long been a misconception that gender equality is a women’s movement. But gender equality is actually about just that: equality. It is a liberation movement for all genders. It is a liberation movement for each and every person that has ever felt the burden of a gender stereotype, or the pain of discrimination, or the pressure to fit into an uncomfortable mold. And part of this liberation movement requires that we call out and break down these social norms, and barriers to our well-being, so that we may all be free to be our true selves.
In the journey for equality, women and men are like two strands of DNA wrapped together in an embrace. Our burdens are as intertwined as our common destiny. The constraints that burden me will eventually burden you. And the same is true in reverse: as long as you are burdened, I am too. By recognizing this interdependence, I can work for your well-being and know that I am also working towards my own. I can know that whatever action I take to free you also frees me. And this is not just about what makes us human. This is what makes us a human family.
And that brings me back to my original question: what does it mean to be human? While I appreciate how different fields help us get closer to the answer to that question. I am grateful that I pursued acting. It was a truly scary choice at the time. But I am grateful, and I am grateful because my characters have not only shown me human truth, but they have also revealed to me my own truth – my own contradictions.
Acting has taught me to resist labels. I know that my characters are not “good” or “bad” or “strong” or “weak” in the same way that I know that about myself. Their beauty, our beauty, is born out of our contradictions and the blending of light and darkness, and the combination of all of our traits. There’s power in embracing that. There’s power in embracing everything we feel.
Because all human beings display different attributes, in different proportions, at different moments in our lives.
We are all fragile sometimes, and we are all tough sometimes.
We are all sorrowful sometimes, and we are all hopeful sometimes.
We are all afraid sometimes, but we are all brave sometimes.
We are all the darkness, and we are all the light.
These traits don’t make us a man or a woman. They make us human.