The recent discussion of the issue of slavery, sparked by the Charlottesville protests and President Trump’s typically atrocious handling of its aftermath, comes at a time when race, and many other matters of identity, have become the key battlegrounds along which political red lines have been drawn.
Such issues, particularly around sensitive, often deeply personal, matters of identity, underscored by a sense of moral urgency bordering on panic, can stoke the kind of virulent, uncommunicative and deeply hyperbolic discourse that makes discussion – and resolution – far less likely. The stage, it seems, is always being set for conflict as every discussion escalates to an acrimonious crescendo of bad-faith recrimination.
Which isn’t always the best environment for clear thinking.
Luckily, most people seem to agree that the Transatlantic Slave Trade was not just wrong, but morally shameful. But despite this rare common ground, there remains great disagreement about the lengths to which we should be prepared to go, as a society, to acknowledge the atrocities of the past and make sufficient reparations.
Many believe we haven’t gone far enough and would like to see more statues and monuments either removed or appropriately contextualised, to reflect the scale of the crime. Others, while in agreement that slavery was, in hindsight, a shameful practice, also believe the current levels of ‘white guilt’ around the issue borders on self-flagellation.
Despite being widely associated with the United States, Europe and UK, slave labour is a practice in which every major civilisation has engaged.
Evidence of slavery predates written records and, as the first civilisations emerged, it became institutional. The Code of Hammurabi (c. 1760 BC), ruled it punishable by death to attempt to free a slave. The Old Testament refers to slavery and even contains specific instructions for slave owners. What we may glean from this is that slavery, throughout human history, was not widely regarded as immoral.
Today, many of us feel very sure of what the important issues are and where the moral red lines should be drawn. This surety is the basis of almost all disagreement; assailing our opponents is not simply a matter of opinion but one of deep, urgent, moral import. But what if this surety is, itself, a trap that will later be sprung by history, in the distant future when today’s noble intentions are re-contextualised as shameful and immoral?
Perhaps it will be the practice of keeping social animals in captivity for entertainment? In a world where animals have rights, one can only assume they will continue to be enfranchised until the day where holding them in captivity for entertainment will seem unthinkable – evil even.
Maybe it will be the fact we allowed refined sugar to pervade the food chain? Given our understanding of the dangers of such a commodity, it’s not a big leap to imagine a time when sugar will become a controlled substance, like alcohol. Could parents one day be retroactively prosecuted for using it to bargain with their unsuspecting children?
What we can say with certainty is that there are aspects of our current thinking and behaviour that will either be restricted, outlawed or frowned upon in future – perhaps even within our own lifetimes.
Shout it out
It may well be the domain of our human social instincts, and how they find expression in modern life, through the adversarial fields of politics, religion, sport and social media, that will be held in low regard by future societies. People may even look back on us, in much the same way we look back on our primitive ancestors; viewing our behaviour as cruel, short-sighted, backward, self-serving or morally defective.
Imagine, for a moment, that the current escalation in the acrimonious rhetoric we see all round us, on social media and in politics, led to some form of global unrest which resulted in armed conflict. Imagine this led to a massive loss of life, or breakdown in order, and became, in historical terms, a defining human catastrophe. It’s likely that more socially evolved people of the future, having learned from our mistakes, may look back on us with contempt for allowing things to deteriorate so rapidly. From their vantage point in the future, with the benefit of hindsight, they may struggle to understand why we couldn’t see the doomsday train hurtling down the tracks.
Meanwhile, in the present day, we see the conflicts in which we are engaged as complex and nuanced. It’s moral certainty that propels us into our next conflict. The notion that we may be unwittingly behaving in a way that will one day be regarded as shameful seems far-fetched. But should it?
With the passage of time, our collective inability – refusal even – to try and see the merit in opposing arguments, to understand why people disagree with us and the impulse to hastily ascribe malign intent to them as a result, may not be looked on too fondly by the socially evolved societies of the distant future. Our best intentions may, instead, appear destructive and thoughtless.
With regards to the recent debate about how best to acknowledge the role slavery plays in our national history, it’s correct that we confront the truth: harm was done, the social effects of which are wide-ranging and long-lasting. There can be no debate about this. But part of that truth may be also mean acknowledging a certain level of complexity about how these events came to pass and the fact there aren’t always clearly defined villains – as much as we’d like there to be.
Yes, no doubt there were many who not only profited from slavery but who also took pleasure in the domination of slaves. However, for many, either actively or passively involved in the practice, I suspect it felt, to some extent, like an everyday thing. How could it not, given the practice was institutional around the world and had been for millennia?
This principle may extend to many other areas of life and, indeed, history. Often, ethical norms are applied retroactively, with a sense of surety that may not always be appropriate. We often view past events from a privileged vantage point; operating from an assumption that history’s transgressors acted with perfect knowledge. This is naïve and overly-idealistic.
It’s possible for people to believe you are behaving ethically and responsibly, perhaps even acting in the public good, while playing a role in some wider atrocity.
Then there’s the other pitfall of moral certainty itself, when we elevate ourselves above the ‘other’, based on an assumption that, had we been the one’s faced with the dilemma, we’d have known precisely what to do. But we only need to examine the basic truths of our own lives, to which we all turn the occasional blind eye, to know this is delusional.
How many of you were smacked as children? Have you ever smacked a child yourself? One day, such a crime may be looked upon in much the same way we view other forms of child abuse. It all depends on which moral trajectory society takes. What about smoking in public places, tossing litter in the street, illegally purchasing drugs or not recycling your rubbish? These may seem like silly points, but depending on the moral trajectory of society, such seemingly inconsequential ethical lapses may one day be ‘contextualised’, by moral experts of the future, as the germinal events that led to some atrocity, disaster or industrial-scale crisis – for which we will be held directly responsible.
Then there are those aspects of our individual behaviour that we already know are wrong but carry on regardless anyway. Think about purchasing some Starbucks, Coca Cola or clothes from Primark; largely divorced from the litany of ethical transgressions we’re committing merely by doing everyday things. We know, in the back of our minds, there’s something wrong. We sense, vaguely, that our quality of life is directly linked to someone else’s exploitation, but we forgive ourselves the transgression because the matter is, ostensibly, so complex as to be out of our hands. How many of the people who were demanding the removal of statues in Charlottesville, filmed the protests on their I-Phones? Technology which is made affordable thanks to cheap labour.
But that’s different, isn’t it?
What about homes and factories built using asbestos, toxic talcum powder used on babies, thalidomide which caused foetal deformities? There was a time when it wasn’t so obvious how harmful these things were.
Not long ago, it was deemed morally acceptable for teachers to physically assault children for bad behaviour. Not long before that, those same children weren’t even guaranteed an education and were more likely to be found up a chimney than they were in a classroom. Not even a century ago we were still locking the mentally ill in asylums, many patients later lobotomised or electric shocked.
The moral landscape is ever shifting. If our true motive, when casting a critical eye through events, is to learn from them, then we must also take into consideration the ethical context in which they took place. By striving to think more carefully in this regard, we may gain deeper insight, not only into the blind eyes that were turned to immoralities of the past, but also, crucially, into our own collective and individual proclivity to engage in the very same behaviour today.
It begs the question: are the people of the past as directly culpable for their actions as we often like to imagine they are? Sure, their actions – or inaction – culminated in atrocities like slavery, but can we be so sure that they took part in such events knowingly, or go even further and ascribe malign intent? Doesn’t this push us further from the truth?
What if the lesson we need to take from history has more to do with locating our humility in an age of moral certainty and recrimination? After all, the statues around our city centres, commemorating what we now regard as shameful acts of human exploitation, were once proud symbols of human progress. Is it not naïve to think the same thing won’t happen to us?
There is every chance that the strident, morally certain progressives of the future will look at us in much the same way we look at the slave owners. And much the same way the slave owners looked at the slaves; less than, unevolved inferiors.
Main image: Glasgow’s Ingram Street named after tobacco baron Bob Hall CC BY-NA
Slaves of Gen Thomas F Drayton By Henry P. Moore (American, 1835 – 1911) (1835 – 1911) – photographer (American) Details of artist on Google Art Project [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Illustration from the book: The Black Man’s Lament, or, how to make sugar by Amelia Opie. (London, 1826) via Wikipedia