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Slavery’s Damage

The BBC is running a good series on slavery [1], current and historic. [Now, 2015, redirects to here [2].] Heartbreaking, but good. One of the headings caught my eye, though, and made me think about the pervasive notion that the damage of slavery is limited to slaves. The evidence doesn’t seem to bear that out. Slaves suffer one of the worst crimes against humanity that it’s possible to commit, but the damage on the other side is like cancer. There’s no obvious pain early on, which is actually a bad sign.

The heading was, “Is slavery still relevant to the lives of young black British people? [3]” I suspect the short answer is, “no.” It’s certainly important, but that’s different. What’s relevant is discrimination now. There’s enough trouble without going back over a hundred years to look for it.

The real question should be, “Is slavery still relevant to white people?” The answer has to be yes, because otherwise young black people wouldn’t have to be worrying about discrimination now.

It’s not even hard to trace the relevance.

Nobody wants to feel like a ratbag. Therefore, when people do hideous things, they convince themselves the victims caused it. That excuse is the counterintuitive, and yet logical consequence of the desperate need to believe in a just world. It’s a well-trodden shortcut to justice: instead of changing actions to be fair, facts are twisted to justify what’s done.

The result is that one’s sense of justice and injustice have to be inverted into a lie. The moral DNA has to be recoded into a different pattern, a pattern that makes it impossible to understand what’s really right and what’s wrong. Slavery is the slave’s fault for being ignorant, depraved, or black. Or, to update it for modern times [4] when 80% of slaves are female or underage, it’s their “culture,” or their weakness, or their docility, or whatever.

Maintaining a lie is a lot more work than taking what reality gives you. Lies require constant repetition to maintain self-hypnosis. They’re not just held, they’re insisted on. It’s the visible manifestation of the moral tumor.

Misunderstanding right and wrong has consequences, and not just that one could fail an ethics class or go to jail. Right and wrong are shorthand for “downstream consequences.” Right actions, even when initially more difficult, yield dividends as time goes by. Life becomes less effortful, happier, and more rewarding. When nobody steals, for instance, everybody can leave their doors unlocked and be spared the worry and expense that comes with burglar bars and triple deadbolt locks. The only real cost is that everybody has to give up the potential short term gain of ripping off other people.

Wrong actions have the opposite effect. Their downstream consequences lead to more difficulty and more fear in a self-reinforcing spiral to hell. Individuals can try to convince themselves that the general rule doesn’t apply to them. However, socially there’s a multiplier effect, and whole societies never seem to escape the consequences of rampant injustice. And that is the real cost of miscasting the meaning of right and wrong.

The big example in my mind is the US South. The Southern whites held slaves. They held slaves after everyone else had gotten it through their thick heads that this was a Really Bad Idea. They insisted on what a good idea it was. That meant they had to make a big deal out of what lazy, shiftless bums the slaves were. (Amazing, after all, that someone who’s been enslaved is not an enthusiastic worker.) In contrast, of course, their own position was due to copious hard work. (I guess getting slaves to slave is hard work.)

(The funniest instance I saw of the mindset was in the rural South, in a spot which will remain nameless. I was talking to a very nice lady whose family owned ranchland with a herd of cattle on it. She was proud of her independence, of making a living by the hard work of ranching, and not too happy about “all these people” who “live on government handouts.” As I talked to her, I heard that she also drove a school bus (government paycheck), and her husband had a Navy pension (government paycheck). The whole village had about five families in it. One of those families had the county mail carrier (government paycheck), another one had a schoolteacher (government paycheck), and the main money in ranching came from conservation easements (government checks). “The feedlots won’t pay nothin these days,” she said. “Can barely pay for the hay for what we make on the cattle.” Needless to say, a subsequent look showed that this county full of sturdy individualists took in a lot more taxpayer dollars than it paid out. In proportion to actual non-government income, the main net taxpayers were the “lazy” agricultural laborers. By their own metric, the whole place should have been closed down for costing more than they brought in.)

Generations have gone by, and the attitudes persist loudly. “I don’t take nothing from nobody.” “Why should those goddamn freeloaders help themselves to my hard-earned taxes?” Don’t help poor mothers because they’re all just slutty welfare queens who have to be stopped from breeding kids. Stop the horror of “socialized medicine” (aka “national health insurance” in the rest of the world) which wastes good money on hypochondriacs who want nose jobs. Meanwhile, quite aside from horror stories about small children dying from abcessed teeth, whole industries (full of hard workers) head into bankruptcy from medical costs. Meanwhile, ten times the cost of prevention is spent on prisons in the modern version of whipping slaves for not playing by the rules. All this is better than admitting there might be something wrong with the idea that everyone deserves what they get.

Now, I’m not trying to say that past slaveholding is the only cause of irrational, counterproductive attitudes. There are obviously other factors. But slaveholding does look like one of the contributing factors, at least based on the similarity of excuses used by slaveholders and those used by their spiritual heirs now. My point is that the echoes of that wrong continue to this day in a thousand mean, small-minded ways. Racism is only one of them. The moral cancer has multiplied into new areas, socially and geographically. The inability to understand what’s wrong means the country keeps doing more and other bad things, which then also have to be insisted on and justified, so the moral sense grows even more perverted, so more bad is done. And so on.

And here we are.

Hell, yes, slavery is relevant. It’ll remain dreadfully relevant — to whites — until they recover their understanding of right and wrong, and see which side they’re standing on.