Because I’m now two-thirds of a century old I’m allowed to be a curmudgeon. I don’t say things like, “Why can’t they mow their lawn?!”, but I do ask, “Why can’t my students write in proper English sentences?!” But what I want to curmudge about today is talking heads who don’t think that words matter.

A case in point is the way the word ‘slavery’ is being tossed about as if slavery and kidnapping were one and the same thing. A young Asian women who voluntarily gets on a boat bound for America, even if she pays her passage and her keep once she gets there by turning tricks for her importer, is not a kidnap victim until and unless she attempts to leave her employ and is physically prevented from doing so. And even then she’s a victim not of kidnapping but of unlawful confinement. She would be a slave, whether for sex or otherwise, if and only if, prior to the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, she was kidnapped in Africa, transported in chains to America, and, if she attempted to escape, returned in chains by the state, not unlike a dog on the lamb, to her rightful owner.

That is, slavery is a publicly promulgated and enforced institution, one that, so far as I know, perdures nowhere in the world in the Year of Our Lord 2017. So far as I know, anywhere in the world in the Year of Our Lord 2017, if a victim of a kidnapping or unlawful confinement employs whatever force may be necessary to escape that condition, including, if need be, the killing of her captor, she may have her information ignored, but she will be neither charged nor convicted of any criminal offense.

In the case of a slave, however, under identical circumstances, questions of criminality can’t arise. In some jurisdictions there were constraints on what punishment her owner could mete out to her. In others no constraints at all.

The UN’s overpaid Commissioners of This or of That bethink themselves shocking us and triggering our outrage by telling us that there are so and so millions of people in slavery in the world today. But the more a word is used as a metaphor, the less meaning it manages to retain. What would shock and outrage us is that there are so and so millions of people being kidnapped or unlawfully confined. Sometimes the simple truth does more work than the hype.

It is true, of course, that there are cases, perhaps millions of them, that are for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from slavery. But then the focus needs to be on that indistinguishability. For example, you can turn an unlawful confinement into a lawful one by simply criminalizing the victim’s mere existence. This is what’s been happening with the privatization of the American penal system. Prison owners need cheap labour, and so they lobby with prosecutors to send them more convicts, who lobby in turn with the police to up the number of charges laid. But notice that this one thing in America that is akin to slavery is the one thing these talking heads take pains not to associate with slavery.

Much of the current rhetoric about slavery hangs on the dual notions of diminished voluntary capacity and unreasonable incentive. A sex trade worker who is addicted to heroin is, in a very real sense, unfree to say no to her pimp. And a struggling biochemist with a family to feed is, in a very real sense, unfree to say no to a lucrative salary from Big Pharm. So they’re both, in a very real sense, unfree. But if all it takes to be a slave is to be in a very real sense unfree, then there are few of us who are not slaves, and then slavery loses its meaning. Not unlike the words ‘genocide’ and ‘terrorism’, once the use of these words are expanded beyond all recognition, as in ‘cultural genocide’, or ‘cyber-terrorism’, they cease to mean anything at all. And the like is now happening with the reprise of ‘slavery’.

David Hume opined that reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions. Well, that’s the kind of slavery that, pace John Locke, I’m happy to sell myself into.

Categories: Social and Political Philosophy

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