Thursday, November 11, 2010

On Condemnation

200 Years ago, the idea of slavery had many defenders: it was seen as biblically endorsed, blacks were assumed to be inferior, and it was the basis for an entrenched economic system. A combination of high and low rationales made it seem like a permanent feature of our society. Today, anyone who would endorse anything that bears the faintest resemblence to slavery would be hounded out of public life.

This evident truth occurred to me when reading a recent post by Ta-Nehisi Coates, titled, "On Improvement". He talks about some of the flaws inherent in humanity, and whether we can ever wash away the dark spots on our collective soul. He starts, innocently enough, by speculating on why we so enjoy football:

Have we created institutions which look unseemly, but actually are addressing some deeply-felt need? In relation to football, what if we--as humans--have a need to vent aggression, even if only vicariously? And what if we do this through other people who will be richly rewarded for their sacrifice, but will also suffer tremendously?

He goes on to speculate why some people persist in holding seemingly ludicrous beliefs and seeking out sources of information that reinforce them, for example those who cling to the 'Obama-is-a-Muslim' theory. He then concludes:

I confess that I have not fully worked this out, yet. I guess I'm just wondering the extent to which we've crafted our own chains. How much of this is just who we are? How much of it can be improved and reformed?

Coates doesn't touch on what I would consider the most obvious explanation: that our sinful human nature constantly tempts us down crooked paths that make us feel good, or make our lives easier, or help us avoid standing out from the crowd. To return to slavery, think about the ways that institution rewarded southern whites 200 years ago:

1) It enriched them. (we could probably stop right there, but wait, there's more!)
2) It gave them absolute power over someone else.
3) It helped them fit in, by not condemning something the richest, most important members of their community were all doing.
4) It gave them a clearly defined sense of the enemy (both the slaves and, perhaps more importantly, northern whites who were butting in.)
5) It provided a clear social hierarchy, and ensured they would never be at the bottom of it. (This is why, I'd guess, so many poor whites who owned no or few slaves were so adamantly against abolition, and explains some of the nostalgia for the Confederacy that still exists.)

I'm sure I could go on, but the point is that slavery was deeply embedded in the psyches and the relationships of the people in the southern states, and thus required major the application of powerful forces to tear it out.

Now, the interesting thing is that I could build similar lists for social causes championed today by both the left and the right. Does not abortion give the woman absolute power over the unborn child? Does not condemnation of gay marriage clearly define the enemy for conservatives? The question is whether as a society we will ever come to see abortion-on-demand or denying gay couples the right to marry in the same way we now regard slavery: that is, as a stain, something abhorrent.

One final thought. If it is true that societal ills have their root in human sinfulness, then we can expect changes in social structures, technology, and government to change what evils we tolerate, but not that some evil will be tolerated by large swaths of what we generally call decent people. An example: in the 1960's, television brought images of the civil rights struggle into every American home, making it impossible for people to ignore the plight of blacks the way they had for a century. At the same time, the contraceptive pill and improved surgical techniques made it possible, for the first time, for women to seperate sex from childbirth. Both technological changes created the impetus for major social changes: I would argue one for the better and one for the worse. One could imagine, say, a technology that allowed a fetus to develop in an artificial uterus after a few months of pregnancy, along with increased concerns about population declines in western nations, to change the societal calculus again.

A society's morals are not static, nor should we assume blindly that all changes are for the better. But we should hold out hope that we can learn an improve. Often, the sign of our progress is marked by those old practices which are now so widely condemned that (we hope) they will never curse us again.

No comments:

Post a Comment