Humanity's Oldest Industry
I have a question that I would like for you to keep in the back of your mind as you read this article: Are you free?
In my intro to this website, I shared that the focus of Wednesday posts would be social justice and that the central obstacle to achieving a more free and equitable world would be the albatross of 'slavery'. I defined 'slavery' as, "anything that violates an individual or community's agency." This definition is so foundational to future posts that we need to take some time here to unpack its meaning and various expressions.
The short Wikipedia article linked above is worth the few minutes it takes to read. It defines 'agency' as, "the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices." 'Capacity' in this definition is meant to refer to one's "mental or physical ability" to make their own choices. (When you have a moment, check out this article as well on 'agency' in the field of sociology.)
two forms of slavery
Trust me, it is not lost on me that as I discuss slavery I do so as someone who comes from a majority ethnic heritage that is responsible for the literal physical enslavement of entire minority populations. Note that I said "is responsible", not "was responsible". I will return to this in future posts. However, the blunt historical example of the African slave trade on through to the Jim Crow Laws and eventually the Civil Rights movement of the 1950 and 60's is usually the reference point for most Americans when they are talking about slavery. I honestly cannot begin to fathom the humiliation and horror of those who experienced this form of slavery. In future Rage Against the Machine posts, we will certainly identify present-day expressions of this form of oppression and strategize on how to fight these injustices.
But note that 'mental...ability' was also a key capacity in agency. The second form of slavery is a cognitive incarceration in which an individual's or community's agency is violated without ever having realized it. It's a slave camp populated by the hopeless ("That's just the way it is") or by those who have been conditioned to being content with so much less than what could and should be theirs (i.e. a caste system). Those in power (whether in government, industry, religious institutions, etc.) preserve their wealth and position by ensuring that those being subjugated continue to have inaccurate and/or limited knowledge. This all but guarantees that the options from which the masses can 'freely' choose will never result in upsetting the established order. This is what the 19th-century French political scientist and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville , called "soft tyranny" or "soft despotism", or what I will refer to as 'soft slavery'. In future posts we will be identifying examples of this more subtle form of slavery and ways we can challenge the systems that support them.
One thing that hard and soft slavery have in common is that in both cases those who are subjugated are dehumanized and then reduced to a mere commodity. So as 'Deep Throat' said in All The President's Men, we will often "Follow the money" when examining systemic social injustice.
empathy for 'masters'
Lastly it is very important to remember that an addiction to power and position is itself a form of slavery. In his first century letter to the church in Rome, the Apostle Paul reminded them that those who were "free from righteousness" (i.e. they weren't living rightly) were in fact "slaves to sin" (Romans 6:16-20). If you have been a human being long enough, you have, like me, played the role of both tyrant and freedom fighter. Let's not embrace the same cruelty and dehumanize the current Masters, lest we forget our own history and common humanity. Rather, let us lovingly oppose the oppressors and remember that they, like us, need to answer a variation of the question we started with: Are we free?