Saturday, November 29, 2008

How We Excuse Slavery

I thought you all should know - slavery's alright. Alright, it's "not wrong." Just thought you should know. Clear that up. You know. Because it's okay.

Evolved and Rational (a great blog anyway) has a really good take down of this. Let me give you the basic argument:

Slavery's okay because Christians are supposed to be slaves to God, wives slaves to husbands, and children slaves to their parents. If we try and claim slavery is wrong, then society will collapse because children won't obey their parents and wives won't submit to their husbands, etc, etc. Also, Paul says it's okay and Jesus doesn't say it's not.

Great. I'm going to try to collect myself before the jump...

Okay. Let me see about this. Slavery is wrong - it is a system of abuse in itself - it is not wrong because sometimes owners abuse their slaves, but because the system of relationship is abuse itself. In this way, sometimes a marriage or relationship between people can be abusive in itself. It doesn't require physical abuse. Of course, we've also seen that this woman is perfectly fine with mental abuse.

I'm sorry. I almost threw up a little over that one (another hat tip to Evolved and Rational).

Now, for another perspective, I'm going to turn to Tom Sheepandgoats, a guy I've had arguments with before, but whom I respect a good deal.

Tom argues that we seem to rabidly condemn people from another age, as if we would not have fallen victim to the same ways of thinking. Well, when that's true, it should be argued against - that is an important lesson for any historian. There is a certain leniency that you can grant when you're talking about people's social situations.

Now, likewise, you have to be really careful with that kind of forgiveness - "Oh, it's just their culture" is a dangerous path to tread. I'm not a fan of strong moral relativism, as I've noted before. Tom wants to argue that times were different back then, that we shouldn't condemn the actions of our ancestors because they lived in a different context, and that biblical slavery, as compared to modern capitalist socio-economic divides, wasn't all so bad, and, of course, that there was a voluntary element to it, and that Christians are slaves to God.

Well, first, yes, times were different. I don't condemn people in ancient times for owning slaves. I find it regrettable, but I don't banish them from history or argue that they shouldn't be listened to at all. The extent that I go to is to say: "It's unfortunate that so-and-so held this view on slavery or society, but he's a product of his time, like all of us, and I'm not surprised that he didn't see far past it." Now, another important point that Tom raises is the sometimes voluntary aspect of Biblical slavery - you sell yourself for a period of time to an "owner," you get certain protects, you do your work, and then you're set free.

Maybe this is pedantic, but that's more like indentured servitude. Actually, in some ways, it's more like a contract job. I wouldn't call this slavery, although that is the word the religious would use themselves (sorry, I take an etic perspective). Basically, if you get poor enough, then you can sell your services for a period of seven years, and then he'd be given his hereditary property back. In some ways it sounds like a pretty sweet deal. In some ways, it's a smart move. But...it's not slavery as we understand it, or as was practiced towards non-Jews among Israelite society. That's one of the little things that Tom almost manages to brush away - this is a very specific system of relations among Jews in Israel. These agreements do not hold towards others, like prisoners of war.

Lastly, Tom argues that our solutions to poverty, in fact our modern world, is really much worse off than this agreement was or would be (if we were all Jews...or Jehovah's Witnesses...I'm not really sure). Here's the really interesting part for me. Instead of saying "Man, slavery...pretty bad. Here's an interesting kind-of-like-slavery system in Biblical times, and it's unfortunate that it would ever have to be used, but it works better than modern poverty...maybe we should do something to improve that," we instead get "Modern society is terrible. Even slavery is better. Actually, this form of slavery is actually good, and approved by God. They were better off. It's okay."

That's the interesting twist for me in both of these posts - it's not an argument that people were wrong to practice slavery in their times (although, I'd argue they were, even if they were justified in doing so [Thank you, Jeffery Stout]), but instead it's a rejection of the modern world. It's an argument that whatever was going on in Biblical times was okay and approved by God, and thus it had to be better than the modern world. But this is the scariest part, and where I severely disagree with Tom. In doing this, they perpetuate the systems of thought which make things like slavery and abuse in the name of religion, country, or family okay. They continue to bear the torch of our ancestors and try to bring these ancient systems of practices and beliefs into the modern world. They want a critical rupture in modernity - the breakthrough of ancient paradigms into modern life. It's an extreme form of Romanticism.

And that's the exact problem - the truly religious among us still carry with them and want to enforce ancient modes of thought and social relations. This is not an argument about the glory of "progress" or the "wonderful modern age." We have a hell of a lot of problems today, very serious ones. My argument is simply that arguing from ancient paradigms and trying to return to ancient worldviews and modes of being is not the answer to any of our problems today. In fact, it's a major hindrance. I'm arguing that we should deal with what problems we can, and should be open to all possible solutions, including progressive, forward-thinking ones.

Otherwise, we run into situations like these. Situations in which religious, denialist, or general anti-scientific thinking leads to a real body count. To the suffering and death of children through wholly preventable diseases. These are real world problems being affected and effected by the kinds of thought-patterns I've been discussing. And it's heartbreaking.

Actually, I'm really too tired to get into this in a truly intelligible way right now. Maybe I'll come back to it later. In the mean time, what's your guys take on all this?

General hat tip to PZ for inspiring this all.

5 comments:

tom sheepandgoats said...

Whoa....this Jean woman has 77 comments. How does she do that? I'm envious. Even the atheist fellow has 30-something.

Of course, a lot of them are abusive and/or namecalling which is what the internet excels at. Even so....

Good reasoning on your part Ragoth. You are indeed a worthy adversary and yes, I respect you as well. I'll cobble something together soon by way of reply, but I already owe you one. (which I haven't forgotten)

Ragoth said...

I really wish I knew how to get that many comments or page views. Being linked to by the bigger blogs helps, but how to attract their attention...that's the rub.

And yeah, there is a lot of abuse. Anonymity in the blogging sphere.

Take your time, I've got papers to write in the next two weeks, so I'll probably only be trickling things onto here.

tom sheepandgoats said...

Here's the really interesting part for me. Instead of saying "Man, slavery...pretty bad. Here's an interesting kind-of-like-slavery system in Biblical times, and it's unfortunate that it would ever have to be used, but it works better than modern poverty...maybe we should do something to improve that," we instead get "Modern society is terrible….

Do what? It’s a piece of cake to say we should do something, but do what? With much of the world’s enlightened long intent on “doing something,” what have they come up with? The system described in the Bible is an example of doing something….I’m not advocating it be replicated today …. society is much different….yet many observed (you likened it to a sweet deal) it compares not unfavorably to modern day attempts to address poverty.

Similar thoughts present themselves with regard to “progressive, forward-thinking solutions,” as in:

My argument is simply that arguing from ancient paradigms and trying to return to ancient worldviews and modes of being is not the answer to any of our problems today. In fact, it's a major hindrance. I'm arguing that we should deal with what problems we can, and should be open to all possible solutions, including progressive, forward-thinking ones.

Well, sure, do you think I object to “dealing with what problems we can?” Has no one ever tried to do that before? The question again is, what have people come up with? And who doesn’t like "progressive, forward-thinking solutions?" The question is: what are they? Do we have the wisdom to recognize them? (solutions, that is, not merely forward-thinking ideas) And assuming for a moment that we do, can we gain the consensus necessary to implement such solutions? I don’t think history offers much reason for optimism. It wasn’t long ago that collateralized debt obligations, conceived as a model to spread risk around, was thought to be a progressive forward-thinking solution to the problem of promoting widespread economic growth. Alas, it was merely a forward-thinking idea; it sure wasn’t a solution.

Legal challenges and societal conflicts (in this country) are ultimately determined by how they square with the Constitution. Generally, people think that is a good thing. They don’t complain that it’s “arguing from ancient paradigms,” nor does it preclude “progressive, forward-thinking” solutions. (I grant you, the scriptures are a lot older than the Constitution, still the 1700’s are ancient compared to modern times.) We look to the Bible in this way, the same as a many Americans look primarily to their Constitution for guidance.

An example: In recent decades, significant steps have been taken to abandon the ancient paradigm of monogamous marriage in favor of progressive forward-thinking ideas governing living arrangements. Has society gained overall? I will grant you that these have sometimes resulted in a measure of individual freedom, but the overall effect on society has not been good. Children don’t do too well in unstable environments. Marriage, whatever it’s imperfections, is usually more stable than the aftermath of divorce, and always more stable than the present rage of everchanging sexual partners. For every “Juno” or “Mamma Mia” family out there, in which progressive morality seemingly brings no harm to the child….all matters end in storybook fashion, there are dozens of families which suffer great harm. Even AIDS….you linked to an article discussing AIDS…..would be a non-issue were Bible morality (monogamous marriage with chastity beforehand) observed. Not too bad for an ancient paradigm.

I realize it’s not a complete answer, especially among today’s general society representing many backgrounds. But since it is a model that works when followed, it sure doesn’t make sense to disparage or weaken it. At one time strictures encouraging the marriage model and discouraging divorce were written into society. Scuttling this model in favor of progressive forward-thinking ideas has, for the most part, promoted social chaos.

In fact, the ancient Bible paradigm of marriage even becomes a progressive forward-thinking idea itself with regard to “saving the planet;” something we all want to do. Single parents living separately draw more energy and consume more resources than does a traditional family all under one roof. Thus, contemporaries who express concern over wasting the planet actually advance such waste through progressive forward-thinking lifestyles.

When it comes to governing ourselves, do we really know what the progressive forward-thinking solutions are? It’s axiomatic in most of the West that democracy’s the way to go…it offers the fewest restrictions on our personal freedoms (people love that). Yet George W’s efforts to export it into the Middle East have hardly met with resounding success. Much of South America is moving away from the democratic model in favor of more socialist rule. Communist China is the nation on the rise today, with hundreds of gleaming cities arising from what just a few years ago was barren field. And somewhere…..rats, I can’t find the quote….some long-dead statesman declared that democracy cannot succeed because citizens eventually discover they have control over the public purse, after which they spend themselves into insolvency, a prophesy which has pretty well come to pass in the U.S. today.

In contrast, Plato proposed a society ruled by philosopher-kings. His musings are thought to be too idealistic for practical implementation, yet many in philosophy have thought that model offers a progressive forward-thinking solution. Strikingly, it is this very model, with only minor deviations, that typify the governing arrangements among Jehovah’s Witnesses today. Under this form of government, JWs have succeeded in shunning nationalism (another progressive forward-thinking solution) and thus, in the words of Isaiah (and the U.N.) “learning war no more.”

http://tinyurl.com/57rj3q

Now, as to “And that's the exact problem - the truly religious among us still carry with them and want to enforce ancient modes of thought and social relations.” This is not an argument against God or even religion per se, but only “toxic religion.” It doesn’t apply to Jehovah’s Witnesses. When we visit, we do our best to persuade, to be sure. But we don’t enforce. If people disagree with us, we go away. We don’t afterwards try to legislate our views into law so as to make others live as we do. We thus provide a model for how people with radically different ideas can peacefully integrate into the rest of society. For, most of us (hopefully) will tolerate different ideas (though you‘d never know it from the internet), so long as their propagation is by means of persuasion and not force.

And did you not represent my viewpoint as “an argument that whatever was going on in Biblical times was okay and approved by God, and thus it had to be better than the modern world.”? No. Lots of things in OT times were not “okay,” yet may have been the best option for a given society at a given time and certain point of development. When Jesus was asked about the ludicrously liberal divorce grounds allowed for in then-Jewish life, he said “Moses, out of regard for your hardheartedness, made the concession to you of divorcing your wives, but such has not been the case from [the] beginning.” Thus, there are concessions and temporary measures that aren’t meant to be a template for future generations….they are recorded history, that’s all. When God’s purpose toward humankind, a long work-in-progress that began ages ago, is at last completed, there (again per Isaiah) will be “war no more.” Thus the aspect of slavery that you feel I sidestepped becomes a mute point. But this final paragraph would take some time to develop and I’m not going to do it now. Maybe later.

Ragoth said...

Hey Tom,

I'm really bogged down with work right now, but I wanted to let you know I saw the comment and I'll get back to you as soon as possible. It could take me about a week, depending on how these papers come out. Also, I'm really not in the right head-space to be able to respond thoughtfully right now...

-Ragoth

Erro said...

At any rate, I liked some of the vadlo mouse cartoons!