Thursday, February 17, 2011

Slaves And Servants

Reading Bryson’s At Home, I endured an uncomfortable section describing how hard was the life of a many London servants in the 19th C – how lengthy the hours, how unreasonable the demands, how precarious the employment. I wondered how civilised people in fairly modern times could treat other human beings that way.

They were treated even worse than that, of course, as slavery existed in the first half of the century in many parts of even the Anglosphere. (Still does, even here sometimes, as the good people at Not For Sale remind us.) If slavery can be tolerated, then one would hardly balk at mistreating servants. Or to take that in the other direction, once one has swallowed serfdom, or enclosure laws, or whipping servants for minor infractions, it’s not such a jump to tolerate slavery – especially when one can point to house slaves or individual manors or better regions where the difference may not be so great. Each set of brutalities grants permission for the others. (Hmm, there’s a sermon about the progression of sin.)

We think ourselves mentally far apart from some evils because we don't encounter people who think them unremarkable - they are not public or general, so we think them nonexistent and wonder how societies shrugged them off so easily. Some sense in that. Evil that is rationalised at a societal level rather than as an individual exception has something worse about it.

Yet gradualism can stretch in both directions. The life of a servant in a country house was at times even worse than that of their London counterparts. But as their season of intense labor could last only the three months of the year when the family was in residence, slowing to a more relaxed, even boring pace the rest of the year, it’s not very different from moderns who work 100, 120-hour weeks during peak seasons – in tourist or agricultural industries, for example – with insanely demanding bosses or customers.

I’m not reaching for any grand philosophical point here, comparing galley slavery to small tourist hotels, or defining bright moral lines in the treatment of others. I’m just noting that most people in history have had hard lives and not much respect.

1 comment:

james said...

"We think ourselves mentally far apart from some evils"

When I attended Little Rock Central High for a year (long ago) I took advantage of a "teach high schoolers how to make a movie project" and worked on a documentary about the integration of LRCHS (*). We went through the archives, and were duly horrified at the racist calling cards and speeches; but we also watched some footage of protestors and I had a little epiphany of sorts. The folks I was watching were no better, and no worse, than the folks I saw on the streets outside. The only real difference was what sorts of evils were fashionable and accepted. Overt racism of that '57 sort (from whites anyway) was almost unthinkable in '72. But in '57 it was almost unremarkable in that town.

Which led me to wonder what sorts of unremarkable evils we were tolerating ourselves. In the years since I think I figured out a few...

(*) Project Tiger. Not much on Google beyond an English Journal pep piece and an odd note of mine. If it happened before the Internet, it didn't wholly exist, right?