Sunday, December 20, 2020

Slavery and Following Orders

When one reads the ancient Greek epics - or in my lazy case, reads about them with some selected passages being highlighted - one sees that slavery was regarded as a terrible thing to happen, but not necessarily a generalised moral evil.  If the other country conquered you they took you as slaves if they didn't kill you.  If you conquered them, you did the same. It was seen as a horrible fate, to be dragged off to another land and made to row galleys or work in mines, but there were only hints in the literature that this was an unfair thing.  It was just how things were.  The Hebrew scriptures started putting some dents in that. There were rules about what you could do to slaves, especially if they were countrymen.  This increased over time, and the Roman Catholic Church kept chopping away at what was permitted and what was not.  These seem like small things now, in an era when everyone just KNOWS that slavery is the worstest moral evil ever, especially in America, where it was invented. 

Something similar happened with women's rights, which advanced in some places more quickly than others.  Most places in the world there is still a significant disparity between what women are allowed to do and what men are. But it was step-by step, and occurred first in NW Europe inside the Hajnal Line. Slowly, women could inherit property and own it; women could belong to guilds; women had to consent to their marriages. It is not just a matter of "what we take for granted now," but a complete failure to understand that what we consider morally obvious was morally unknown throughout most of history.

I heard a podcast reference to someone in a situation a little over a century ago "just following orders" to excuse their moral failing. The line was delivered contemptuously, that "we've come to regard that as a ridiculous these days."  Well, maybe it is.  It certainly feels that way to us now.  But it didn't seem so until very recently.  In hierarchical societies, where group survival hung on everyone sticking together and following the leader, "I was only obeying orders" would have seemed sensible for thousands of years. If you didn't obey orders you got killed or the whole group might lose the battle and get sold into slavery. Only much later in history - again, inside the Hajnal line primarily - did the idea of being fully responsible for independent moral action start to become the norm.

It's my usual rule: always be most suspicious of "what everyone knows."


stevo said...

Very thoughtful and interesting. I have often thought that when Jesus spoke of slaves it was just the normal rat race of the day.

james said...

Some slave occupations were lethal--especially mining--which changes the calculus a bit. (And in some places, slaves were first on tap for human sacrifices.)

And there's the curious disappearance of black slaves in Persian lands. The women seem to show up, at a low rate, in the genetic mix, but men seem to disappear. Some were made eunuchs, but likely the mines consumed many of the rest. (It has been a few years, but I can try to find the citation.)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Another change was that raiding for slaves began to be seen as less honorable than conquering for slaves. Not a distinction we would likely make now.

Grim said...

Ancient slavery was also heavily female, so the two things you're talking about overlap. When Troy was conquered, men and all but the youngest boys were killed; women were enslaved.

In part this was because the thing slaves were wanted for changed. Before the cotton gin, slaves were wanted for textile production -- but it was mostly sheep tending, weaving, and so forth. Weaving was women's work almost worldwide (and still is in places). The ability to produce woven and dyed cloth meant a cash commodity, just as after the cotton gin slaves were wanted for a harder manual field work that made male slaves more desirable.

Of course there were eunuchs, and a certain number of people who entered slavery voluntarily (usually because they faced starvation, and accepted the deal of submitting to slavery in return for guaranteed food and shelter). There were a certain number of galley slaves, who of course were men, and had to be kept chained. And there were a certain number of field hands even in the Hebrew days, as we know from reading the Bible. Still, by and large it trended female, which meant that it overlapped with the general sense that women should be subordinate.

ErisGuy said...

People only pretend to be against slavery. Look at the generations (and still counting) people who defended socialism in one country, whether that country was Russia or Cambodia. They were happy with slavery. I had one socialist tell me the USSR’s slavey wasn’t really slavery because no one owned the slaves, like in the Confederacy.

If people were against slavery, they’d be against socialism. it’s that simple. It America slavery means American must be abolished, then socialist slavery means socialism must be abolished.

Sam L. said...

"It's my usual rule: always be most suspicious of "what everyone knows."

Rather like what the last kid on Telephone has to say (WHERE/HOW did THAT come from?????

Mass hysteria, perhaps?

PenGun said...

"People only pretend to be against slavery. Look at the generations (and still counting) people who defended socialism in one country, whether that country was Russia or Cambodia."

Or Canada, most of Europe, in fact almost every first world country in the world. That socialism = slavery is very funny indeed. ;)

Texan99 said...

The "I was only following orders" criticism assumes a knowledge that obedience is criminal, so the excuse is contemptible. Slightly more tolerable is the explanation "I would have been shot dead if I'd refused, and I'm just not that brave; are you sure you are?" Neither of these has any place in a discussion of how people reconciled slavery with their consciences in times and places where slavery was universally accepted, the luck of the draw, something that could very nearly happen to anyone. That goes double when we consider that the dividing lines among slaves, servants, subjects, wives, and children was pretty murky. In a lot of societies not that many people lived a life we'd consider anything like "free."