The social psychology of oppression

Olaudah Equiano, the 18th century African slave whose autobiography became an important part of the anti-slavery movement, is in the news again. This is in part because of a “woke” introduction to a new edition of this book, and also because he was mentioned in the press as heavily featured in the National Maritime Museum’s Slavery gallery, which is to be “de-colonised,” initially in the form of notices in the gallery by the management saying how white supremacist the exhibit is.

I read the book twenty years ago, before the subject of slavery became quite such a hot potato, and it is indeed, as advertised in the title, “an interesting narrative.” I want to begin by re-stating what others have pointed out about the revisionist history now becoming mainstream, which implies entirely falsely that Europeans invented slavery and that the results of their invention reverberate down through the centuries to become the defining driver, it seems, of modern history. The misleading nature of this is shown by the aforementioned introduction to Equiano’s story, which says that he was born in Africa and enslaved in the Caribbean, whereas (to oversimplify) he was enslaved in Africa and freed in the Caribbean. African slavery still reverberates in the present existence of slavery in some African countries.

Equiano is, like John Bunyan, one of those people who become all things to all men, being seen in Wilberforce’s day as a testimony to the moral compass arising from conversion to Evangelical Christianity, and to socialist historians now as someone who sells out his race to capitalism and white supremacy.

For those not acquainted with his story, the bare bones are that he was captured by slavers in West Africa for the local market, and later sold to a transatlantic slave trader, serving on slave ships. Buying his freedom, he became an overseer on a central American slave plantation, became disillusioned by its inhumanity, and returned to England as a successful businessman and convinced abolitionist, for which his conversion was an important factor.

It seems to me that viewing his story through the prism of racial politics misses the most relevant point – that it teaches us about how easy it is to corrupt social human nature across racial boundaries, and how difficult it is to restore it. I will elaborate.

Noting the news items, I returned to browse the story of Equiano’s early life. It is significant that he was the son of a chief man, who took pride in his many slaves, mostly captured in tribal raids. It is clear from the narrative that this raiding/enslaving culture had long been endemic to that part of West Africa, as indeed it was across most of the world.

Equiano and his sister are captured in such a raid when Olaudah is only around eight years old, and his grief at their forcible and permanent separation is well-described. But they are not captured for labour directly, but for trade, and he is sold to a blacksmith, working the bellows and being beaten if he makes errors.

Nevertheless, he describes early in his narrative the relative humanity of the local slave culture compared to the horrors he later sees in the white plantations, for slaves in Africa mostly shared life with the families they served rather than suffer the concentration-camp conditions of the plantations. This is a just contrast.

However, it is also only an individual experience. For on the one hand, conditions in the Arab plantations of Zanzibar (and perhaps in other African contexts where the local industry required it) were no better and perhaps worse than those in Jamaica. On the other hand, a fascinating recording exists of a Confederate veteran of the American Civil War describing how, in his home country, he grew up playing with the household slaves, the slaves being treated as part of the family, if inferiors. Not all Southern slavery involved plantations.

But the psychology is interesting here. Had Equiano not been kidnapped, he would have grown up as a slave-owner, maybe even inheriting his father’s many slaves. And despite, no doubt, each of those slaves having a similar heart-rending story to tell of family separation and suffering, perhaps shared with the free children if they were indeed brought up together, nobody (least of all the owners) felt any compunction to free them. I doubt that Equiano’s father released any slaves as a response to his own lost children. The whole population must have been adversely impacted by slavery, and yet the whole population accepted it.

Indeed, Equiano’s own experience of the violent disruption of his childhood did not lead him to question the institution of slavery, and his own role in it, until much later. And this is the strangest part to me. Slavery is traumatic to all who experience it, even though in many cases I have no doubt the slaves come to accept their lot, and even to respect and love their masters. In Africa, unlike the Southern States, the experience of slavery through tribal skirmishes must have been the experience of most families at some time.

And yet slavery can only continue to exist because the whole free population, and not just the rich plantation owners, acquiesce in it. As a blacksmith’s slave, Equiano could not escape and find his way home, not because the owner would have abandoned his forge and gone on a manhunt, but because nobody would have taken him in on the way, but rather turned him in. The fact that the slave and the free were more distinguishable by colour in America may be seen as an aggravating factor, or as a mitigating one – is it not usually seen as even worse to treat your own people badly than outsiders? Yet wherever slavery is practised, the common compassion for the victim becomes suppressed, even by slaves like Equiano themselves.

The “Interesting Narrative” describes how a freed black man could be cheated and re-enslaved with little redress in the West, but it also describes how a freed slave can happily become a slave overseer. In passing, we should remember that at the time of the abolition of slavery in America, there were several thousand black slave owners in the Southern States. What happened to the fellow-feeling of everyone, black or white? Why did Equiano’s own bitter early experience, rather than the extremes of abuse in America, not make him a lifelong enemy of the institution?

I suspect that, as far as the Transatlantic trade went, ignorance was a significant factor, particularly in England where it did not occur. If slaves were seen outside places like Liverpool or Bristol, they were exotic domestic servants of the super-rich, probably in fine livery. Being unfree might be an evil, but it was easy to dismiss any tales of unspeakable inhumanity far away over the ocean as conspiracy theories. After all, we may have an idea that prisons are not the most comfortable places, but be quite unable to believe the accounts of horrific abuse in Guantanamo Bay. The perpetrators usually don’t talk, or if they do they are punished for endangering State Security. And most people side with the state, not the whistleblower, through sheer disbelief in its potential for corruption, and because the whistleblower is a lone voice, and we prefer to side with the majority.

But it’s more than that. The great evangelist George Whitefield somehow managed to square plantation slavery with strong Christian faith, against the abolitionists. I can envisage the Christian who regards slavery as an evil, but a necessary one, just as there are Christians who will grudgingly support abortion whilst regarding it as an evil. But it’s hard to believe that Whitefield’s plantation was run on more humanitarian lines than others: was there no cruelty or injustice (beyond that of slavery itself), or was Whitefield simply blind to it?

I think the greatest factor is that our moral antennae become quickly blunted by conformity to the social norms around us, a propensity that has become abundantly clear since last year. And since those social norms appear to develop simply by the majority soaking up the status quo uncritically, I can confidently say that were slavery ever to reappear in our enlightened land, whether imposed by Taliban conquerors or legalised in quarantine camps for the unvaccinated, it would soon become acceptable to nearly everyone from the Archbishop of Canterbury down. That seems to be how the Holocaust was allowed to happen, how Soviet oppression lasted seventy years, and how most people cheer as police states develop in formerly free Commonwealth nations.

All this seems to me particularly relevant today, in the context of public complacency over coercion in connection with COVID, in particular (though climate change might be soon be a competitor). The forcible separation of parents in care homes from their children, during lockdown, was surely no less painful than the separation of Olaudah Equiano from his sister, and was often fatal as well as permanent. But for the most part people trying to break through the separation were portrayed, and perceived, as social miscreants – much as a runaway slave would be back in the day.

There is overwhelming public support, it seems, for the imposition of vaccination on all kinds of groups, from the care workers and medical staff who bore the brunt of the pandemic unprotected, to university students, school children, sportsmen and so on who, with good reason from the scientific literature, fear that they are more likely to be permanently injured by the vaccines than by the virus. Yet rather than be compassionate towards their fear of death (that having been a near-universal feeling after the behavioural psychologists and politicians got their claws into us last year), they are dehumanised as Nazi extremists or madmen. Be assured that the slave remaining committed to his own freedom was equally seen a trouble-making aberration, even amongst his own kind. But if we ought to sympathise with those who fear death, we cannot justly discriminate because we see one source of panic (a virus) as more rational than another (an experimental vaccine).

Likewise, how many Christians give a toss about poor working or retired people facing escalating fuel poverty from green policies, compared to those falling over themselves to recycle plastic bags obsessionally (and ineffectively) to “save the planet”? Their hardship remains invisible, just like that of slaves in both American and African cultures, essentially because we follow the crowd in doing wrong (Exod. 23:2) rather than following Christ in being willing to suffer alone for speaking truth.

The modern anti-colonialists are like the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’s time, who said:

“If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” So you testify against yourselves that you are the sons of those who murdered the prophets.

Matt 23:30-31

Those who follow the crowd will always endorse whatever particular evil is favoured in their day, and condemn what was the fashion of other times and places. They will seldom examine their own conscience. Currently, it happens not to be slavery, except for the far-off slaves who dig out our cobalt in Africa or assemble our i-Phones in China or our T-shirts in India. But the prevalent evil will almost certainly be whatever marks “success” in their world.

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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