Thursday, April 23, 2015

How Does Slavery Happen?


Like most fantasy writers, I've read a great deal of history. When you're trying to create your own world, you have to have some idea how our society evolved. Everything from language to weapons to indoor plumbing to marriage rituals. Unlike historians, who are forced to specialize, I've been able to pick through the human story depending on my research needs for my latest novel. It's been a roller coaster ride through the human experience, and for much of the last twenty years, it's been a fascinating trip. As poorly as we have behaved throughout our history, I've always been able to find find moments or events that displayed the best of human qualities. Moments where mercy and kindness and self-sacrifice were on clear display.

The one caveat to that was slavery. How was it that such an evil thing could be excused by ostensibly good people? How could a religion whose founder preached equality not only protect the institution of slavery, but help start a civil war over it? I'd read long ago that in the 18th Century, Southern Baptist churches would sell slaves behind the church following the Sunday morning service. The evil of that was -- and for a very long time remained -- beyond my understanding.

Worse, as far as I could tell through my twenty or so years of picking through the human scrapbook, it had always existed and had always been excused. My current novel was based on a slave society, and I was tasked with creating likable characters who didn't have an issue with the idea of human property. How the hell was I supposed to do that?

"People Are Sinners"

As I had no idea how such a thing could happen, I started asking my friends and people around me what they thought. How could decent moral humans could allow such a travesty to exist? The answer were predictable but unhelpful. Something along the lines of "people are sinners" or "people suck" or "people are selfish." Theologically, the notion of "sin" may or may not be true, depending on what you believe, but in every other way it was a useless answer. The similar but non-religious view, "people suck" was just as useless. Besides, the word "sin" had been so abused within the church and the surrounding culture that to repeat the mantra of sin as a reason for cruelty made it sound more like an excuse than a plausible reason. And it didn't answer my question anyway. How could a human look at another human in chains and consider them property? Civilization and human growth has never been linear, but the idea that slavery would somehow be accepted within the 21st Century seemed a great stretch.

Slavery Still Exists
Indentured servitude has always existed, in its most vicious form in the American South, the more formalized version in Rome, or the horrors of Ancient Egypt, the notion that certain humans are worth less than others is as old as humanity. One could look at the feudal systems in the Middle Ages, of Europe or China or Japan, for further examples. Now some of those societies did not operate as slave societies per se, but the effect was similar. Large swaths of a population with few (if any) rights, little or no money, and horrific working conditions.

It bothered me that I hadn't considered it earlier, but it only took a bit of research to realize that slavery exists today, in plain sight of the world, and no one (including me) seemed to give a shit.

The China Issue

Most items in the world (that's not an exaggeration) are made in China, where labor is cheap and oversight non-existent. Nearly every successful company has factories there, including Apple, who, like the others, has made its riches off the backs off the 21st century form of indentured servitude.

Foxconn is the largest employer in China, and a few years ago the media caught wind of how these "employees" were treated. To wit: 
"human rights organisations have gained insight into the gated Foxconn dormitories and highlighted some daily practices including full control over people’s working schedules, as well as their free time. Workers are prohibited from using certain devices, their rooms are raided, and if they are found to have broken any of the strict rules, they have to confess their guilt publicly.
Time off is usually only used for rest as people regularly work shifts of 11 to 13 hours. Working hours are so long that people sleep in the factories when a new product is being released. Additionally, if targets are not met, lunch breaks are also cancelled. Days off are rare and trips home to visit family are only allowed once a year. This is particularly concerning as most of the workers are immigrants from distant provinces. They are usually young people who are not in a strong position to find employment in their home
regions. Some of them are attracted by Foxconn advertising campaigns. The largest group of Foxconn employees is between 18 and 21 years old although incidents of child labour have been observed."
And when the media began to expose how they were treating their employees, some changes were made. A few. One of those changes was a slight wage increase. Apple responded by going with another employer who did not alter the way they treated their employees, which allowed them to keep a larger share of its profit. In fact, if you're still buying Apple products after reading THIS report, then I'm guessing you've given up.


Of course, slavery still exists in other ways. Women and young girls sold as sex slaves is a thriving billion dollar industry. The difference, however, is that the world (mostly) disapproves of that behavior and it is done illegally. The abuse in Chinese factories is different in that it is such a huge and entrenched part of the world economy, it feels helpless to even think about how it can be stopped. Sure, we can boycott Apple (which I will do from now on), but China produces so much product it feels like a pebble in the pond.

Much like the plantations in the American South, where slavery was a fundamental part of the economy, it is difficult to imagine what would happen to the world markets if we suddenly asked these Chinese factories to treat their workers appropriately and pay them accordingly. How would the markets respond? Would everything suddenly become expensive, or worse, would the markets crash and lead us into another depression? On a more personal nature, would we have access to all the things we have now if it happened?


In my quest to understand how to draw a character that lived in a slave society, a moral character who cared about others but turned a blind eye to a society built on indentured servitude, I didn't have to go very far. A fifteen foot walk to the bathroom to check the mirror. Like most of you, it wasn't that I didn't care as much as I couldn't do anything about it. And if I dwelt on it too much, I was struck by a weighted sadness, a helpless feeling that very much led me to the same response I'd recieved from my friends: "people suck because they're sinners."

But I didn't want to go there, because I knew that if I did, I was only that much closer to the devastation of apathy and the blindness that apathy brought with it. And make no mistake, it was and has always been that kind of blindness that led to slavery in the first place, the kind that left us with not only little regard for the pain of others but encouraged us to blame victims for their troubles, using words like "sin" and "lazy" and "undisciplined."

I still don't know what the answer is, but I do know the question. It's the same one they asked a Jewish Rabbi about two thousand years ago. Millenia have passed, and the question hasn't changed...

Who is my neighbor, Lord?

They are. We are. I am.