THE BLOG
06/06/2013 02:48 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2013

Education: The First Step to Ending Slavery

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

George Santayana, Philosopher

Wait. The title and the Santayana quote might seem confusing. If we remember the past correctly, we know that slavery already ended, right? Actually, we know that a specific strain of slavery ended -- the one associated with Abraham Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment. The slavery referred to here has plagued human kind for millennia and has managed to survive to this day. Its long and persistent history, however, doesn't make slavery invincible. In fact, we have the power to defeat it.

Hundreds of generations bear witness to an expansive scale of slavery: from the servitude born within the bond of one person's debt to another to the complex, state-sanctioned institutional subjugation that once drove regional economies. Slavery sometimes brushes lightly against individuals and moves on. At other times, it has torn wide swaths through populations destroying the weakest in its path. Yet, despite its profound reach and unchecked dominion over the lives of so many, slavery itself is vulnerable.

The slave master has never worked alone in a vacuum. Even while operating freely, seizing his victims with impunity and carrying out slavery with brute force, the slave master relied upon the complicity of the non-enslaved population or the Community. The Community was complicit, in large part, by perpetuating the stigmatization and dehumanization of the enslaved through channels of popular culture. The cynical logic behind this strategy is that citizens would not risk their own safety to save an enslaved person if they had been conditioned to despise that person. Complicity and its less proactive cousin, indifference, have helped guarantee the success of slavery since it began. Because we allow it, slavery lives.

The livelihood of slavery depends on 3 key factors: Motive, Method and Community. Slavery exists because of the Motive for profit. Profit motive is a neutral, self-sustaining and immutable force entrenched within the reality of our economic system. Method is where the evil of slavery lies. It is the means to an end; the way in which the slave master executes his strategy in achieving profit. Method is as flexible as it needs to be, adapting whenever necessary. Method will boldly manipulate a single person or an entire system to insure success. Community is the instrument of an organized society, a regulating force that can counter the slave master's methods. When the Community is distracted or unengaged, the slave master's menu of options expands. More options means methods can be simplified and applied at a lower cost as they are implemented more openly. Conversely, when the Community is engaged and there is popular concern expressed for the victims of slavery, the menu of methods is reduced and the slave master begins to rely increasingly on subterfuge. Subterfuge raises both cost and risk for doing the business of slavery.

Human kind certainly has good reason to celebrate its hard-fought victories over slavery. During the past two centuries, every country in the world has abolished slavery by law. The awareness of human rights, by the world Community, has also compelled the slave master to use more deceit and fraud in the capture of today's slaves. What could be done in the light of day 200 years ago is now done in the shadows. Although slaves are still controlled in a violent and merciless manner, progress against slavery shows that more engagement and vigilance on the part of the Community can suppress exploitation... perhaps to the point of extinction.

Modern forms of slavery are now commonly referred to as human trafficking. This rebranding of slavery happened in earnest about two decades ago perhaps as an attempt by experts to better represent the contemporary attributes of this illicit industry. But, instead of facilitating an easier understanding of the problem and multiplying the opportunities to engage the Community, this strategy has served the slave master by acting as a kind of diversion.

Diversions conspire to erase the progress we've made against slavery. The public has been made to believe that it is faced with a complex new plague when human trafficking is only a symptom of the same chronic disease we already knew. As we enthusiastically mobilize the Community to fight the symptom of human trafficking, we must be sure that the remedies we propose address the unrelenting advance of the disease of slavery as well.

The existence and vigor of slavery should not come as a surprise to anyone. The motive that drives one to exploit another for profit is perhaps more intense now, in our win-at-any-cost society, than it's ever been at any time in history. Better laws and stricter enforcement compel the slave master to adjust his methods, but profit motive provides the impetus and a constant upward pressure to perpetuate the industry. To defeat slavery and maintain an environment where it cannot survive, we must develop mechanisms within the Community that bring to bear an equal amount of downward pressure. This can be done successfully by building the mechanisms into Community institutions. The institution of education is where anti-slavery initiatives must begin because it's there that they will grow and expand into the greater Community.

We've all heard some form of George Santayana's admonition about remembering the past. We also know, through experience, how hard it is to fight the inertia of our own lives to make positive change. Turning against the collective current and thousands of years of mistakes and misunderstandings will require an extraordinary commitment on the part of the Community. Institutionalizing the task will prove that we're serious about anti-slavery while insuring the strength and the consistency of the effort.

Each child that graduates from elementary school, understanding the basic meaning of slavery and how it occurs, brings us one step closer to protecting the vulnerable. With every young adult that graduates secondary school equipped to recognize and respond to the nuanced methods of the slave master within our culture, the closer we are to becoming the engaged and vigilant Community that defeats slavery. Taking the first step to educate young people about slavery may help us realize ... we're not condemned to repeat the past as much as we are positioned to change the future.

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