How could Thomas Jefferson, a man committed to the abolition of every vestige of the “moral and political depravity” that is slavery, reconcile his ideology with his ownership of hundreds of human beings? Notwithstanding his commitment to liberty and efforts in creating the freest nation on Earth, this blatant display of hypocrisy leads many to discount him entirely. That’s not entirely fair. At no point in Jefferson’s lifetime was the abolition of slavery anything but a radical position. No stranger to radicalism, even his empty words were further than many would dare go. Still, it’s not at all controversial for me to say that owning human beings is bad. Yet if I ask why some of Thomas Jefferson’s detractors shamelessly tweet from a smartphone mass produced in a country where workers can be paid starvation wages, I’m seen as a radical myself. In our rush to cancel the imperfect and apply our newfound morality to the past, we must be careful not to ignore the immorality of today, and we must consider that our actions today might also be looked down upon by our children and theirs.
Slavery is as old as civilization itself, even codified into Mesopotamian law as early as around 1750 BC. From Plato’s belief, outlined in “Gorgias”, that it was the right of the better to rule over the inferior, his outright belief in the abolition of family and freedom in pursuit of his just society ruled by enlightened philosopher kings, argued in “The Republic” and Thomas Jefferson’s apparently hypocritical rebuke of slavery, it can be seen that across the overwhelming majority of humanity’s timeline, our society would be seen as radical and backwards for insinuating that mankind should be free. Considering society’s rapid evolution and progress over the past few centuries, which isn’t much time at all compared to the amount of time humanity has walked the Earth, it’s not fair to take aim at figures of the past for practicing something that virtually nobody had a problem with.
To be clear, this is not whataboutism. By no means do I wish to discredit anybody or disagree with the notion that it was okay for Thomas Jefferson to own slaves. I don’t want to attack anybody for their hypocrisy either. What I’m trying to do is make clear that what we deem socially acceptable today may not be in the future.
A consequence of economic globalization has been the manufacturing of many goods in China. A brutal, authoritarian, speech-silencing regime currently in the middle of an ethnic cleansing has seduced our corporations and attracted them to a land in which workers can be paid far less than a living wage and where concerns for the environment are best left to western activists. Meanwhile, our consumers line up hours in advanced for the release of every new iPhone; America’s consumer culture relies on cheap labor and a lack of environmental regulation in order to avoid pricing people out of it. I’m not trying to put myself on a pedestal here either. I’m preaching from a Chinese assembled laptop, resting atop Chinese bedsheets and wearing a shirt that may very well have been stitched by a child half my age. I’m not even saying that we should immediately stop buying Chinese products. I am, however, saying that our children and theirs are not going to look very kindly upon our tolerance of totalitarianism and human rights abuses in the name of cheap goods.
We’re not perfect. No human being ever has been, and no human being ever will be. Although it’s currently trendy to point out decades-old flaws in others, nobody wants to look inwards. I recognize that pointing out one’s hypocrisy doesn’t discredit their words, but when their words and actions include forcing today’s socially acceptable standards on figures of the past, they’re not making a valid argument. Today, we no longer believe that slavery is okay in the United States of America, so we no longer allow the ownership of slaves. What is moral and socially acceptable changes over time, and applying our morality to the past without looking into the future will result in a false sense of superiority to our ancestors.
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Dev Chojar is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.