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Violence, Slavery, and the Human Experience


Walter Johnson is one of our premier historians, period. His work on slavery and capitalism has helped reorient a narrative that for way, way too long argued that slavery was anti-capitalist, leading among other things, to radical whites in the 60s making arguments that the Civil War was some sort of capitalist war against anti-capitalists instead of, you know, treason in defense of slavery. Heck, these arguments have ended up in LGM comment threads on occasion. Anyway, this entire long Johnson essay is great. I am going to assign it in one of my classes in the fall. The whole thing is well worth your time, but it starts off with powerful statements about violence and humanity that we should all consider.

It is a commonplace to say that slavery “dehumanized” enslaved people, but to do so is misleading, harmful, and worth resisting.

I hasten to add that there are, of course, plenty of right-minded reasons for adopting the notion of “dehumanization.” It is hard to square the idea of millions of people being bought and sold, of systematic sexual violation, natal alienation, forced labor, and starvation with any sort of “humane” behavior: these are the sorts of things that should never be done to human beings. By terming these actions “inhuman” and suggesting that they either relied upon or accomplished the “dehumanization” of enslaved people, however, we are participating in a sort of ideological exchange that is no less baleful for being so familiar. We are separating a normative and aspirational notion of humanity from the sorts of exploitation and violence that history suggests may well be definitive of human beings: we are separating ourselves from our own histories of perpetration. To say so is not to suggest that there is no difference between the past and the present; it is merely that we should not overwrite the complex determinations of history with simple-minded notions of moral progress.

More important, though, is the ideological work accomplished by holding on to a normative notion of “humanity”—one that can be held separate from the “inhuman” actions of so many humans. Historians sometimes argue that some aspects of slavery were so violent, so obscene, so “inhuman” that, in order to live with themselves, the perpetrators had to somehow “dehumanize” their victims. While that “somehow” remains a problem—for it is never really specified what combination of unconscious, cultural, and social factors make a “somehow”—I want to question the assumption that slaveholders had to first “dehumanize” their slaves before they could swing a baby by the feet into a post to silence its cries, or jam the broken handle of a hoe down the throat of a field hand, or refer to their property as “darkies” or “hands” or “wool.”

The apparent right-mindedness of such arguments notwithstanding, this language of “dehumanization” is misleading because slavery depended upon the human capacities of enslaved people. It depended upon their reproduction. It depended upon their labor. And it depended upon their sentience. Enslaved people could be taught: their intelligence made them valuable. They could be manipulated: their desires could make them pliable. They could be terrorized: their fears could make them controllable. And they could be tortured: beaten, starved, raped, humiliated, degraded. It is these last that are conventionally understood to be the most “inhuman” of slaveholders’ actions and those that most “dehumanized” enslaved people. And yet these actions epitomize the failure of this set of terms to capture what was at stake in slaveholding violence: the extent to which slaveholders depended upon violated slaves to bear witness, to provide satisfaction, to provide a living, human register of slaveholders’ power.

More than misleading, however, the notion that enslavement “dehumanized” enslaved people is harmful; it indelibly and categorically alters those with whom it supposedly sympathizes. Dehumanization suggests an alienation of enslaved people from their humanity. Who is the judge of when a person has suffered so much or been objectified so fundamentally that the person’s humanity has been lost? How does the person regain that humanity? Can it even be regained? And who decides when it has been regained? The explicitly paternalist character of these questions suggests that a belief in the “dehumanization” of enslaved people is locked in an inextricable embrace with the very history of racial abjection it ostensibly confronts. All this while implicitly asserting the unimpeachable rectitude and “humanity” of latter-day observers.

I think this is very powerful. I also think that it helps illuminate critical issues to understanding both the past and the present. We all have monstrosity inside of us. It seems to be part of the human condition. The question is whether we create a society that represses the monstrosity or whether we create a society that unleashes it. Much of what has happened in recent years has moved toward allowing the latter to win. And that brings back to the sorts of routine cruelty that defined slavery and defined fascism. Those aren’t dehumanizing. In fact, suffering and forcing others to suffer are deeply human. It’s terrible, but it’s true and it’s why we should stop talking about people–whether Trump or David Duke or Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III or whoever–as monsters and start talking about what they are actually are. Americans.

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