According to the Economist’s Democracy Index 2010, I live in the 19th most democratic country in the world. I can’t say I think about this too often; it’s just how things are in my part of the world. I’ve reaped the rewards fron the work of Suffragettes, Chartists and nineteenth century reformers. I know this is a big deal, but still I take it for granted.
Today is Emancipation Day, 177 years since slavery was (technically) abolished throughout the British Empire. Celebrations will be held throughout the world, in Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas, Canada. Quite right too; it’s worth celebrating, albeit somewhat difficult to appreciate how an abhorant concept like humans-as-property came to dominate the world.
And yet all this should act as a reminder that slavery isn’t a thing of the past. Stop the Traffic has some sobering statistics: 1.2 million children are victims of human trafficking each year, according to UNICEF; 12.3 million people worldwide are involved in forced labour, according to the International Labour Organisation; 80% of those trafficked across international borders are women and girls, while 50% of them are children, according to the US State Department. There are many organisations fighting this, doing heroic work in the face of humanity’s darker desires and its hunger for cheap labour and no-strings sex. But then it’s always going to be an uphill struggle until everyone asks where their cheap clothes and internet porn come from.
I mean, I know I don’t ask the right questions, and even though I believe in the importance of universal human dignity, they wouldn’t even be questions if they related to my friends and family. “If I buy these cheap trainers, would it help screw up the lives of my girlfriend, my sister and my mom?” isn’t something that would never get asked because the answer is so damn obvious, and because I’m not a sociopath.
Yeah, yeah, I know. You or I can’t be the world’s conscience 24/7; sooner or later we’d fail, miss a vital piece of human rights information, get fatigued and say screw it. I know. And I also know I’m coming across as a preachy hypocrite, but… Well, I guess it’s the curse of the Information Revolution. William Wilberforce once said “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know.” That was in 1791 and he didn’t even have internet access.
But there’s another way of looking at this, one that also grows out of thoughts of slavery and emancipation. I talked here about doing good, about not doing as much as I should, and this ties in with something said by John Newton, repentant slavetrader turned writer of Amazing Grace: “I am not the man I ought to be, I am not the man I wish to be, and I am not the man I hope to be, but by the grace of God, I am not the man I used to be.”
Today is Emancipation Day; maybe it can celebrate not only the release of captives, but that of their captors as well. The world’s in a mess, partly because we don’t ask the the right questions about where ‘products’ come from, be they clothes, media or services of a morally more dubious kind. Maybe we should ask those questions. Maybe we should break those chains.