Friday 12 November 2010

Abolition movement as a precursor of political correctness


The evolution of political correctness was an exponential process going back a thousand years and more, but (as with all exponential processes) the early stages are hard to detect because the size of the phenomenon was so small.

But (like all exponential processes) once the phenomenon had became visible for sure (late 1960s), it grew very fast.

(Also the doubling-time shortened as the process advanced - so in fact it is not really exponential at all! Just figuratively.)

In this context, I think perhaps the first really evident jump into PC was the abolition movement which originated among English Quakers and spread to evangelicals, then to mass support in England.


Of course, everybody regards slavery as an evil nowadays. At least they do in a theoretical sense - although nothing is done(not even cheap and easy steps) to abolish resurgent slavery abroad; and even within the West (where slavery is tacitly tolerated by the authorities when it happens in some ethnic groups - presumably on 'multi-cultural' grounds).

Nonetheless, if you look at the abolitionist movement, it clearly has many of the characteristics of modern political correctness in embryo.

Furthermore the abolition movement was ruthless in its self-confidence, its desire to impose its reality globally: slavery was abolished everywhere in the world (except for some tiny, shrinking pockets in sub-Saharan Africa) in a long and dynamic (not to say ruthless) campaign stretching over many decades, and mostly by military coercion when the British Empire was at its height.

The passing of the acts of parliament to abolish the slave trade, then to abolish slavery in the Empire were merely the beginning of the process. The actual abolition of slavery everywhere had to be imposed by unrelenting, long-term political and military pressure, and backed-up by the guns of the Royal Navy which had a long reach. 


In this respect the abolition movement was the antithesis of the feeble submissiveness of modern political correctness. Nonetheless, abolition shared the presumption of PC that ethics were susceptible of discovery and advancement - not by divine revelation, but by human social consensus.


Abolition showed that there might be an avant garde of elite opinion, and that the mass of the public might be brought around to views that they found initially incomprehesible, abhorrent or dangerous.

In particular, abolition was built on the 'discovery' (initially by Nonconformist Protestants and Anglican evangelicals) that slavery was utterly unacceptable and must be stopped at any cost was a realization that entailed overthrowing 1800 years of Christian morality.


The 'discovery' that Christianity ruled-out slavery entailed the assumption of moral progress, that modern abolitionists were more morally advanced than the ancient Greeks and Romans, than the Apostles, Saints and Holy Fathers and the greatest theologians of all previous eras.

Until the abolition movement, all societies in history had accepted slavery as a fact. Slavery was universal wherever it could be afforded.

It was only in England, among a small group of protestants in the late 1700s, that the discovery was made that slavery was intolerable, was indeed the worst of sins, and must be eradicated at any cost.

Abolition can thus be seen as an early example of progressivism - despite the contrast with PC that abolition was being advocated and implemented by muscular and militaristic Christians.


What was different about abolitionism was a fanaticism based on abstractness and universality of ethics.

Abolition was not primarily self-interested but was genuinely altruistic - in enforcing abolition upon the world the British Empire gave up a considerable amount of profitable enterprise, expended vast amounts of treasure in military action and in compensation of slave owners, expended prime manpower (and suffered heavy casualties) in the slave wars.

For instance the British military station in Sierra Leone, specifically for enforcing abolition, suffered a mortality rate of 50 percent per year due to tropical disease - a stunningly high number, such that to be stationed there was almost a death sentence - justifying its nickname of 'the white man's grave'. 

And  the costs were immense for many slaves, who were killed during these military actions, were slain by slavers and thrown overboard from ships to avoid incrimination, and who in many instances suffered death and extreme hardship following liberation .


So abolition has this dual face. In some ways it was the greatest altruistic moral achievement ever (in so far as costly altruism is supposedly the ultimate virtue for secular liberal morality).

In other ways abolition was the beginning of reality-proof morality, the morality of designated 'good acts' (regardless of ensuing consequences) and of the modern style prideful, hate-filled, self--gratifying justification-by-motivations - and therefore a precursor to political correctness.



dearieme said...

Interesting stuff, Bruce. I suppose at American hands abolitionism degenerated into the terrorism of John Brown and the slaughter of the Civil War. But then any good cause can degenerate at someone's hands.

We are presumably glad that the slavery pursued by and on our ancestors - Britons, Anglo-Saxons, Norse and Gaels - dwindled away, under Norman rule or influence, before the modern age.

HofJude said...

Certainly it was in England - but oddly, so was the pro-slavery forces in the US at least, which successfully forced a kind of prohibition on anti-slavery speech in America before and to some extend after the Civil war, which was much like the shutdown on speech that the proponents of "Islamophobia" advocate - and similarly based on the threat of violence. Northern-state authorities were very hard on abolitionists because they were regarded as responsible for the violence actually carried out by Southern-state pro-slavery forces. Like Biblically based defenses of American slave-holders and abolitionism, isn't PC also a consequence of the Reformation and Calvinist (or spilt Calvinism) in essence? - and isn't it ironic and apt (if my impression is true that) Prof. Diarmid McCullough is some kind of past master at subtle PC-mongering?

Bruce Charlton said...

@dearieme - if you want to continue as a commenter on my blog, these pro-Norman comments must STOP!

Presumably I am glad that there is not much slavery in the UK nowadays - but I think it is fair to say there are worse things than slavery - in the sense that there were several societies which did have slavery that were much better than some societies without slavery. On that basis there cannot be an over-riding imperative to abolish slavery *at any cost*.

At any rate, whatever people *say* (words are cheap) they are not really bothered about slavery, and do not take any active steps to prevent, detect or stop it - as contrasted with the vast efforts to prevent the British middle classes from breaking the speed limit by 7 mph. or punishing them for failing to declare small sums of taxable income etc.

Places like Mauretania and Congo have always had slavery, and it has been resurgent in recent decades. Are the UN up in arms?

Exemplia gratia - slavery was in force for two years, apparently undetected, just a few hundred yards from where I am sitting:

How hard would it be, really, to detect slavery in modern England - if you really gave a damn about it?


@ SS - I hadn't come across Diarmid McCullough; from a swift look at Wiki he seems to be a liberal theologian or church historian of some kind? But PC is so mainstream in academia that surely there is no need to be suble about mongering it.

xlbrl said...

Henry Adams, Grandson of President John Quincy Adams, wrote of his first trip into the American South in 1850 through the eyes of a twelve year old boy on a railroad car. It is an incredibly unnerving experience, to the boy and to the reader. As an old man, he described again what he had seen in 1850 as if it were a completely different play and players. He had lost confidence in his part in ending slavery, and even more in what had replaced it.

If John Brown couldn't shake the general faith toward the abolition movement, nobody can. Good luck with that.

The Social Pathologist said...

I'm not sure if you got my reply at my blog. I'd rather expand on it more over here.

I don't think that the abolition movement was responsible for PC. Rather the abolitionists probably accidentally discovered a method that gets things done in an Anglo-Protestant environment. The Quakers were peaceful (and rich); nice people, not being able to resort to violence they resorted to "non violent" mechanisms to achieve their aims.

If I had to use a crude form of expression, PC is a product of the Anglo "temperament". The value that the culture places on feelings, and the moral legitimacy that the culture accords to acting on ones feelings, especially when they are "nice". It's The Culture of Sentimentality". It is a culture that is the accidental product of England's tolerant Protestant heritage.

The Social Pathologist said...

And here's another piece by the good doctor.

PC is the product of a culture that values feeling over thought.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SP - "I don't think that the abolition movement was responsible for PC."

Neither do I - where did you get the idea that I did think this?

The reason I am writing/ thinking so much about PC is that I am not convinced by the standard/ old explanations that you cite.

If you are happy with the standard explanations, then naturally you will not find what I say to be convincing.

dearieme said...

PC rose as the CP fell.

Bruce Charlton said...

@dearieme - the CP fell, did it?

That's news to me!

More seriously, you make the point that PC is merely a rearrangment of CP; which is true enough.

Except that Communism never became so wilfully blind as to behave like PC. No doubt it would have become so, but collapsed before that could happen. Because it has a stronger rival overseas.

The only reason that PC has not yet collapsed is absence of a stonger (and organized) rival overseas (or at home) - but that may soon change, with the decline falling below more and more rival powers (first China, then who knows how many more).

The Social Pathologist said...

The PC of CP was different to modern PC.

Everyone was PC out of fear, even the enforcers were scared that they would be punished if they didn't punish the transgressor. It was a PC based on survival.

No, Modern PC is a far more insidious beast. Here PC's "guards" are "altruistic". They punish not because of power, but because they think they hold the moral high ground. And they do so with pleasure.