As I stated in a previous blog post, “slavery is a social phenomenon existing on the far end of a continuum of oppression.” The model below represents the continuum that I am referring to. Slavery is one extreme. Freedom is the other.
There are multiple reasons why I developed this continuum:
I wanted to crystalize a definition of slavery and a definition of freedom that social justice movements can organize around.
I needed a model to conceptualize the grey area outside of slavery that human trafficking encompasses.
I wanted to explain to people that my work isn’t “anti-trafficking work”. My work is anti-oppression, pro-freedom work.
More broadly speaking, I wanted to depict my orientation to social justice work. Through this model, I hope to provide a framework for discussion and action that does not silo “anti-trafficking work” as just some other social issue. To me, this model allows us to see how all social injustices and forms of oppression are thoroughly interconnected.
At its core, the experience of slavery is about being dehumanized. If we see another person as human, like us, then we cannot treat them with harm. Freedom on the other hand, is complete humanization. In order to truly see another person as human, like us, we must have full love and respect for that human. I could go into a long diatribe about how we are also taught to dehumanize ourselves. It’s actually very relevant to our conversation but I’ll save that for later. For now, I want to focus us on a few questions:
What does it mean to be enslaved?
What does it mean to be free?
What can the journey from enslavement to freedom look like?
These questions are essential, because have to understand what we are fighting for. If we are advocating against slavery, we need to know what it is and we need to know what the alternative is. How many people can actually articulate what their freedom is and what it means to them? For most people, freedom is something that is taken for granted. In an address to the American Bar Association, Supreme Court Justice Kennedy shared a perspective that challenged lawyers to imagine: how can you defend the principles of liberty and freedom when you have not understood what it means to live without it? Justice Kennedy was not encouraging lawyers to drop out of their profession. He was encouraging them to face the limits of their understanding. Moreover, I believe that he was encouraging them to figure out a way to truly articulate what their freedom is. As I fight slavery, I am becoming more and more adamant that we articulate what freedom actually is and what we want it to look like. Because if most of us experience living in this “free world” as something miserable and difficult, why would we promote this to other people?
What does it mean to be enslaved?
To be enslaved is to experience profound dehumanization. The slave trade justifies its actions through launching a full sale campaign against the humanity of a specific group of people. The institution of slavery rests upon the rationalization of dehumanization. We may recall that at one point slaves in the U.S. were counted as 3/5s a human being. Slave traders convince(d) themselves that there are people who are “savage”, “lazy”, unintelligent, amoral, and on and on, and that for those reasons, they deserve to be slaves or even need to be slaves or else they would be a drain on society.
The reason why the slave trade rests on dehumanization is because when we strip someone of their humanity, it condones our treatment of them as objects or as animals. Most people do not worry about killing an ant or a spider. The regard for their feelings or experience is deemed “unnecessary.” Similarly, if we have deleterious aims and we want to use someone to our benefit, then the regard for their feelings and experience is “unnecessary”. Brutally put, the feelings and experiences of a potential slave are inconvenient to a slave trader/owner.
Let’s talk about ownership. Elsewhere, Kevin Bales and others have written about the concept of ownership. Previously in American history, slave owners had legal rights of ownership over slaves. They would even have paper documentation of the slaves they owned. Imagine this as your “receipt” or your “bill of sale”. Just as when you purchase a laptop or car or even your groceries, you are given receipt that means, “I bought this. I own this.” And along with that ownership comes a set of rights and responsibilities. Nowadays, slavery is legally abolished; therefore people cannot legally own a slave and will not be issued a bill of sale that “proves” ownership. However, this does not mean that the concept of ownership is not central to the slave trade. In the Bellagio-Harvard Guidelines on the Legal Parameters of Slavery, the authors outline the elements of the slave trade and refer to “control of a person tantamount to possession”. What this means is that even if you can’t have legal ownership over someone, you can demonstrate that you are acting as if you own someone if you treat them like a possession. Some of the rights that we have with our possessions are to use them, sell them, trade them, loan them, and neglect them. Imagine something that you own – a toaster for example. You can decide to charge people $5 every time they want to use it. You could sell it, you could beat it with a broom, you could do all sorts of things with it because it is your possession. When we treat humans this way, we are transforming them in our minds from autonomous, independent people, into possessions that we get to control and use at our leisure and discretion.
So what does it mean to be enslaved? It means being treated like property. Being so thoroughly dehumanized that you have become an object to another person. Additionally, you have become an object without rights. You have become an object that no longer “deserves” fair treatment. Your mistreatment is justified by the fact that you are an object. And thus, we move into the continuum of oppression.
All Forms of Oppression are Dehumanization
When we deny someone of rights because they are gay, black, poor, female, or whatever characteristic we choose, this is fundamentally an act of dehumanizing someone. We are saying, “this part of your humanity, I will not recognize. Because you are A, B, or C, you do not deserve X, Y, or Z. You are not like me.” When we come to believe that other people are not like us, we are saying that they are not of the same human species. We are saying that we deserve things that other people don’t. Who are we to determine that? What if someone said that Vietnamese-Americans aren’t allowed to marry in the United States? I would be denied a right that others are afforded. This gets tricky because we as a society have determined some rules about when denying rights is okay. Typically, it’s when affording someone a right infringes on the rights of others. For example, we are arguing that no one should have the right to enslave another person. Everyone should, in my perspective, be afforded the right to a fair and prosperous work life. Are these rights in conflict with one another?
The continuum of oppression demonstrates that we are constantly in a battle to determine who gets full freedom and who does not. Complete enslavement of another human being is on the extreme end. And yet, when we begin to dehumanize anyone just a little bit, we have begun to walk down the slippery slope of justifying dehumanization at any level.
What does it mean to be free?
If complete dehumanization is what marks slavery, then complete humanization is what defines freedom. What exactly does it mean to be completely humanized? To me, it is to be recognized exactly as we are. Every human being is born literally connected to their mother’s body, and soon after, they are separated. Yet, for some time, baby and mother co-exist. A baby slowly becomes physically and emotionally autonomous. In today’s modernized societies, to the dismay of some parents, children often don’t fully separate until their mid-twenties. In fact, our society has made it financially challenging for this to be even possible. So what does autonomy really look like? A friend of mine alerted me to the meaning of the word autonomy – self-naming. Freedom is the ability to self-name and self-determine. But let’s be real – everyone self-determines in the context of the environment and society that they are born into.
A child’s freedom must be facilitated and recognized by a parent. We all know about the challenges that parents experience in setting healthy and appropriate limits for children. A parent must facilitate a child’s growth and development, while maintaining boundaries for safety and protection. If we love and respect our children, however, we promote their exploration, their self-determination, and allow them to develop into who they want to be, not who we want them to be. The limits we set are to foster continued freedom.
Freedom and limits do not have to be in conflict with one another. The limitation put on me by traffic laws actually protects my freedom. And yet, so often, setting limitations and boundaries are taken way too far. Too often, we have a prescription for how we think people should be. We want them to be what we want them to be…not what they want to be. How many people have experienced this difficulty in intimate relationships? We want to change our partners to be “perfect” mothers, wives, handy-man, listener, husbands, boyfriends, etc.
How do we allow people to be who they are?
How do we allow ourselves to be who we are?
Can we tolerate our own freedom? Our own responsibility to name and claim who we are? For some people, this complete freedom was facilitated at birth. For most others, unnecessary limitations—on a continuum—were placed on their freedom. We have internalized these limitations and have even rationalized being a little less free. But if we rationalize any diminishment of freedom, how could we honestly promote freedom as a virtue that we all must live by?
Minh Dang, MSW is currently an independent consultant, trainer, and speaker on issues of human trafficking, leadership development, and social justice. She provides training and technical assistance to NGOs, Universities, and government agencies across the country. Minh is a staunch advocate for survivors of child abuse and human trafficking and is developing strategies to support education, training, and leadership development for survivors.