Whenever someone declares, ‘it’s just like slavery’, it is useful to remind yourself that the only thing that is ‘just like slavery’ is slavery. Because of its highly charged association with human evil, the term slavery has been hijacked by numerous moral entrepreneurs intent on drawing attention to their own causes. I can’t recall a time over the past 100 years when analogies with slavery were so frequently drawn in public life.
The opportunistic use of the slavery analogy is not confined to any particular political side. At a recent anti-abortion rally, Ben Carson, the Republican presidential candidate, used the slavery analogy to stigmatise abortion. He said ending abortion would be the moral equivalent of the abolition of slavery. Animal-rights advocates embrace a similarly provocative tactic. Recently, music mogul Russell Simmons, alongside pressure group Mercy for Animals, denounced those running New York’s horse carriages as ‘people for slavery’.
One African-American pastor, E Dewey Smith, caused outrage when he accused his community of behaving like a ‘slavemaster’ in its attitude towards LGBT people. ‘We have done what the slavemaster done to us’, stated Smith. And a recent editorial in the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky said ‘climate deniers’ were the spiritual heirs of slave owners and compared defenders of the coal industry to those who clung to slavery in America’s Old South.
It is truly remarkable that both hardline reactionaries and radical protesters have opted to express themselves through slavery analogies. As Kenyon Farrow, a critic of Occupy Wall Street’s slavery-obsessed rhetoric, recalled: ‘One of the first photos I saw from the Occupy Wall Street protests was of a white person carrying a flag that read “Debt=Slavery”.’ Farrow also noted that ‘white progressive media venues often compare corporate greed or exploitation to some form of modern-day slavery’. Not surprisingly, the likening of debt to slavery has caught on, with protesters in Greece and other parts of southern Europe embracing it.
The promiscuous use of the slavery analogy is no longer confined to the margins of Western society. It appears that most international institutions and many Western governments have sought to gain a measure of moral authority through appearing to take a stand against so-called modern slavery. The British prime minister, David Cameron, regularly uses his overseas visits to strengthen his claim to be a fearless fighter of the scourge of modern slavery. The British parliament has now enacted a Modern Slavery Act, which has led to the establishment of the new post of anti-slavery commissioner. One consequence of the Modern Slavery Act is that, from October onwards, approximately 12,000 of the largest companies in the UK will be required to make annual disclosures about what they are doing to ensure that slavery is eradicated in their supply chain