Essay:We're much more civilized now

From Mises Wiki, the global repository of classical-liberal thought
Jump to: navigation, search
Essay.svg This essay contains the opinions of one or more authors and does not necessarily represent the views of Mises Wiki or the Mises Institute. Mises Wiki essays may sometimes contain opinions that are not widely accepted by Austrian school thinkers, but nonetheless reside on the site to help stimulate critical thinking, constructive dialog, and an open-minded process of creative problem-solving furthering the growth of the body of Austrian school thought.

It seems like with every wave of oppression (and there have been many), people bring up past oppressions but are pooh-poohed by those who say, "Don't even try to compare what's happening now to what happened then; we're much more civilized now." In ancient times, people were killed for refusing to worship the pagan gods. Then in medieval times, people were killed for not worshipping the Christian God according to the tenets of the Church.

Undoubtedly, if anyone had compared the two persecutions, the rulers would have said, "Please! Those ancient executions were conducted by ignorant heathen for ungodly purposes. Now we're much more civilized; praise be to the Lord, we have the truth, and we enforce the law of the true God. Besides, we have a very good system for sorting out the guilty from the innocent. We give everyone the due process of being put in the water and having the opportunity to sink if he is not a witch." Eventually the theories about witchcraft were debunked, but too late for those who perished under that regime.

Then, of course, in the era of Negro slavery, if anyone had compared racism to persecution of witches, people would have said, "Come now! We're much more civilized now. We've proven the blacks to be inferior, and even shown that it is a psychological disorder, drapetomania, that makes them want to run away from their masters." Later, many of the scientific theories used to justify racial discrimination, such as cranial index, were debunked, and that in any event, slave labor is less productive than free labor and therefore suboptimal.[1]

Then the Nazis decided to kill the Jews, and of course, if anyone had claimed that they were being as stupid as those who wrought persecution in eras past, they would have said, "Please, we're much more civilized now. You're comparing apples to oranges. Back then, people's scientific understanding was rudimentary, but we have proven that the Jews are very harmful to every culture they've infiltrated, and so they must be destroyed. Besides, our methods are very suitable for a modern industrial society. We don't just kill them; we make full use of them for medical experimentation first, and then we herd them into the gas chambers in a very organized fashion. We have applied the latest factory techniques to our practice."

It was certainly not the end of persecution, though, because even after the Nazi era, the 20th century saw the oppression of homosexuals, communists, drug users, and many others. In each case, people said, "We have science that justifies how we treat these people." Homosexuals were a threat to the family (apparently even more than divorce, because homosexuality was criminalized, while divorce was not). Communists in the ranks of the armed forces were a danger to the country, according to evidence that somehow never materialized. Pot was the demon drug that caused reefer madness, according to the "evidence" of Harry Anslinger. Who could doubt the conclusions of so many scientific professionals, working in selfless service to their country! Who could doubt the depravity of those who would question the evidence and thereby give encouragement to impressionable young people wishing to take part in deviant activities!

But of course, if anyone had compared the persecution of the gays, socialists, or pot smokers to that of the Jews, people would say, "This is ridiculous and offensive to the memory of those who died in the concentration camps! We are nothing like the Nazis. We're much more civilized now, because their society was a dictatorship, while ours is a free country in which you can speak your mind, with no penalty except social and professional ostracism. We give everyone a fair trial before a jury of their peers, and we don't send people to the death chambers." No; they merely blacklisted people, trashed their reputations, called them "commie," "faggot," and other epithets, put them in prisons and turned a blind eye to their being beaten and raped, and in many cases drove them to suicide. (Alan Turing, anyone?)

Somehow, it was totally different to punish someone for sexual orientation, political belief, or choice of cannabis over alcohol, than to persecute them for ethnoreligious status. Not to mention, jury trials before juries of one's peers did not really exist at the federal level before the Jury Selection and Service Act of 1968; prior to that, jury commissioners typically solicited the names of "men of recognized intelligence and probity" from notables or "key men" of the community. In other words, it was the good ol' boy system.

Are there still persecuted groups? Of course. But if you try to draw a comparison between them and the persecuted groups of the past, people still say, "How dare you! It's not the same at all!" No, we're much more civilized now, aren't we? There's even a principle, Godwin's Law, that states that the first person to bring up Hitler or Nazis in a debate automatically loses. So much for learning from the past! Of course no analogy is perfect, but there are still some parallels sometimes.

Someday, the groups persecuted today, people will recognize as having been wrongly oppressed, after the present hysterias pass and society comes to its senses. And then there will be some new group being persecuted. And people will say that their situation is nothing like that of those who were persecuted in the beginning years of the 21st century. I think it would be more respectful to the memory (and, perhaps, the wishes) of those who were persecuted in the past that in the future, people learn the appropriate lesson and not practice that oppression whenever some demagogue comes forth with his bribed intellectual lackeys to say that science proves that some group's consensual crimes are a pernicious menace that must be punished.

The situation isn't totally black; some progress has been made, and is still being made. But there is also occasional retrogression, and progress toward eliminating some of the unnecessary oppression, and resulting misery, can sometimes be agonizingly slow, taking decades or centuries longer than it should have and would have, if people had cared more about justice and had not fallen victim to fallacious ideologies.