As most of you know, 276 girls from Chibok, Nigeria — a report today suggested that eight more from elsewhere may have been added to that total — have been kidnapped by that country’s anti-Western education group Boko Harum, which opposes western education (and its liberating effect on the minds and status of young girls.) That group — nominally Muslim but with a harsh philosophy unlike any example of that religion that you’ll see in Orange County — intends to sell them off, presumably as wives for willing buyers.
Whatever else we individually and collectively can do, this gives us a chance to better understand the concept of slavery.
Slavery is a powerful term, not merely historically, but today. It’s a term that should be well understood — and not misused.
In the Filipino community, into which I have married, press reports surface regularly about workers who are taken to the U.S., to the Middle East, and other places where their passports are taken by their employers and they have to work without compensation or the ability to leave. That’s slavery. It’s also kidnapping. Slavery of this sort can be thought of as a form of kidnapping, where it is combined with forced labor.
Forced labor can involve sex work — whereupon it becomes not only kidnapping, but also rape. Of course, some sex workers participate in that activity voluntarily. In such cases, it may be illegal, but it’s not kidnapping and it’s not rape. Where the sex worker is underage and can’t provide legal consent for their activities, it can still technically be kidnapping, but it is considered statutory rape (when the minor is below a state’s “age of consent.”)
Groups like Californians Against Slavery have argued that statutory rape where the participants give what, if they were older, would appear to be consent is the same as the traditional view of rape and should be punished accordingly. This group pushed through Proposition 35 in 2012, which may be taken to convert sexual activity among students at the same high school into rape — and in some cases, as their name applies, even into slavery. This is a big reason why some of us opposed Proposition 35: the notion that a 16-year-old girl voluntarily in a sexual relationship with an 18-year-old boy who takes her away from home overnight deserves to be mentioned in the same category — “human trafficking” — as what is happening to the girls taken from Chibok is repulsive.
That doesn’t mean that I condone the high school example — but merely that I have a sense of proportion about it. If you’re fighting against underage sex itself, as opposed to forced underage sex under conditions that satisfy the elements of kidnapping, you don’t deserve credit for “fighting slavery.” Go after domestic servants who can’t leave their jobs, or women confined against their will in brothels, and you do.
But even those horrors are not as bad as slavery gets. In a legal system of “chattel slavery,” the possession of another human being is legalized kidnapping. The slave belongs to the master. Sometimes the slaves have their own personal rights; under some systems, slaves could have families and the control over their lives that that implies. Sometimes the rights of the slave belong to the master, such as when the Bible sets penalties for harming another person’s human “property.” And sometimes slaves have no rights at all.
The United States had one of the worst systems of slavery known, under which the family unit itself was deemed unworthy of respect. Any human bond — husband and wife, parent and child, sibling — could be broken at the master’s will. Family members could be sold off, shipped away, never to be seen again — as simple commerce or as punishment. That was part of our law.
What is happening to the girls of Chibok captures our attention and horror because it is an attempt to impose that terrible form of chattel slavery — real, true “human trafficking” — onto innocent young girls. All slavery is bad; all slavery must be fought. But this rises to the level of a crime against humanity — and that is the truth that we feel in our hearts when we hear about it and feel something far deeper than normal moral disgust. This is the true evil that we sometimes claim to fight — even when we are doing much less.
The hashtag is #BringBackOurGirls. So, now that we have a hashtag, what are we going to do about it?
It’s a “teachable moment” — and one of the things that we’re going to learn about is … ourselves.