What Will Our Era Be Damned For In A Few Hundred Years?
Updated: Mar 12
Few recognized the evil of slavery for 400 years. Today's social justice warriors ignore our current greatest human rights moral failure.
Slavery abolitionists weren't popular in pre-Civil War days.
When there were cotton and other crops to be picked and money to be made, you couldn't find a more efficient business model than slave labor. The canny plantation owner calculated exactly the minimum cost for keeping his property alive and healthy (enough) and his biggest challenge was preventing slave rebellions or underhanded schemes like harming or hurting his family.
Slavery ended when enough white, especially Christian, mavericks questioned the prevailing status quo and came to see slaves as less inferior than advertised (but still inferior), yet still not born to serve others in appalling conditions, but as human beings with the right to live their own lives as free (theoretically) as others.
Needless to say, this didn't go down well with plantation owners who complained about 'lazy n***ers who didn't want to work' and wondered why they'd have to make less money when these n-words should have been grateful for being 'civilized' with Christianity and their basic needs taken care of (barely). The prevailing Christian narrative was that God intended Africans to be slaves and for centuries, no one thought to question the status quo because everyone dehumanized Africans and only an idiot would question the prevailing wisdumb.
What never factored into the cost/benefits analysis was whether slaves might work harder and be less inclined to murder white people if they were no longer subject to hideous abuses and were paid fair wages.
It's easy to judge previous generations and wonder, What the hell were they thinking? How did they not see the evil in what they were doing?
Not like me
It's extremely difficult to justify brutal, heinous practices if the targets are 'like me'.
One must remove their humanity and see them as 'less than' to excuse otherwise intolerable atrocities.
Once others become one's inferiors, one can justify their horrible treatment, or, if they're a modern-day social justice warrior, simply ignore it. It's more socially acceptable to champion black rights after George Floyd or child sex trafficking after Jeffrey Epstein, and damn our ancestors for slave culture because we're so much better than that now.
But are we? What about the people we torture and abuse today, every day, and justify it by telling ourselves They're just animals. They've proven they're filthy animals. No, they're lower than animals. Animals don't do the horrible things they've done. They deserve their fate. They asked for it!
[Trigger warning: Unpleasant self-violence and descriptions ahead]
We deny their torture because the very worst aren't daily subjected to whippings, lynchings, 'the hogshead' (an older medieval torture adapted for recalcitrant slaves) or cooking them over a fire.
What will be our own everlasting shame for future generations? Our equivalent, complicit 'slavery shame' 150 years from now?
Soul death, soul murder
Henry Hodges cut off his own penis in October of this year.
The Tennessee death row inmate had been subjected to solitary confinement for thirty years and according to fellow inmate Jon Hall, “He’s suffered the most adverse unecessary (sic) & wanton neglect, deprivals, & mistreatment I’ve seen on death row. It’s a miracle he’s not committed suicide.”
Hall complained about Hodges's treatment in the lawsuit he filed for himself for his own endless six years of solitary confinement.
What had Hodges done to merit thirty years alone in a cell, with no windows, nothing to read, see, listen to, or do, allowed out only an hour a day for air and exercise, to stew in his own pre-existing mental illnesses, exacerbated by one of the cruelest punishments imaginable?
He was no angel, for sure. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 1992 for murdering a telephone repairman, and has been in solitary the entire time. Why? It's not clear. Solitary is where they put the worst of the worst, like Canada's serial killer Paul Bernardo, who raped, tortured and murdered two teenagers with the help of his wife in the 1990s.
Prison officials put inmates into solitary on mere whims, or as 'punishment' for various infractions of the rules. Sometimes they're isolated to keep them safe from other prisoners, or vice versa. It can last for days or decades, with few willing to champion their right to be treated like human beings.
Amnesty International, among many others including psychologists, call out solitary confinement as 'designed to dehumanize', not to mention torture.
Where there is dehumanization, there is justification for any atrocity. Very few know what truly goes on inside prisons.
When we think of 'torture' our thoughts drift to physical punishment like the hideous chambers of medieval Europe, where, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker notes, professional torturers raised the craftsmanship of inflicted human suffering to a high art form, led by subject matter experts who understood human anatomy and the science of maximum prolonged inflicted agony. Like the horrible things the most sadistic serial killers do to their victims before finally killing them (like Bernardo and now ex-wife Karla Homolka, the details of which have never been released to the public - nor the videotapes they made of the torture, sexual abuse, and murders). Like the vicious punishments, tortures, and endless cruelties inflicted on slaves in the antebellum South.
But there's one torture literally worse, literally more painful than physical torture. Prison psychologist James Gilligan, author of multiple books on violence, violent men and how the prison system increases their suffering by hundreds of times, says 'soul death' is the very, very worst torture there is.
It's what Henry Hodges suffered after thirty years of solitary confinement, along with thousands of others incarcerated.
Gilligan worked with countless prisoners in his career, with a special focus on 'the worst of the worst': Those who had committed far worse crimes, and perhaps more extensive, than Henry Hodges. Men who had committed horrifying acts of mutilation, torture, sexual sadism. Serial killers. Serial rapists. Psychopaths.
The crux, the core of what drove them, all these suffering men was "...the family of painful feelings called shame and humiliation, which, when they become overwhelming because a person has no basis for self-respect, can be intolerable, and so devastating as to bring about the collapse of self-esteem and thus the death of the self."
He describes men whose souls have been literally murdered, something we can never understand because our own painful feelings can't teach us what it feels like to be "...so deeply shamed as to undergo the death of the self." When one is overwhelmed by shame and humiliation, he experiences "the destruction of self-esteem, the self collapses and the soul dies." When people can't protect or defend themselves against the unloving acts and violence committed on their bodies, including non-violent assault, "something gets killed" within them, their souls are murdered.
When prisoners inflict deliberate physical injury on themselves like Hodges, Gilligan states they're as vicious to themselves as they were to their victims. Gilligan says, "...it is worse to feel 'nothing' than it is to feel 'something', even pain, which they don't feel while they self-mutilate, reassuring themselves that they'll feel pain later when they heal, which proves they're not a 'robot'. So great is their psychic pain that they long for death, but many expressed to Gilligan their desire to do it "in a blaze of glory" after killing as many people as they can.
When that's impossible, suicide is a common option. A 2020 report on suicide and solitary confinement in New York state prisons found that "The rate of suicides from 2015 to 2019 is over five times higher in solitary confinement than in the rest of the prison system, and is likely much higher because of a lack of data on suicides in 'keeplock' and other forms of solitary."
It would be hard to read the list of crimes any had committed and feel much remorse for them.
But that's only if you don't know their backstories. And they all have them, extremely ugly ones, in which, from the moment of birth, they were subjected to horrifying abuse, neglect, bullying, shaming and sexual assault. Their sole 'crime' being born into the wrong families and circumstances.
Gilligan, in his classic treatise Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, says the ultra-violent criminals he's worked with over the decades feel dead inside, describing themselves as 'robots', 'vampires' or 'zombies'. And that's before their incarceration.
The U.S. prison system, considered the most brutal in the industrialized world, magnifies it a thousand times.
If you're still having a hard time mustering sympathy for 'the worst of the worst', and believe whatever's happening behind concrete walls can't possibly be worse than burning a slave alive as an example to others, consider this: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics 5-7 year data collection report on adult correctional facilities, it found there were more than 75,000 people in solitary confinement and that both black men and black women were 'over-represented in solitary confinement even more than in the prison population in general'.
(A 2019 New York Times article argues, Slavery gave America a fear of black people and a taste for violent punishment. Both still define our criminal-justice system.")
Out of sight, out of mind. No one to witness the hideous infliction of pain on other 'inferior' human beings the way people once enjoyed public executions, whippings, and slave punishments. We don't know what physical torture happens behind feet-thick prison walls since the system famously doesn't allow journalists and other documenters in, although a few, like the one Amnesty International visited, did.
While we might be inclined to think, 'I can't give a rat's patoot about what they do to a filthy serial pedophile in prison, and if solitary is the worst they can do to him, have at it!', we'd better think about how this might one day hit closer to home.
The nihilistic despair and hopelessness we witness in the U.S. prison system has begun to take root outside prison walls, boosted by a two-year on-and-off lockdown that sundered ties to family, friends and work colleagues.
We think we had it bad when we resorted to Zoom to see anyone outside our immediate biological bubble, when one prisoner in solitary visited by Amnesty International hadn't been visited by another human being in twenty-two years.
We're social animals and need human connection, even the filthiest of criminals. Even psychopaths. Reams of digital verbiage have been published over the pandemic detailing the further social breakdown already in place for decades. Suicide is up, along with substance abuse, domestic violence, and mass murder. It's a bit like the famously violent 1960s, but with better technology in place for mass slaughter and smash 'n' grabs and home invasions if you don't have the temperament for freeform violence.
The next person who may know someone in prison, or might land in prison, is anyone who thinks That would never happen to me.
Don't be so sure.
None of us know what will drive us over the brink to madness, and I've had my own flirtation with it, about twenty years ago, when I felt so frustrated, powerless and shamed that I called a friend one night and said, "Help me, I'm about to consciously turn my life over to evil." My intention was literal.
Long story, and the ugliest part is I wasn't even being abused, I suffered more from entitlement than anything else. But I never forgot that night and it's why I've become interested in why people become evil. Not the 'monsters', the serial killers, Josef Mengele or Communist dictators (Stalin/Lenin/Putin/Mao/Jong-il & -un). The rank and file. The common man. The 'good little Germans', and the people who enjoyed a helluva lynching on a Saturday night and went to church the next day listing a bunch of silly-ass sins during confession.
We are not unlike the crowd in the photograph. The complicit. The collaborators.
The prison system is the shame we do not know, and don't care to examine, just as white Southerners turned a blind Christian eye from the horrors and evils of slavery. It's hard to acknowledge evil when everyone also looks away, and especially when everyone outside benefits.
Sure, we've got to get violent criminals off the streets, and some can never be rehabilitated and released. But they may not be beyond redemption, either, and those who are unaware of or ignore Gilligan's body of work on the root causes of violence, and especially American violence, will be on the wrong side of history once our nation civilizes itself enough to realize the current prison system is as much a moral stain on our historical legacy as slavery is to antebellum America (including the North).
Gilligan speaks of stumbling upon the discovery that some of these horrific human beings were capable of helping their fellow inmates by raising their literacy. They taught others how to read and write so they could navigate records and legal content. Others learned how to cook and made meals for other prisoners. They developed a purpose in life, and self-esteem, and contributed some good to the world. Finally.
Let's remember, it wasn't their fault entirely either. Childhood abuse has been consistently, definitively fingered as a primary root cause of violence in adults and no one alive today can claim they don't know that. We choose to ignore it. We don't report it. We are complicit. We collaborate in creating the future monsters of America. Each of us may be the future monster of America.
I doubt Twitter will be around in a hundred years, not because I think Elon will destroy it before Christmas but because it will be a 21st-century buggy whip. I also don't know whether we'll choose civilization or descend into chaos, madness, and failed-state status by then. But I do believe this: One day we will arise again as a people, look back on a past no one alive by then remembers, and damn the twentieth and twenty-first century America for its clear and horrific shame.
The U.S. prison system, in a more civilized America, will have undergone reform and prisoners rehabilitated, reintegrated into the outside world when viable, and finding reasons to live rather than self-mutilate if they're not.
We will have stopped torturing them the way we once tortured witches, heretics, and slaves.
We will civilize ourselves.
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