Op-ed Fridays: which is easier, freeing slaves or not using disposable cups and bottles?

This morning’s New York Times posted a story, Holocaust Is Fading From Memory, Survey Finds, reporting a survey with results such as

Thirty-one percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust; the actual number is around six million. Forty-one percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was.

My last name, Spodek, is Jewish-Polish, though my father clarified that though our ancestors came from within Polish boundaries, they weren’t considered Polish because they were Jewish. His parents and grandparents came to the United States about a century ago. We don’t know how many relatives still in Europe died in the Holocaust.
Some of the closest family friends were a Jewish couple up the block who had escaped the Nazis.
I still remember growing up, when school taught us that racist Nazi ideology enabled blond-haired-blue-eyed people to do what they wanted, wondering what I would do. Since my mother’s side came from Protestant Northern Europe, I was blond-haired and blue-eyed (my hair has since turned mousy).

What would you do?

What would you do in an oppressive regime you disagreed with, that caused death and suffering, if resisting could cause you suffering you could pass to escape that risk of suffering?
We admire Schindler of Schindler’s List for helping those he could, partly because of the personal risk he took that most people wouldn’t. Historically, most people didn’t. “Most people” means that you and I probably wouldn’t have.
Last July 4th, I posted an Inc. story, A Millennial Making America Clean Again (it looks like an editor shortened its title), about a student who took on a personal challenge to live by his environmental values—to pick up ten pieces of trash per day for a month. Not physically taxing, the challenge still prompted reflection about living by ones values in a system that opposes them.
The experience revealed things about himself and others, including differences between what they say and do. He wrote

Just yesterday, as I picked up a piece of paper napkin someone had dropped 10 feet from a garbage can, I mused over how I’ve heard people say they wish they witnessed live MLK’s deliverance of his “I Have a Dream” Speech, or how they would have denounced the Holocaust had they lived in Nazi-occupied Germany and been non-Jewish Germans.

But if people can’t act on their values when the stakes aren’t high, then how can they expect to act on them when the consequences of their inaction affect not only themselves, but an entire group of people?

Would most people resist or comply?

It’s easy to say today that you would resist Nazis when no one can check. But most people don’t even stop using plastic bags or flying, knowing they’re hurting others.
Here’s a way to check your personal likelihood to live by your values in the face of personal risk:
If you oppose racism and would have resisted racists then—say in the early 1930s, when few could have anticipated their greatest future atrocities and your personal risk would have been small—do you also oppose pollution today? Do you accept personal risk to live by that value? I don’t mean to buy green when it’s convenient. Actually, forget personal risk, would you simply go out of your way a little?
The human body can go hours without water with zero health risk, yet we are drowning in plastic bottles.Mountains of plastic Not one bottle in this picture is necessary. Your convenience of carrying a plastic bottle comes at the cost of everyone else having to live with your waste and its health consequences.
Waiting an hour or two to drink water seems trivial, yet billions don’t do it, and that’s beneath what I’m asking since it takes no effort.
How about avoiding packaged food in general, avoiding a flight or two (or years of flying), lowering the thermostat in the winter and wearing a sweater, or riding a bike shopping? Most people consider these trivially simple acts of acting by their values—assuming they value clean air and water and don’t want to hurt other people needlessly—too much to ask of them.

Slavery and universities

A big issue on campuses today is how to handle racists’ and slave owners’ names on buildings and support from people who hurt others. Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Duke, and Brown, among others, have made national news for students and community members acting to remove those names.

What do you expect them to do?

Say you belong to a community with a slaveholder’s name on its buildings or accepting money from someone who ordered people’s deaths.
What do you expect the school to do?
The simple answer, for most people, I believe, is to replace the name and not accept the money. Even among those who disagree that the situation is that simple, I believe, still expect the school to do something, probably the same thing. It might just have to take longer.
It’s easy to demand others act when you’re not a decision-maker. Decision-makers tend to have to consider multiple constituencies’ interests, often conflicting.
Still, deciding on names on buildings is nowhere close to Schindler-level decisions. The stakes are lower. No one deciding building names risks dying. Plus, it’s cut-and-dried. Taking a name off a building or a statue out of a park isn’t rewriting history, it’s choosing whom you honor with your limited resources.
It’s hard not to conclude, as most universities are, and many municipalities are, even in the deep south, to stop honoring slaveholders and racists.

What about Thomas Jefferson?

Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, but he didn’t choose to be born into culture and legal system that supported slavery. He inherited them. According to Wikipedia

Starting in 1767 at age 24, Jefferson inherited 5,000 acres of land and 52 slaves by his father’s will. In 1768, Jefferson began construction of his Monticello plantation. Through his marriage to Martha Wayles in 1772 and inheritance from his father-in-law John Wayles, in 1773 Jefferson inherited two plantations and 135 slaves. By 1776, Jefferson was one of the largest planters in Virginia. However, the value of his property (land and slaves) was increasingly offset by his growing debts, which made it very difficult to free his slaves and thereby lose them as assets.

I think most people would answer the following question quickly, but I’m going to ask the following anyway, and I ask you to look from Jefferson’s perspective:

What would you do if you owned slaves?

I think most people acting for removing slave-owners’ names from buildings and statues of them from parks would say they would free slaves if they had them.
You could point out that

  • If you lived in a community where everyone owned slaves, you freeing yours wouldn’t change that much.
  • You couldn’t afford to keep your plantation.
  • Many people then argued slavery wasn’t bad.
  • Many said it was even virtuous and natural.
  • Before the 13th Amendment it was legal.
  • Even Schindler didn’t free everyone he could.

Nonsense, you’d say. I’d agree. All you need to know is that no one would want to be a slave. If you don’t, they don’t.
I asked you to think from Jefferson’s perspective, but the question of what you would do applies to any slave owner. Would you act as Schindler did or as Jefferson did?

What about you today?

All of the above builds to this question for you, if you believe any slave owner should free his or her slaves and you value clean air, water, land, and not causing others to suffer just for your comfort and convenience:

Which is harder: freeing slaves or avoiding disposable water bottles?

Reasons people cite for continuing to pollute sound an awful lot like that nonsense people offer about not freeing slaves. Do the following parallels sound familiar?

  • If you don’t pollute but others do it won’t make a difference.
  • You couldn’t keep living the same.
  • Many people say there isn’t a problem or that it will resolve itself.
  • Many people say you should just follow the market.
  • It’s legal.
  • Everyone else does it.

Someone will probably misinterpret what I’m saying to imply I’m falsely equilibrating slavery and pollution, which I’m not. On the contrary, I’m saying pollution is easier—incomparably easier—to act on than slavery. If you’re clear on acting on your values regarding slavery, then if you agree slavery is harder to resolve than pollution, acting on your environmental issues should be trivial.
So are you true to your word and acting on your environmental values? Are you flying for your comfort and convenience? Turning your thermostat on so you can wear shorts inside in the winter and sweaters inside in the summer? How about your meat consumption? Driving instead of biking?
Or are you saying you would act one way in a difficult situation but not behavior consistently even in an easier situation?
Hmm… I wonder how many readers read this far and, instead of concluding they could reduce their pollution a lot more, instead resolve the cognitive dissonance by empathizing with slave owners. It would be easier for many than changing their behavior, even something as simple as waiting an hour or so longer before drinking a little water.
Repeating my student’s words,

I mused over how I’ve heard people say they wish they witnessed live MLK’s deliverance of his “I Have a Dream” Speech, or how they would have denounced the Holocaust had they lived in Nazi-occupied Germany and been non-Jewish Germans.

But if people can’t act on their values when the stakes aren’t high, then how can they expect to act on them when the consequences of their inaction affect not only themselves, but an entire group of people?

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