Having just finished attending the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize Forum, I have to be careful in using language that in any way could diminish the atrocities of modern-day enslavement. To my embarrassment and astonishment, I have learned that there are approximately 168 million children currently victimized as virtual slaves worldwide.
These are not cases of children working for their parents or relatives for sustenance. These are kids who are most often abducted, sold and involuntarily subjected to dangerous and demanding work in sex brothels, mines, fields and factories. They are forced into child prostitution or the labor black market to produce many of the clothes, foods and electronic devices that we in the West use every day. By comparison, the zika virus is incidental. The real epidemic facing us as human beings is found in the involuntary servitude of children, some as young as five years old.
The scope and horror of child slavery is so broad as to be nearly invisible to those of us in the West; we have become very good at numbing ourselves from such overwhelming issues, rendering them to statistical status. But the idea of enslaved young children numbering more than half of the entire U.S. population is a reality to warrant shame for every one of us, and more than enough to summon the resources and resolve of humanity to end this modern holocaust. And yet, it continues.
The focus of this year’s Peace Prize Forum has prompted me to wonder about how untenable circumstances arise in the first place, and what combination of apathy, ignorance and disinterest is capable of rendering otherwise empathetic human beings into uncaring bystanders. The transformation is both baffling and fascinating.
I think it must be like the example of the frog and the heated pot of water. Legend has it that if you were to place a frog into a pot of boiling liquid (no frog has been harmed in the writing of this piece), it would immediately jump out to escape the heat. However, if you were to place the frog into a pot of tepid water and gradually increase the heat, the frog would adapt to the changing temperature so well that it would remain in the water, even to the point where it would succumb to the boiling temperature.
We human beings seem to be very good at accepting our environments and the discomforts that we observe around us. We have innate senses of right and wrong, but can be maddeningly silent in the face of the most atrocious violations of human rights. What may begin as an act of desperation can transition to a custom. What is accepted as a custom may be adopted as a cultural norm. And cultural norms can evolve to a sovereign practice, an “emperor’s new clothes” ritual, wherein observers recognize the wrong but remain too silent in the face of it.
If we can be tepid in the face of child slavery, we should not wonder at our seeming acceptance of so many other injustices that confront us daily. The idea that a Nicaraguan producer might have to exist on less than $2 per day will have little resonance in our combined conscience, until we personally are faced with the decisions that a $2 income produces. The alarm bells of wealth disparity that continue to sound within our global economy will generate little response, until finally, the top 1% controls it all. We are unlikely to address the plague of gun violence in our society, until one of our own family members is among the next 50 to be destroyed. We will accept the outrageous insults of politicians and their cronies, until the attacks become focused upon our ethnicity or lifestyle. We seem to be slaves to the easy acceptance of the warming waters around us, only jumping at the boiling point.
I’m sure there are elements of the human psyche which psychologists could use to explain these tendencies about us. Maybe we should read about them to better understand the risks and threats to our collective existence. Our slavery to apathy is filled with consequence, whether we see it or not. Dante Alighieri, poet extraordinaire of the Middle Ages, even warned us about it in his own time, observing that “the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who,in a time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” Knowing the consequences might be an important thing, before we fall victim to our own nature….