On Moral Illiteracy

for Jackson

Recently I listened to German author Bernhard Schlink on the BBC's World Book Club discussing his novel The Reader. It's a book about the Holocaust, told, as he says, from the perspective of the second generation of Germans who have lived with that atrocity in their cultural and historical reality, and it explores their share of the guilt. For him, that guilt is shared by anyone who loves or respects someone who was active in the Holocaust (I'm simplifying horribly) unless you are also able to call them to account for their share in the war.He writes from the perspective of one who knows. In his life, growing up in Germany after the war but before the complicity of most Germans in the Nazi atrocities was publicly acknowledged, he knew, admired and loved many individuals who had been personally responsible for, or who had at least taken part in, the wartime genocides. At some point in his life he was forced to make a moral choice. Should his love and admiration for these people obscure the atrocities in which they were complicit, or was it his responsibility to call them to account for their actions?The Reader puts this question on the table. On one level, it's a book about literacy and illiteracy; one of the main characters cannot read or write. Schlink was asked whether he'd intended that to be symbolic or metaphorical, whether he'd intended that trope to represent the blindness of the German people as they ignored the genocides being carried out by the Nazi government. His reply had two sides to it. On the one hand, he said, he was not writing a book from a symbolic point of view. The illiteracy in the book was simply illiteracy--an inability to read. But on the other hand, he added, it was possible for a nation, a group, a people, to breed a sort of moral illiteracy--the inability to behave in ways that were morally acceptable. He used that to account for the parsons and priests and doctors who supported the Nazi regime, who were complicit in the torture and murder of millions, who participated in, encouraged, taught, and celebrated the actions of Hitler and his government. Education and profession were no barriers to atrocity, he argued. What was lacking was not knowledge; it was morality.So here is what I believe about my country. I believe that we suffer from a profound moral illiteracy, and that this pervades our society from top to bottom. Our approach to life is simple and simplistic at the same time; all that matters is what is good for me right now. We feel no collective sense of outrage at anything that is palpably wrong; we do not even discuss the inherent rightness and wrongness of any issue, but choose to implement what is most convenient. We mouth Christian principles, and are happy to use them to justify oppression and cruelty; we press carefully selected Bible verses into service to justify why, for instance, it should remain legal for a man to rape his wife, but do not examine the same scriptures for the concurrent instructions about men's responsibilities to love and honour their wives, or spouses' responsibilities to one another. We turn blind eyes on other instances to ministers of the cabinet and of the gospel and all others who abuse the weak socially, sexually, morally, and physically. We celebrate and glorify hard men of every kind, but despise kindness and compassion. And when it comes time to make hard choices--do we do what is right or what is popular? Do we honour bullies who destroy or value people who seek to build up the common life? Do we work to achieve what is hard but best, or do we settle for what is easily within our (very short) reach?--we make the easy ones every time.In this we are not all that different from many of our Caribbean neighbours, or even from the USA, for which money and finance have more value than human life. It is not fashionable to hold principles. It is not good business to put people first. It is not profitable to seek to be our brothers' keepers, and poverty is in terribly bad taste. The moral illiteracy that I think we share does not end at our borders. It is a North American malaise too, but we in the Caribbean have developed too few traditions that can help combat it, and almost no institutions that provide support for moral stands. For, as Schlink observes, to make the hardest moral choices, "You need an institution to support you. If you are on your own it becomes very difficult."The problem, I believe, is rooted in the fact that our societies in the Caribbean were never designed to be societies at all. Our region is unique in the modern world in being the one place whose sole purpose was to provide cheap goods, generate capital, and extract raw materials to fuel the prosperity of metropolitan centres. This was not always our function; but over the course of five centuries our indigenous populations, societies and structures were first eradicated, and then explicitly re-created to achieve those goals. And we live in the world that remained.Academics write often about "the plantation", but their discussions are remote and not yet as resonant as the legacy of that "plantation", among whose ruins we still live. The concept of the total institution that was slavery in the Caribbean has not entered the popular discourse on any meaningful level. We have been taught, and still imagine, that we have some kind of autonomy about the societies we build in its wake. We do not. Until we do what Schlink and his modern Germany have done—confront the horrors in our history, and call the perpetrators to account—we cannot hope to build anything new. The foundations on which we build are the bones of our ancestors, and they are too uneasy to allow anything to remain.As it exists today, the plantation discussion does little more than provide radicals with the language of critique, and conservatives with a philosophy against which to fight. In our world, we appear not to recognize complexity. We believe that victims are justified by their victimhood, and that they cannot ever become oppressors themselves; we believe that responsibility is one-way, and that skin colour is a badge of power, or of oppression. We do not hold the discussion that recognizes the shared responsibility of us all—that remembers that even of us who consider ourselves "victims", we share in the blood of our oppressors, that we are literally their descendants, or that for many of us who consider ourselves free of the plantation, to share in wealth is to continue to benefit from the forced labour on which this "New World" was constructed. We do not talk about the Africans who sold other Africans to Europeans for guns and ammunition to expand their empires at home, nor do we do not talk about our ancestors who, as the offspring of planters and their slaves, became owners of slaves themselves. We do not recognize the echoes of slavery that  resound everywhere in the global media, local government policies, and the things on which we spend our revenues, both public and private. And we most certainly do not recognize its echoes as we act again and again out of the moral hollowness that is perhaps slavery's greatest consequence.It seems inconceivable to me that we do not recognize the echoes of that evil institution in the way in which we think about development, about nationalism, or about democratic principles, in the way that we talk about and to one another, and in the way that we still—still, after two hundred and seven years after the first slave independence—put almost anything  above human beings. But we do not. We can perhaps take some bitter comfort in the fact that we are only following the lead of the world in this; after all, while the Holocaust has been recognized as a crime against humanity for the entire lifetime of the United Nations Organization, and inspired the 1948 Convention against Genocide, it took that same august body until 2001 to declare the institution of slavery an equal crime. But this is no real excuse.This is the moral illiteracy that plagues the New World in the lengthening shadow of the plantation. Human beings continue to come second to other, "greater" projects. It is to this view that every government in the Caribbean region appears to subscribe, perhaps unwittingly, but subscribe nevertheless, if our collective investment in our human capital is to be any guide. I believe that it is time we, the people of this region, call them out on it. It's time for us to learn, and teach, the moral alphabet to those we elect to represent and lead us, to our children, and most of all ourselves.