I am no specialist in (north) american history, but a simple visit to wikipedia is enough to understand the American Civil War was a conflict regarding slavery. From the first paragraph: “The cause of the war was the dispute over whether slavery would be permitted to expand into the western territories, leading to more slave states, or be prevented from doing so, which many believed would place slavery on a course of ultimate extinction.”.
When you read the causalities section, the numbers are scary: “The war resulted in at least 1,030,000 casualties (3 percent of the population), including about 620,000 soldier deaths—two-thirds by disease—and 50,000 civilians” - and that’s a minimum number, the real percentage of the population that died in this war is huge.
Without digging too much in the non-official causes of the war or into the historic details, I think I can say it was a milestone to human kind in terms of changing from a world where slavery was the norm, to a world where everyone is free. But has the change caused by the war or by the victory of the north?
Real changes take time
It’s probably possible to trace the origin of this change back from the end of feudalism, passing through the french revolution, with society economic habits changing slowly, with changes in the predominant mental model in most people’s heads, until we see the practical effect in how our society is organized nowadays.
Understanding this point is key for what I want to express here - both slavery and freedom don’t come from night to day, they come from the predominant mindset that lives in society. Freedom is just a word and unfortunately, it’s not achieved with a war victory - real abolition of slavery comes with a slow process of mind change in the whole society.
The change has started way before the war then, so here is my question for you: has it been completed? Have we really won this war already? We can look at how many dictatorships we have in the world and we will easily see that this has not been the case. Let’s look at some examples:
- Foxconn suicides - in a Chinese firm that has Apple and HP as customers, there have been many cases of suicides due to poor work conditions. People have to ask permissions for their bosses to go to the toilet.
- Wineries in Brazil involved in slave labour scandal - A case that happened in 2022, where brazilian farmers in the south of the country would hire workers paying low salaries and sell them goods at high prices. The workers got in debt and then could not leave anymore without paying the bills.
- Slave markets found on Instagram and other apps - in Saudi Arabia there is an app called Haraj, where woman can be bought - this news is from 2019 and it’s very likely still the case today. According to walkfree.org, 740000 people are currently living in modern slavery conditions in Saudi Arabia
- According to antislavery.org, 49.6 million people around the world live today in some kind of modern slavery condition.
- Still according to The Guardian and walkfree.org, more than 400,000 people could be living in “modern slavery” in the US, a condition of servitude broadly defined in a new study as forced and state-imposed labour, sexual servitude and forced marriage.
Well, if you deep analyse the facts above, you will ask: why? Why do such things still happen today? Can the world go back to the slavery model the south of US defended during their civil war? Are we certainly evolving, or are we still at risk of going back to that? When will we win this war for good?
Freedom is inside your head
One of the hardest things for me to understand in life was that slavery is much more than a physically forced condition. These cases of slavery happen with something in common, they might even had physical aggressions, but in many cases it’s the culture, the way the person see himself or herself, that makes them to accept that poor condition and understand that’s “their normal”.
Slavery doesn’t occur just on the enslaved mind, it also occurs on the enslaver mind. As a brazilian, I am lucky enough to have had contact with many books from a famous brazilian author called Machado de Assis, who wrote in deep about this subject - his writings go deep in the analysis of what’s happening inside the enslaved and the enslaved minds. I really recommend his work, unfortunately I am not sure how much of it is available in english.
Have you ever thought about that Foxconn case where people have to ask to go to the toilet? Can you imagine that happening to you? Now take a moment and think about the boss, controlling how much people go to the toilet. Do you see him as a slave?
I must tell you - I do. Slavery is a condition, it’s a way of understanding the world, it doesn’t matter who rules - no slavery means no ruler, being put in the place of the ruler doesn’t make you less of a slave. Controlling how often people can go to the toilet might seem normal for some people - that is the slavery mindset being alive. Fighting slavery means fighting this kind of mental model, above all. While we still think some people are born to rule and some to obey, slavery is alive.
When you go to a restaurant, do you like to be served? Do you think the world can only be good when you have a maid to clean your house? This kind of mindset is extremely common where I was born in Brazil and in many places around the world, and although the war has ended for long, don’t be tricked - slavery is still there.
Bare this in mind: slavery is the mindset towards power and dominance, it’s not the physical coercion itself.
But is it the same thing?
Just to be crystal clear about this, as I know I am touching a very delicate point, by no means I am trying to minimize here in this text the formal slavery as it happened, specially by afro americans in the case of US and other american countries.
I think there is no doubt that was unacceptable and that it should end, what I am trying to explain here is that eliminating formal slavery is just not enough - because while the mindset is still there, it can still come back or it still exist in some lighter form.
Acknowledging that the real change requires a change in mindset is not the same as saying that the kind of slavery that existed before the way is the same kind we have today - modern slavery is different, but it still something very undesirable.
What does it have to do with my team at work
At this point, whoever is reading this text might be asking - ok, but what does all of that have to do with my job? There is no slavery where I work…
Well, once you understand the point I made above, you can start asking yourself whether that’s really the case. You might not see formal slavery, but are you sure that slavery mental model is not there where you work?
It’s useful to think about that, and think about the kind of society you want to live at. The real war is not fought in trenches any more, the real war is fought in every office space, or every remote workplace, where “soldiers” fight the old days mental model every day.
Have you ever had the desired of being “served” by others and to rule? Do you question, when this desire comes, whether everyone doing the same will lead the society for the model you think it’s the correct one?
When we see initiatives in the workplace to minimize discrimination, moral and other forms of harassment, unconscious bias awareness trainings, all that goes in the spirit of changing what matters the most - our mental model as a society.
But can you think of other examples at work where your attitudes, the attitudes of your manager/hierarchy or the attitude of the people who report to you are related to slavery and to this change we want (hopefully you too) see in society?
I want to list some practical situations and ask you to question with me: what of those things are fine and not related to freedom at all and what of those things we should try to change as a society. Are these examples normal? Or are we biased for the world we see today? Would these things be considered as normal 50 years ago?
Please, I am not saying I consider all of those scenarios of modern slavery! It’s really an exercise to think about it.
Manager A controls the amount of times people go to the toilet
Manager A controls whether or not people can yell at each other inside the team.
Manager A controls the start and end times people in the team start / finish to work
Manager A controls the amount of times people go to the office per week
Manager A yells at someone in the team because the person arrive late at work.
Manager A yells at someone in the team because the person tried to go against his/her orders and performs an action that could cause death of people.
Manager A is responsible for everything a team does, but his manager, manager B, tells him he cannot tell engineers what to do. When engineers do something wrong, manager A is blamed.
People sign a work contract saying they have to stay longer at work if needed, but it’s not in their control how much will be needed.
People in the team sign a contract with poor working conditions they don’t want to accept, but they have to because there is no other job offer for them in the market.
Engineer A can do his/her job pretty well and submit the required output, but his/her manager wants to control HOW she will do the job and impose a set of processes to force a way of doing things. The processes have flaws, engineer A struggles to get the job done and is blamed for that.
Manager M gives orders to subordinates S1 and S2. The orders given to S1 have a bad outcome and S1 is blamed for the outcome. The orders given to S2 have a good outcome and M showcases how good was the outcome due to management decisions.
There are 3 engineers in a team, they are told they all make decisions as a team, and the whole team takes responsibility for the decisions. Engineer A wanted to cause an impact and make a big contribution to the team, but because decisions have to be made by all, A can never implement those ideas, because the rest of the team won’t be willing to try.
A manager motivates a team by making everyone feel super special and work harder, making promises like “better work environment” when some milestones are reached, without any intention of (or power to) fulfilling the promise, just lying as a mean to achieving the ends.
What do you think about the scenarios above? Have you ever seen them in practice? Are those all fair scenarios? Do you think it’s easy to define the boundary between what’s acceptable/normal at a workplace, and what’s a “slavery mindset”?
I see the american civil war as one big event that signalled a change going on with society, but the change is still happening and it’s really hard to know where it will evolve to. What we know, for sure, is that we all take part in that, and IMO, we should all keep this in our minds and start paying attention to the minor things that happen at our workplace. Have you ever stopped to think about these things and their relation to slavery and society organization?
I don’t think, at all, that all scenarios I listed above are forms of slavery. But I am very confident in saying some cases are far from being obvious and if I show the same scenarios in front of different people, I am certain I would get many conflicting results.
If you understood the main message of this article, here are some suggestion of practical actions you and I can do in our workplace to make sure we build better work environments for everyone:
- Start paying attention to your habits and to your team’s habits. You might be doing things since you’re born that you never questioned before.
- Remember that many things that were considered normal 50 years ago, for instance, are condemned today, because we evolved as a society in being concious that those habits were wrong. You could be doing things today that will be considered wrong in 50 years.
- Before you advocate strongly for something at your workplace, look at the examples above and remember that these things are far from obvious. Try to be concious of that and understand others’ point of views.
- Keep the discussion about the morality of each situation on. These things are to be discussed, we must exchange ideas about them, if we want to evolve as a society
- Do position yourself and admit when/if you find out you were wrong - trying to take always the right side of the story might mean nothing. It’s not enough to defend the north, you have to understand why they were right and why freedom is something to die for
- When you’re in the strong position and you can take advantage of someone else, question yourself whether this is the society you want to live at. Don’t forget your actions are examples to others and even if you take advantage today, tomorrow it might be you or someone you love who is the fragile part
- Never forget the person in a position of power is also a slave. Slavery is a mindset, so do not think you’re “protected” or that you won’t suffer the bad consequences of slavery if you embrace it being in a position of power. It’s about who rules, it’s about not needing or wanting a ruler, even if it’s you.
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Leave your feedback
Please do comment, give feedback, I would love to read what you think about the subject.
I will probably write more articles in the future related to this subject, but I had to write this one first to part from the base. I hope you enjoyed it and I hope it made you think about the problem - hopefully in the next ones I will write more about specific problems related to this subject and possible solutions.