Original Sins?

There are two basic aspects to any problem that an intelligent person should consider: (1) the cause of the problem and (2) the most practical solution. The first aspect is a good idea so that you either don’t repeat the problem [if you’re the cause] or that you can hopefully do something about a similar problem if you see it happening again [or at least get out of harm’s way]. The second aspect is the starting point for doing something to remedy the problem.

But what if the problem was caused generations ago, and since then all sorts of other problems have been created as a result of the original problem? And what if your forebears weren’t the cause of the original problem, but either weren’t in a position to do something about it or chose not to? Maybe I’m just being simplistically pragmatic, but it seems to me that the pressing question isn’t who was to blame back then, but what’s to be done right now… and what CAN be done right now.

I’m making this generic, because there are a great number of difficult situations across the globe where various countries, people, cultures, and sub-cultures are fixated on WHO caused the problem, rather than on what needs to be done. Not only that, but in a number of those cases, it’s not all that clear who was originally to blame. Blacks in the United States tend to blame the United States and white slaveholders for the institution of slavery, but virtually all of the original black slaves shipped to what became the United States were enslaved and initially sold by other blacks. It was wrong to buy and have slaves, but there wouldn’t have been any slaves if the institution hadn’t already been established in Africa, where, by the way, it seems to be undergoing a resurgence.

We now have refugees flooding out of Africa, out of parts of Asia, even out of certain parts of southern Europe. There are millions of refugees crowded into small areas on the edge of Israel. The United States has millions of illegal immigrants who fled terrorism and poverty in Latin American countries. In all of these instances, dealing with WHO created the problem has very little to do with how the world or various countries need to deal with resolving how to make these people safe and productive. And frankly, even when the problem has a current cause, the costs of dealing with those who caused it may not be practical. The United States, and even the world, doesn’t have enough troops and equipment to mount a military takeover of much of the Middle East and Africa to get rid of all the rebels and regimes that have created the massive flow of refugees.

Original sin is great for theologians, but it’s a lousy excuse for solving problems, and it also gets in the way of solutions, because people hate being blamed for what their ancestors did, and that just makes fixing things even harder politically and practically. But then, blame is far easier and cheaper than implementing solutions, especially when it’s far from clear how much blame belongs to whom and when.

7 thoughts on “Original Sins?”

  1. Sam says:

    Is it just slavery on it’s own or the enslavement of a specific class of people that feeds the resentment? Were there any legal white slaves in America?

    The institutionalised notion that the colour of someone’s skin determined their station in society and whether or not it was acceptable to enslave them has more to do with today’s resentment than the slavery on it’s own I believe.

    Of course no one today whatever the colour of their skin would be happy about their great-great-grandparents having been slaves but there are legacy race issues tied to America’s slave practices that aren’t entirely applicable to other slave trades.

    1. So far as I’m aware, the closest thing to “white slavery” in the American colonies was the practice of indentured servants for a set period of years. Unlike blacks, whites who were indentured were not property; the indenture owner was entitled to their full labor for a period of years, usually in return for the cost of their passage to America, and they were usually given a cash sum when their indenture ended.

  2. Tim says:

    LEM> you are so right. I am an Englishman and you would be (or not) surprised how many times people, political groups etc. have asked that the UK apologise for policies over 100 years in the past.

    i.e. judging past culture using modern wisdom.

  3. Christoph says:

    Thanks Mr. Modesitt. Normally I agree with somewhere between half and three quarters of your individual posts here. In this case I agree with almost everything. I would amend what you have said in way though. In my opinion, no phenomenon or collection of phenomena (whether a problem that needs solving or anything else) results from a single cause. Rather, all things arise due to a collection of causes and conditions, both mental and material.

    This may seem like a minor point, but I think that assiduously training ourselves to remember this could be very helpful. Take, for instance, the anti “rape culture” movement that is currently flourishing. Few from among us want anything other than to see the number of rapes decline, preferably to zero though that seems quite unrealistic. On the other hand, does it help reduce rape to say that advising young women to avoid high crime areas while intoxicated and scantily clad is “blaming the victim”? It seems to me that, aside from being far from helpful to women, such an approach can only stem from a view in which masculinity is the only cause of rape.

    Or take the black lives matter movement. Few would argue that most African-Americans do not face formidable obstacle to success, but blaming them all on “institutional racism” removes the possibility of dealing with the problem of poverty among minorities in any broad and well-planned way.

    Interestingly, the first human I know of who espoused the “no single cause” theory was the historic Buddha, and he appears to have had an even dimmer view of theology that do you.

  4. D Archerd says:

    First, I think the psychological benefits of focusing on who to blame rather than the practical solution are many. It alleviates one of the necessity of the effort of thought and often of any effort whatsoever. It allows one to comfortably retain one’s prejudices against [insert despised group here] without dealing with the complexity of individual differences. It relieves one of the moral pressure to share one’s own wealth and resources with those less fortunate (or simply seen as competing).

    I think Sam raises a good point about the African-American resentment of slavery not being just that their ancestors were enslaved, but that it was carefully and deliberately institutionalized along racial lines and made perpetual and hereditary.

    To Christoph, I don’t think it is “blaming the victim” to note that staggering drunkenly along a street at 3:00 a.m. is going to put one at substantially greater risk of rape by a stranger than being asleep in one’s bed at home. Women (and men) have been raped in both circumstances, but the degree of risk is very different, at least if historical rape statistics are to serve as a guide. No one “asks” to be raped nor does anyone deserve such assault, but some behaviors demonstrably make one more vulnerable.

  5. Christoph says:

    Just to be clear, D Archerd, I agree fully that the example I gave is not blaming the victim. I was referring to the fact that I have seen more extreme feminists claim it is. In fact, institutions of higher learning have designed programs that successfully teach young women how to avoid situations in which they are more likely to be raped, only to find them opposed by more vocal feminists as “blaming victims” and “encouraging ‘rape culture'”. Leaving aside that the complainers are often third-wave feminists, and thus may have a hidden agenda in this area, it makes me think their real motivation has more to do with self-perceived ideological correctness than helping women, or anyone else.

    Also, I agree fully that we spend far too much time trying to decide where to focus blame.

  6. D Archerd says:

    Christoph, I can see both sides of the argument. While it makes eminent sense to teach women to avoid risky situations and behavior to reduce the chance of being raped, I also sympathize with the feminist point – that being that in a fair and just world, women shouldn’t HAVE to modify their behavior to avoid being raped, or at least no more than men do.

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