The Future’s Verdict on Us
Kwame Anthony Appiah has a fascinating article in the Washington Post this morning:
A look at the past suggests three signs that a particular practice is destined for future condemnation.
First, people have already heard the arguments against the practice. The case against slavery didn’t emerge in a blinding moment of moral clarity, for instance; it had been around for centuries.
Second, defenders of the custom tend not to offer moral counterarguments but instead invoke tradition, human nature or necessity. (As in, “We’ve always had slaves, and how could we grow cotton without them?”)
And third, supporters engage in what one might call strategic ignorance, avoiding truths that might force them to face the evils in which they’re complicit. Those who ate the sugar or wore the cotton that the slaves grew simply didn’t think about what made those goods possible. That’s why abolitionists sought to direct attention toward the conditions of the Middle Passage, through detailed illustrations of slave ships and horrifying stories of the suffering below decks.
With these signs in mind, here are four contenders for future moral condemnation…
His first — our prison-industrial complex — seems by far the most outrageous to me, as I have often said in the past:
Roughly 1 percent of adults in this country are incarcerated. We have 4 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners. No other nation has as large a proportion of its population in prison; even China’s rate is less than half of ours. What’s more, the majority of our prisoners are non-violent offenders, many of them detained on drug charges. (Whether a country that was truly free would criminalize recreational drug use is a related question worth pondering.)
And the full extent of the punishment prisoners face isn’t detailed in any judge’s sentence. More than 100,000 inmates suffer sexual abuse, including rape, each year; some contract HIV as a result. Our country holds at least 25,000 prisoners in isolation in so-called supermax facilities, under conditions that many psychologists say amount to torture.
One thing that should be stressed about our prison-industrial complex is that unlike slavery, mass imprisonment is fairly new. We weren’t an imprisoning society in the 1950s, at least not like we are today. We had many other social problems, but neither high crime rates nor high imprisonment rates were among them. It’s only in the last three decades that prison became a way of life, both for inmates and for America. We became a nation of prisons unthinkingly, almost without noticing.