Enlightenment and emancipation

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At Slate, Jamelle Bouie writes about the Enlightenment's Dark Side:

The Enlightenment is having a renaissance, of sorts. A handful of centrist and conservative writers have reclaimed the 17th- and 18th-century intellectual movement as a response to nationalism and ethnic prejudice on the right and relativism and "identity politics" on the left.

Among them, he names Jordan Peterson, Steven Pinker, and Jonah Goldberg:

In their telling, the Enlightenment is a straightforward story of progress, with major currents like race and colonialism cast aside, if they are acknowledged at all. Divorced from its cultural and historical context, this "Enlightenment" acts as an ideological talisman, less to do with contesting ideas or understanding history, and more to do with identity. It's a standard, meant to distinguish its holders for their commitment to "rationalism" and "classical liberalism."

But even as they venerate the Enlightenment, these writers actually underestimate its influence on the modern world. At its heart, the movement contained a paradox: Ideas of human freedom and individual rights took root in nations that held other human beings in bondage and were then in the process of exterminating native populations. Colonial domination and expropriation marched hand in hand with the spread of "liberty," and liberalism arose alongside our modern notions of race and racism.

These weren't incidental developments or the mere remnants of earlier prejudice. Race as we understand it--a biological taxonomy that turns physical difference into relations of domination--is a product of the Enlightenment. Racism as we understand it now, as a socio-political order based on the permanent hierarchy of particular groups, developed as an attempt to resolve the fundamental contradiction between professing liberty and upholding slavery. Those who claim the Enlightenment's mantle now should grapple with that legacy and what it means for our understanding of the modern world.

"This paradox between Enlightenment liberalism and racial domination was well-recognized from the beginning," writes Bouie, but "Today's popular discourse on the Enlightenment ignores this contradiction and its modern manifestations, seen in the persistence of race hierarchy in the world's oldest democracy:"

We still live in a world shaped by Enlightenment ideas of race and white supremacy. These notions of inherent inferiority still hold purchase in our society. And political liberalism is still too compatible with both. The path to a truly universal liberalism--one that can actually liberate--demands that we grapple with its ugly heritage. To confront the paradox of the Enlightenment is to take its values seriously; to dismiss it is to prefer hagiography to truth.

Katie Kelaidis rebuts Bouie and others identified as the Enlightenment's cynical critics:

For while slavery is as old as humanity, abolitionism is a relatively recent phenomenon that did not emerge until the ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment nurtured it into existence.

In a June 5 article for Slate, Jamelle Bouie writes of the Enlightenment: "At its heart, the movement contained a paradox: Ideas of human freedom and individual rights took root in nations that held other human beings in bondage and were then in the process of exterminating native populations." In the context of an article largely aimed at undermining a "handful of centrist and conservative writers" who have taken up the Enlightenment's defence, this appears to be a damning indictment of hypocrisy. That is, of course, unless one considers that, until the Enlightenment, it is nearly impossible to find a human society that did not, at least at times, practice slavery and engage in barbarous acts of conquest and colonization.

Kelaidis points out that "it is only with the Enlightenment that a universalist abolition movement began to take shape:"

The basic moral declaration that slavery should be abolished entirely did not emerge until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when Enlightenment thinkers would apply their theories of universal human rights to the horrors to which they bore witness in the transatlantic slave trade and New World slavery. Then, and only then, would universal abolition become, not only a tenet of political theory, but also a major moral and political issue.

"Millennia of great moral teachers sought to come to terms with slavery and to mitigate its inhumanity," Kelaidis continues, "but no one--not Jesus, not Buddha, not Muhammad, not Socrates--considered the complete liberation of all slaves prior to the Enlightenment:"

It was that era's emphasis on reason and its assured sense of universal humanism, expressed as an unflagging commitment to the Brotherhood of Man, that encouraged the hitherto unconsidered notion that the abolition of slavery was a moral imperative, and that even kind masters behaved unjustly.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on July 15, 2018 9:57 AM.

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