Right is a four-letter word

When I was two years old, I had a pretty good idea of the difference between right and wrong. Actually, looking back, I probably had a better idea of it then than I do now; as we get older, I’m discovering we are expected to blur the lines between right and wrong to suit ourselves and our cultures.

My clearest memory of this comes when I got my first pet. It was a fish, and I loved him. Or her, seeing as I’m not sure. My mom bought it for me after I said the word “Fish.” (She’d have bought me a pony if I had said “pony;” I swear it. I was a late talker and my parents were overly enthusiastic whenever I said a new word.)

It wasn’t until one night when my mom made me fish sticks for dinner when I found myself poised on the precipice of morality. She looked at me and said, “Eat your fish.” I looked at her, then to the new bowl with my pink terra with its long, delicate tail, and then back at my mom and said in my very brief but serious way, “I like fish. I don’t eat fish.”

At two, there were no blurred lines for me. Fish were pets. You don’t eat pets. The line between right and wrong was sharp and non-negotiable.

Oddly enough, I’m reminded of this story as I face today’s lesson in my World History class learning about the slave trade. Back when I was younger, discussions of slavery were pretty cut and dry: Bad European (and later colonial) traders would go to Africa and steal people.

Again the line between right and wrong is definitive.

Enter high school curriculum (I’m a bit advanced for a twelve-year-old): so much more detailed than its predecessor. I’m learning that slavery in Africa began long before the Europeans and their colonies came along. Africans usually did not enslave their own people, but did own slaves from neighboring African communities. These slaves were often treated very well—practically like members of the family. But other times not, even using slaves as human sacrifices.

Ah, the things they don’t cover in middle school history that are delved into in ninth grade.

So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to make the jump and learn that African leaders themselves (especially those in Western Africa) participated in the slave trade. It wasn’t until the onset of the very lucrative triangle trade — where ships would profit heavily taking African slaves across the ocean to sell them to sugar plantations, then loading their ships with sugar to be sold in the British North American colonies, then fill their ships with the rum made from the sugar to be taken back to Europe to be taxed and sold — that some African leaders questioned the logic of selling their slaves after witnessing how they were treated and the subsequent decimation of their population. And anyone could see why! The slaves taken by the Europeans were treated brutally. In fact, traders packed three to four hundred slaves on a single ship for the trek across the ocean, crowding them on because they knew that many of them would die (one in seven dead before seeing land on the other side). The slaves slept chained to each other on hard, wooden planks, often waking to discover that they were now chained to a dead person. Disease was rampant. Even worse, the slave traders would sometimes murder slaves who became ill because their ships were insured and while the insurance would not compensate for slaves who died from disease, they would compensate for slaves who drowned.

All totaled, according to my high school’s curriculum, more than four million slaves were brought to the Americas alone.

With hindsight, it’s easy for us (at least if you have an ounce of compassion) to know that slavery in any form, in any number, no matter how the slaves are treated, is wrong.

Humans cannot own humans. Period.

But this history lesson makes me consider the slippery slope any of us can take when we say something to a smaller degree is okay. But when it’s broadened that somehow makes all the difference. The African leaders who sold slaves were similar in a way to our own nation’s Founding Fathers, many of whom I firmly believe were good people, great patriots, and had high moral standards. Yet they owned slaves and even often acknowledged the wrong in it. Perhaps they, like those African leaders who sold their slaves, thought that it was a justifiable wrong. They might have thought, “Our economy depends on it” or “It’s okay because I treat them well” or “Hey, I have to feed my family somehow.” All the justification in the world doesn’t change the fact that it’s wrong. Plain and simple. And if we dip our toe in the wrong waters, suddenly we find ourselves swimming with sharks and the things that we know are wrong become rampant and even more difficult to stop.

What other things do we encounter in our lives that we think are okay is some small degree?

At two, I knew that if I loved my fish, then it was wrong to eat sea creatures, a principle I’d apparently gotten over at some point by the time I was two-and-a-half and discovered the joys of popcorn shrimp.

We stand in judgement of other cultures when we speak of the horrors of the poor puppies in countries like Korea who are bred strictly to be eaten. I know—as a dog owner, it turns my stomach, too. But cows are just as cute, and highly intelligent pigs are often even kept as pets the same as one would a dog.

How’s that bacon tasting now?

So, before anyone criticizes my title and informs me that right is not a four-letter word, but in fact five letters (proving that you didn’t actually read my article) then I would argue that it is one. Not a literal four-letter word. But a figurative one. “Right” is one of those pesky words that might get you into trouble if you say it out loud. Right—while not a bad word—it’s a difficult one. It’s inconvenient. Hazy. A conundrum. It’s makes us uncomfortable when we take a good, honest look at ourselves and our actions.

Unless you are two.

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