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The Last Country To Abolish Slavery

Slavery does not quite sound like an issue for the 21st century. When humankind is well on its way to start a colony in Mars, when technology has made education accessible and when globalization has brought people closer, who would think about slavery?

Have you seen a slave in your lifetime? But slaves do exist. Even around us.

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Mauritania | Picture Credit: commons.wikimedia.org

In fact, the Islamic Republic of Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981, passing a law to to prosecute slave owners only in 2007. While new, humane laws make one hopeful about changing a social situation that undermines human dignity, the picture post 2007 remains equally gloomy in Mauritania with a 2012 CNN report citing just one conviction while a 2016 Al Jazeera report showing how anti-slave activists are being imprisoned in the country.

This makes one question the utility of laws in bringing about structural changes in a society. Laws are necessary, no doubt. But laws alone are incapable in delivering desired change. The deviants would just find another way to exploit the exploited. They would engage not in slavery but in slavery-like practices.

The biggest challenge in any change management exercise is changing the attitude of the people involved – the exploiter’s as well as the exploited’s. Changing the latter’s is more tricky. As Ahmed Vall Ould Dine, media spokesman for the Mauritanian Human Rights Watch, explains:

“Slaves tend to develop very close relations with their masters; the freed ones, who are poor and have inherited nothing from their parents, chose to remain under the auspices of their ex-masters as they provide them with basic necessities of life.”

They don’t even know what it means to be free. They do not know about or understand human rights. (Also what would one do if one becomes free, if one does not have any other source of livelihood?) This reminds one of Plato’s allegory of the Cave.

In the allegory, we learn about some people who have been imprisoned in a cave since their childhood. They cannot move or see anything beyond what lies in front of them. There is a fire burning behind them and all they can see is the shadows of the puppets carried by other people. They can hear the voices of the people and attribute the sounds to the shadows they see. They even start identifying the shadows with time, naming them in the process.

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Plato’s Allegory of the Cave | Picture Credit: By Veldkamp, Gabriele and Maurer, Markus [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Now one of the tied prisoners is freed and led on outside. The light outside blinds the prisoner. And as the freed prisoner adjusts with the light outside and slowly comprehends the surroundings, he realizes that all he knew was farce and reality is much more beautiful and superior. He starts pitying the cave existence, his own past life and his cave companions.

Say, he returns to the cave to be chained again. He tells his companions all about the things he has seen and experienced. He tells them how the shadows are but a false reality.

How do you think his fellow inmates would treat him now?

Of course they would think that he has gone crazy. His views and opinions would be blasphemous. They would also notice that he cannot see the shadows as well as he used to. Thus, they would blame the outside experience for both the insanity of their fellow companion as well as his physical degradation. They would now resist any attempt to bring themselves outside. Even if they are freed, they would not get out.

What  good is reality when the present is known, when we have adjusted to it?

This is the exact thing that happens when we try to change a social situation in a country or a undertake a change management exercise in an organization. Why not try to change the social circumstances before passing a law? Why not discuss and promote the utilities before changing the circumstances? A branding exercise maybe in an attempt to communicate the usefulness to all the stakeholders involved?

These are not easy questions to answer but ones that definitely need to discussed if we are committed to change, if we really want to change our society, our organizations for the better.

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Author: Amartya Dey, India