Labelling can be harmful

28 March 2007

by Simon Parke

EACH era requires new abolitionists. First, however, let us consider the old.

The slave trade was abolished in all British territories 200 years ago this month, owing mainly to religious embarrassment and an increasingly literate and informed population, which came to know too much for the holocaust to continue. Newfangled sympathies for other humans emerged. From now on, we would all be nice to each other.

But there was a great deal of ground to make up. Over three centuries, 12 million Africans had been transported to the Americas as slaves; and three-and-a-half million of these Africans had been carried in British ships between 1662 and 1807. We still live in the maelstrom.

The ANC government in South Africa, for instance, applauds the repulsive work of President Mugabe in Zimbabwe because although it hates injustice — about which it knows much — it apparently hates whites even more.

The current film Amazing Grace has sailed into similarly turbulent seas. It is the life story of William Wilberforce, and has opened to much commercial success in the US. But, as the noble white man saves the poor black people, you can see why it sticks painfully in a few throats. Looks like it’s White History Month again.

Speaking in Zanzibar, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of the terrible possibility of looking at other human beings and not seeing their needs and their suffering. Certainly, people looked at the slaves for a long time and felt nothing. Even John Newton, after his conversion, did not initially envisage giving up the trade. He was more vexed about his bad language. “I was exceedingly vile indeed,” he wrote, referring not to his callous day-job, but remembering the day when he took on the ship’s crew in a swearing competition — and won.

Every generation has its blind spots, of course. So what might be our blind spot today? The answer is simple: labels.

Given the sweet mysteries of unity at our finger tips, it is remarkable that, like a deranged conference organiser, we continue to stick labels on people. Muslim? Tory? Hindu? Woman? Gay? Christian? Black? Orthodox? — the sad list of separation is endless.

Labels are not just stupid, describing nothing of ultimate significance in a human. They quickly become evil, unleashing formidable horrors, personal and state, that become possible when someone isn’t in our club — all bitchy, vindictive, and sour. Beyond labels, however, where all are merely human, it’s amazingly graceful — one for all and all for one.

Amid our global slavery to labels, we are the new abolitionists.

Simon Parke is the author of The Beautiful Life: Ten new commandments (Bloomsbury).

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