Saying Sorry for the Slave Trade

For an insightful and perturbing thesis on the human condition you could do worse than read John Gray’s book, ‘Straw Dogs’. His views about our species are not very complimentary for those believing in human progress. We are the most pernicious animal that ever spawned itself across the face of the earth. Our cruelty knows no bounds. We destroy at far greater levels than we create, whether it be other animals, plants, the atmosphere, the oceans, or ourselves.

Yet, moving on from Gray’s exposition, through it all we are also capable of such acts of beauty, compassion, heroism and self-sacrifice that our dark side must, we feel, become diffused by the light of goodness as time goes on. We thrash around in painful self-flagellation at our inability to eradicate the beast within us – and erase the sheer obscenities of our historical acts.

Should we, the present day white adults in our society, say sorry for our part in the Slave Trade?

It seems to me to hinge upon the following. If today we lived in an inspirational, cultured, compassionate society with no racism, no demeaning exploitation, no bigotry, then, whatever the colour of our skin, there would be no demand for an apology to history. The fact of our sense of having actualised as a benign and humane species would render an apology unimaginable. We could place it in our species evolutionary progress towards what we have become.

The very fact that it is the subject of such emotive debate today is that, in extreme discomfort, we are conscious of the depths of depravity for which, as a species, we continue to be capable.

To say sorry is to admit this in absolute terms. We would prefer to talk about those people centuries years ago, their culture, attitudes and beliefs as though they belonged to a foreign country. If we construct history in that way, then it becomes very easy to apologise.

But, if we are, as is intimated in ‘Straw Dogs’, incapable of rising above the thoughtless cruelty of our genetic make-up, then what have we to apologise for? It has always been thus.

It is still thus.

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