January 15, 2021

Slavery Revisited

 The latest addition to the politically correct lexicon is the use of the phrase enslaved person for the more succinct slave. Supposedly, this practice is intended to emphasize that those held in bondage are, first and foremost, human beings.

Slavery, in antebellum America in any case, sought to eradicate the personhood of the enslaved as much as possible. To Southern planters, slaves were not people at all; they were property that, ideally, behaved as automatons. (I know, domestic slaves became, in a limited sense, part of the owning family. But most slaves were field hands who were simply interchangeable parts of the plantation machinery.) Slave personhood was rather a nuisance. Instead of celebrating their personhood, calling slaves enslaved persons minimizes the dehumanizing and cruel conditions under which they labored. It substitutes for the terse, harsh, one-syllable locution, a milder-sounding four-syllable phrase that softens the horrors of the peculiar institution.

It is true that no one is properly characterized only by one’s occupation. We all understand this. To say that someone is a manager, for example, does not suggest that he or she is not fully a human being, a citizen, perhaps a spouse and parent, a lover of food, etc. There is no need to speak of such a person as a person who manages. Likewise, we speak of a baseball player without feeling any need to speak of a person who plays basketball. Friends would think it strange were we to refer to a politician as a person who engages in politics, though, admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to discern the humanity of such a person. Yet, we have converted homeless people into people who are experiencing homelessness.

Substituting phrases reputed to emphasize the personhood of actors of one sort of another merely serves unnecessarily to increase the word count of our writing and utterances. No one needs to be reminded that a politician, or even a slave, is actually a person. Neologisms such as enslaved person are simply silly and should be avoided.

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