Our history of oppression is long. So, too, is our history of human rights advocacy. Learning from the missteps in the latter is critical to our struggle with the former today.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

There’s a quote by 19th-century essayist Charles Dudley Warner that I think about every time I revisit world history. As he wrote, “It is fortunate that each generation does not comprehend its own ignorance. We are thus enabled to call our ancestors barbarous.” Cute, right? But the phenomenon he observed, of thinking ourselves automatically morally superior to our forebears, is also dangerous. When we flatten other eras of human struggle, we allow unearned pride to shelter us from greater introspection. We cannot learn from a past we approach with so little curiosity.

So let’s go back five centuries, to a little country called Spain. What was Spain doing at the turn of the 16th century? Oh, you know, the usual: sending people to the Americas to bring back luxury goods, and wreaking genocidal violence on local populations in the process. I was in grade seven when I read the letters of Hernán Cortés, the brutal conquistador who seized Mexico and repaid Aztec’s welcome with the destruction of its empire. So, I’ve known about the cruelty of New World invasion for quite some time.

And yet, only recently did I learn about the human rights arguments transpiring in Spain at the same time, like that Queen Isabella had decreed in 1501 that Native Americans were subjects under the Crown, entitled to protection from all violence and redress for crimes against them. Likewise, in 1550, Emperor Charles V summoned two men to debate the justness of war against indigenous peoples before theologians and councillors. One of those debaters, Bartolomé de Las Casas, also fought in general against the encomienda, which was supposedly better than slavery, but continued many of its abuses under a new name.

(Does that sound like a familiar trajectory, U.S. readers?)

Context is everything

Now, these questions of natural liberty played out long before the philosophical events that shape our myth of the Enlightenment, and they emerged through dissenting views of Catholic obligations. Those facts alone offer some insight into why they’re not always common knowledge. (Mind you, as a Canadian, my education on Spanish conquest probably differed a bit from that of U.S. readers, but I can also easily see why these events weren’t brought into a Grade 7 classroom). After all, why should wording matter? What Spain did in practice was still undeniably genocidal. That was the most important lesson to make sure students didn’t miss.

But I would argue that it especially matters that, five centuries ago, human beings were just as preoccupied with debating how best to act in relation to other human beings, even while they were actively oppressing them. In all these debates and decrees about the limits of our obligations to one another, we see the same sort of word games played by our leaders today.

In 2017, U.S. carceral justice advocate Bryan Stevenson famously said, “Slavery didn’t end in 1865. It just evolved. It turned into decades of terrorism, violence, and lynching.” In the U.S., slavery was followed by vicious Jim Crow laws that maintained segregation and created excuses for incarceration into forced labor. The extremely hard-won Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Act of 1965 ended the Jim Crow era but not “the springs of racial poison.” Dog-whistling in the 1970s and ’80s around the menace of “welfare queens,” along with importance of a highly racialized war on drugs, reinforced ideas of an undeserving, lazy, criminally inclined underclass of Black citizens. And in the 1990s? It was “super-predators.”

Interim arguments for justice

The critical lesson from history is that we’ve been here before. We have long histories of grappling with what to do about unjust systems, and of trying to maintain old social hierarchies under new language. What could we learn about how to build a more just world, if we paid closer attention to at least five centuries of flawed human rights advocacy?

Another important touchstone is a possible contender for our first English novel, Oronooko: Or, the Royal Slave. A True History. When Aphra Behn, a female spy for the Crown and a famous playwright of the 17th century, wrote Oronooko, she might not have realized she was setting a template for the myth of the “Noble Savage.” Nor would she live to see its stage adaptation, by Thomas Southerne, play throughout the 18th century, alongside the rise of anti-slavery movements led significantly by British and U.S. Quakers.

Though a well-intentioned part of compassion-building for some, the “Noble Savage” myth was also viciously exploited. After all, the idea of seeing slavery as wrong because we might be enslaving people of kingly dispositions creates a cruel division between “good” and “bad savages.” Unsurprisingly, then, even as some countries were banning slavery outright, 19th-century scholars advanced the “Hamitic hypothesis.” This both neatly justified slavery under Genesis 9 (the curse set upon the descendants of Ham), and also invited the view that there were two tiers of Black person, the Hamite and the Negroid. One’s Biblical lineage made him “sub-Caucasian,” and as such, fit to be “civilized” and even elevated into regional power.

Haunted by five centuries of misguided advocacy

You might recognize the Hamitic hypothesis from one of its most brutal legacies: the Rwandan genocide. In the late 19th century, colonial authorities imposed this racialized hierarchy on local groups with more nuanced ethnic identities. The “Tutsi” were Hamitic by their reckoning, and thus born to lead over the “Hutu,” an inferior race. The rhetoric became so firmly entrenched that the next generation used the colonizers’ language in their own political struggle.

Now, did the generations involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide expressly draw upon those ancient colonizers’ ideas? Not exactly. But the word “Hamite” did show up in genocidal propaganda. The legacy of colonialism, even well into an ostensibly post-colonial nationalist movement, required a more direct reckoning to be fully weeded out.

(As does the legacy of slavery, in all its incarnations, in the U.S. today).

What could we learn about how to build a more just world, if we paid closer attention to at least five centuries of flawed human rights advocacy?

Lessons for human rights advocates today

Five centuries of flawed human rights advocacy gives us a great deal to reflect upon. And that reflection starts with a more unflinching and well-rounded look at our histories in full. Because it’s never been true that a society wholeheartedly and without dissent backs any given oppressive cause. There is always argumentative push and pull.

While a small number of Spanish citizens went overseas and sowed atrocity in the Americas, back in Spain there were express attempts to condemn slavery and related exploitation. And outrage over injustice came from one vein of Catholic thought, just as the sense of entitlement to oppress came from another. Later on, in Britain and the U.S., Quakers, among other Protestants, would advocate strenuously for the abolition of slavery, too.

Likewise, any language ostensibly developed to inspire justice-seeking change often only perpetuated the same violence under new management. The encomienda system was often no better than traditional slavery. The Noble Savage myth, supposedly fostering empathy, also created new justifications for racialized hierarchies. And in the U.S., formal slavery gave way to Jim Crow, which gave way to a highly racialized system of mass incarceration.

So what’s our takeaway?

In light of so much historical folly, we have to remember that refining our language is not enough. For five centuries (if not more) people have wrestled with how best to advocate for human rights. And for five centuries, defenders of a more oppressive status quo have been adapting right alongside these “more enlightened” ages.

And so, as we look out today on the latest landscape of iniquity—the ongoing indentured servitudes, the regional variance in our reactions to global conflict, and other crushing losses of human life and livelihood to unjust systems—we so desperately need humility.

We and our ancestors, five centuries ago, are not as different as we’d like to think.

And if we’re not careful, we too might let ourselves be lulled into thinking that a simple name-change or systemic shuffle will ever be enough.

We have to remember our endgame instead, and always measure our supposed successes against it. What are the “win” conditions for our human rights advocacy?

And yes, granted, even if we look unflinchingly at the history not just of oppression, but also of flawed human rights advocacy, we still won’t achieve everything in our lifetimes.

But maybe, just maybe, we can avoid some of the same missteps in the fray.

Avatar photo

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.