We live in a brutish world. The front page of the daily paper illustrates this truth every morning. We are confronted with the latest details about the suffering and death of both Israelis and Palestinians as a result of the Hamas attack, the ruthless violence inflicted upon Ukrainian citizens as they try to survive Putin’s cold-blooded war, and the uncertain fate of thousands of immigrants as they encounter intolerance or indifference at various borders.
A great deal of the violence and suffering people experience, however, rarely makes it to the front page.
In the past few weeks, I have read detailed stories about the cynical use of child migrant labor in states that have stripped away the legal limits on the employment of children. I’ve learned of the involuntary “relocation” of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in China to become forced labor on its fleet of squid ships. And I now know about the hellish toil involved in mining cobalt and copper in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
If we buy Oreo cookies or Gerber baby snacks, eat calamari, or drive an electric vehicle, it is likely that we are unintentionally complicit in the labor abuses described above. In most cases, we aren’t choosing to look the other way, but if we are honest we will acknowledge that the degree of our complicity bears examination.
There is nothing new about economic exploitation. In his 1759 satire Candide, Voltaire places his naïve protagonist in various confounding situations that tax his way of looking at life in the “best of all possible worlds.” In one of the more heartrending episodes, Candide encounters a one-armed, one-legged man lying helplessly outside a sugar mill. He questions the man about his deplorable state and is told that when an enslaved worker’s finger is caught in the mill the owners cut off the hand, and when a worker tries to run away they cut off one leg.
“This is the price we pay for the sugar you eat in Europe,” says this wretched soul.
While some consumers are willing to ignore the human rights abuses that take place every day in the world of global commerce, I think in most cases people are so busy coping with life’s demands that they are simply not looking in any direction but the one they are walking in.
Although I taught for 12 years in a high school founded on the tenets of Catholic social justice and became well versed in the distinction between sins of omission and sins of commission, I am not certain how to categorize my own behavior or that of others when it comes to so much of the manifold evil evident in today’s world economy. On the other hand, neither am I content with a “it has ever been thus” shrug of the shoulders.
The poet Jane Hirschfield offers the following:
Some questions cannot be answered.
They become familiar weights in the hand,
round stones pulled from the pocket,
unyielding and cool.
A thought for the new year: There are no simple remedies for confronting the contradictions inherent in living in an unscrupulous globalized world. We can, however, choose to put down our partisan megaphones, whether we are using them to amplify feel-good left-leaning wokeism or lockstep right-wing ideology, and then, with silence prevailing, turn full circle and quietly take in the dreadful suffering that shrouds life on Earth. If we choose to carry a stone in our pocket, perhaps we will discover that bearing witness can be more than a contemplative exercise.
Andrew Hay lives in Eastham.