CORVALLIS - The complex system of American slavery and the struggles of abolitionist Frederick Douglas may be highly relevant to societal struggles of the 1990s, an Oregon State University researcher says.
Far from illustrating a problem long gone, slavery is a classic example of "behavioral systems" that still dominate the modern world - influencing people's lives in ways they don't understand, working against their best interests and creating latter day slaves to a technological rat race.
Some lessons to be learned from this historical analysis have been outlined in a professional paper by David Bella, an OSU professor of civil engineering and expert on large technological systems.
Bella will also explore this thesis in a seminar as part of OSU's celebration of Black History Month, titled "In the System But Not Of It: Spirit Lessons from American Slavery." It will be Feb. 22 at noon in the Memorial Union, Room 105. The talk is free and open to the public.
"The slave system of nineteenth century America was an expression of an enduring and widespread phenomena in human affairs, the emergence of self-organizing behavioral systems," Bella said in his report.
Such systems, Bella said, can become a powerful force in human affairs, draw vast numbers of people into their grip, and shape behaviors, beliefs and values. Yet they are not intentionally designed or easy to control.
Examples of their modern destructive power include the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, which was caused by a systematic but unintentional distortion of information. But they are also reflected in a blind embrace of "productivity" as an ultimate virtue to improve the standard of living - the same argument for economic efficiency that was once used to justify slavery.
Modern examples abound. But one of the best, ever, was American slavery.
Frederick Douglas was reared as a slave in the 1820s and 1830s before escaping to become a great American leader of his era, and later wrote that he considered both slave and slavemaster to be "victims of a system."
"Our courses had been determined for us, not by us," Douglas wrote. "We had both been flung, by powers that did not ask our consent, upon a mighty current of life which we could neither resist nor control."
After coming to understand that system, Douglas even visited and reconciled with his former slave master, a man who "had made property of my body and soul, reduced me to a chattel, hired me out to a noted slave breaker to be worked like a beast and flogged into submission, taken my hard earnings, sent me to prison and offered me for sale."
In one simplified part of that system, slaves were seen as inferior. Because of that assumption, scientists of the era tried to develop data that would explain why they were inferior. That data and evidence was then used to "prove" that they were inferior, justifying the original assumption.
Further, since slaves were believed to be inferior, they were seen as only fit for slavery. Therefore it was forbidden to educate a slave - and their resulting lack of knowledge was taken as evidence of inferiority.
"Such vicious cycles and distorted information are, unfortunately, more the rule than the exception in our human systems," Bella said. "They continue today in government bureaucracies, large corporations and many other areas."
Unfortunately, the analytical approach of science can become caught up in such systems, sustaining rather than critically examining them.
Slavery was not abolished, Bella said, on economic, scientific or technological grounds. Those entities endorsed it. Only what he calls the challenge of "relational" evidence - the forces of morality, thoughtful discussion, repeated efforts at interpersonal communication, and emotional stories of participants - brought it to a deserving end.
Pressure for technological advancement, economic progress and a view of life through "cost- benefit" analysis remain a modern concern, Bella says.
"Frederick Douglas and other former slaves challenged us to not give our lives over to systems of bondage, of whatever form," Bella said.
"In a way, that's what Jesus did. He challenged the political and religious systems of his day, and offered an alternative to its bondage. We can learn from him, and we can learn from slavery."