The Slave-Owning Sex Pest and A Note on Self-Criticism…

However moral our outward behaviour is, our internal monologue features more dark, disturbing impulses or reflections. Whatever the moral code of this or that society, behind its wall its law and principles will be broken. Man is imperfectible. We are what we are.

John Henry Hammond, a South Carolinian politician in the 1800s, expressed this argument, as an apologist for slavery, in response to critics of alleged sexual abuse on plantations. “I wish the topic could be avoided,” he declared

I am of the opinion…that the public exposure and discussion of this vice, even to rebuke, invariably does more harm than good; and that if it cannot be checked by instilling pure and virtuous sentiments, it is far worse than useless to attempt to do it, by exhibiting its deformities.

It is true, to some extent, that people should avoid morbidly dwelling on vices that cannot be eliminated. But we can accept this only when they have been minimised. Hammond did not do this for a simple reason: he was an abuser. A review of this appalling pervert’s diaries informs us that after molesting his four teenage nieces, which he had the audacity to blame on their seductiveness, he

…jeopardized his own marriage by taking an 18-year-old slave for a mistress; when the only child she seems to have had by anyone besides Hammond turned 12, he took her for his own as well.

You might think I am flogging the bones of a horse. No one has kind words to say about slave owners whether or not they abused women in their free time. But there is a more relevant point that I’m stumbling towards, which occurred to me as I compared the high-minded pragmatism of these public statements with the cruel degeneracy of this private behaviour: a deterministic attitude towards human nature might have some epistemological virtues but it can also be a lame and irresponsible excuse for failing to strive to maintain our own moral standards. If we have the intelligence to analyse our actions in such depth we should do better at civilising our own.

About bsixsmith

I am a writer of stories and poems - published by Every Day Fiction, The London Journal of Fiction, 365 Tomorrows and Det Poetiske Bureau - and a columnist for Quillette, Areo and Bombs & Dollars.
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