There is an interesting story in the recent issue of Wired that merits discussion. It is about a Swiss company that is building camel jockey robots, so the slave-boys that currently do the jockeying can be freed and returned home to Sudan. Jim Lewis touches on some of the things this article makes me ponder, particularly when he writes, “But you can argue that progress unaccompanied by a keen ear for context is just a game of Whack-a-Mole. You pound out one problem and another appears right next to it.” But, Lewis needs to go further.
Even though the boys are being returned to freedom from a world of slavery, is this necessarily a good thing? First, we need to isolate the harms that are done to the boys, besides being slaves. Life is supposedly hard for these jockeys, they are malnourished, to keep the weight down, and their injuries are often left untreated. Would these harms exist in Sudan? Possibly. Many of the slaves from the Sudan are seized in the war-torn provinces. While there are some children in the nation that have some amenities we in the West might appreciate, these children are not the ones which are put into slavery. So, it is quite possible that these slave-boys would be malnourished and without adequate medical care either way. It also seems that these boys have the risk of living in a war-torn society if they were to remain or return to Sudan. A hardship compared to the relative stability of living in Qatar.
Now we need to compare the lives of a slave versus the lives of a free person. It is easy for us in the West to condemn the slave-master as evil and the free person as always better off. But is this necessarily so? There are some cultural values that might counter these assumptions of the greatness of freedom. We also have to wonder how free is a 4-year-old boy to begin with? How free is a 4-year-old boy in a war-torn society? How free is a 4-year-old boy in a war-torn society whose cultural practices often come under Western criticism? It seems a measure of transference is in effect here. We try to imagine our lives transposed into the life of a 4-year-old slave, but that is not an accurate measure as we do not know the reality of life as a free-boy or as a slave-boy. I am not arguing that slavery is good, rather that it is complicated and maybe we should pause for some reflection before knee-jerk reacting that they are of course better off as free-boys instead of as slave-boys.
We should also remember that people, even boys I suspect, are quick to attach identity to the place of suppression, so they can internalize the slavery not as the horror as we see it but as life, something to navigate. This is where Salecl’s discussion of The Shawshank Redemption can be useful. Most of the inmates had become institutionalized, looking to the prison life as a structuring force, and often when confronted with the very object of the desire, freedom, they would be consumed by the freedom often committing suicide or committing a crime to be returned to prison life. It is easy for us, as free-people, to look upon the slave-boy with the sympathetic eye, but maybe the slave-boy does not feel the oppression as we fantasize the slave-boy does.
So, what to do? Again, the solution is not to steal free-boys in Sudan away to Qatar, but the solution may not be to repatriate all the boys that are already in Qatar. The end of the article has a brief interview with Abdullah. Abdullah was a slave-boy who rode camels but now is too big to do so. But Abdullah does not necessarily want to return to Sudan, “But now, no. Any job, I can do it. I want to stay here, but when the robot came in there was no job for me.” His life is now in Qatar and maybe ripping him away from that would be just as violent as when he was ripped away from Sudan. The robots are probably good things, as they can be used to prevent the need for new boys, and maybe given the need to test and refine the robots, this moratorium will be the natural way of things. But there are reports of a planeload of boys being returned to Sudan without as much as a health exam. So, this may be another example of our good intentions gone awry.