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Talk About It: A Short History of Dangerous Ideas - PART ONE


  An Australian walks into a bar and says "Hey mate! Feed my horse!" Two things happen. Firstly, everyone just sort of stares because honestly, who walks into a bar with a horse. And secondly, the barman refuses to feed the horse (because again, it's a horse), he gets arrested, is dragged through a lengthy court process, gets divorced by his wife and finally ends up in jail. Why? Because it is actually a legal requirement of bars within Australia to feed the horses of their patrons

  The law is simply an outdated one from an earlier time in history. There are many like it around the world. This website is great to read up on them (though you'd have to double-check their legitimacy). And it's just because culture and society changed faster than the laws did. In this case the invention and use of the automobile in Australia meant people were riding fewer horses, so they no longer needed their horses fed at the local bar. It's just that no one bothered to change the law.

  The laws, values and practices we consider normal in our societies today were once not so 'normal'. Over time societies have shifted. The beliefs and customs we take as a given are really just a result of cultural evolution. As an example, and broadly speaking, many societies today recognize the vote for women, a child's right to education, slavery as an inhumane violation of human rights, and polygamous marriages as illegal (sorry guys). This is of course not the case all around the world but in many places, including Australia, it is. At some point throughout history though, these social norms that we wouldn't even dream of questioning were once considered to be dangerous ideas. There was a time when women couldn't vote, when polygamy was fine and slavery was acceptable. Not just acceptable, these ways were considered 'normal'. And at these times those who fought for social change, for women to vote or to abolish slavery, were part of a minority fighting against a broader social voice that not only protected the social 'norms' of their times, they justified them.

  Listed below are brief histories of three social norms that many of us accept today, along with the arguments of those who fought against them. And it's easy for us from our standpoint, within the context of our own 'normal' society, to look back and question how on earth those people who tried to prevent these changes could have possibly justified their arguments. But history is a great repeater. People today in various societies fight for change. Marriage equality, equal pay for women, indigenous rights, these are examples of only a few. And in the future, when people look back at us from their standpoints and question how on earth there could have been people justifying the prevention of their social 'norms', norms that future generations would never dream of questioning, we today have to ask, how will history judge us?

Women's Right to Vote

  The right for women to vote is recognized almost globally today, and though women still face many battles in gender equality the right to vote is barely questioned in most of today's societies. Little more than a hundred years ago though this was not the case. New Zealand was the first country to afford women the right to vote in only 1893. Since then, and slowly, the world has gradually recognized that as women are subject to the same laws as men they get to have a part in determining those laws. This makes sense to us but this was not always the common logic. Those who tried to prevent the vote for women justified their viewpoint with some fantastic arguments. Arguments that they truly believed in. You can read a great collection here of people who opposed women's rights to vote in Australia, reasons of which included:
- Women didn't understand political questions.
- Women were too emotional to deal with politics and weren't able to resort to reason.
- Fighting for a political cause took away from a woman's beauty and charms.
- Political affairs would cause women to neglect domestic duties (guys, literally anything could cause me to neglect domestic duties...).
- Men would get a double vote as their wives would simply vote for whomever their husbands voted for.
- And my personal favourite... women would be influenced by good-looking candidates (I mean I am crushing on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau...).

Monogamy (Sorry, You Don't Get a Harem)

  While some religions and societies still practice polygamy today it is generally frowned upon (and illegal) in many modern societies for people to have more than one husband or wife. While I'm sure a few of you wouldn't mind a harem you only get one partner at a time. You fall in love with the 'one' and you are loyal exclusively to that one for the rest of your life (in theory). Because true love.

  Below is a great TEDx video on the evolution of monogamy if you have the time for it. You can also read a good paper on it here. The short of it is though that monogamy is not as romantic as you think (sorry). It evolved out of social practicality.  Though there's little proof to show for anything regarding early human culture, historians do believe that cavemen and women in hunter/gatherer societies practiced polygamy. Many historical texts, including the Bible, show that polygamy was a widely-spread practice. In those early times it was more effective than monogamy at growing the human population, necessary even for the survival of the human race, and so was an acceptable practice. It was when humans started to practice agriculture that it is believed the concept of monogamy was introduced. When you hunted and gathered you had everyone pitching in on daily life, and resources and land were limitless. But once you owned a plot of land you only had so many resources to go around, and that many family members also complicated the issue of land ownership through generations.

  Ultimately it was Greece and Rome who made the practice of monogamy official, which coincided with the evolution of the modern concepts of law and democracy. Monogamy provided greater social cohesion in a society built on citizen rights and land ownership. Christianity helped spread monogamy but it was the industrial revolution that reinforced how we perceive monogamy in today's society. It is based on a similar principle to that which was introduced by agriculture. People now have even less land and even fewer possessions to accommodate and provide for offspring. In addition people are living longer thanks to modern science. The need for humans to reproduce, and the means with which to accommodate so many humans, has dwindled. And so the concept of monogamy has evolved. But also, true love...

The Abolition of Slavery

  Most countries around the world today recognize basic human rights. This is not to say they are not sometimes violated, but in 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted and accepted by the United Nations General Assembly. The UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights have published a thorough explanation of universal human rights, as have Amnesty International who have also showcased this quick, informative video.

  Among other things, human rights recognizes that all people are born free, banning the practice of slavery. In 1807 the UK passed the Slave Trade Abolition Act, and by 1815 the slave trade was formerly abolished universally. The US saw an end to the legal institution of owning slaves with the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1865 and today most of us consider slavery to be an oppressive and horrific practice.

  But despite the broad modern abhorrence of slavery, the practice was once justified. Arguments for slavery included:
- Slavery saved Africans from native kingdoms that were considered more barbaric. Slavery was even argued to be a kindness in rescuing the Africans from worse forms of slavery believed to be in place in their native lands.
- Slaves were a commodity bought and sold within a trade agreement, and were therefore subject to the rule of those who paid for them. It was business.
- Africans were too passionate and boisterous and slavery helped curb this and bring them into line.
- Africans were uncivilized. Slavery was argued to be mislabeled as such and instead portrayed as an industrial tool to help civilize and ultimately benefit the African. 

  You can read more here.

In Closing

  You could argue that the horse and bar analogy is a poor example. The law reflected society at the time the law was created. When that law was passed the prevalent mode of transport had been horses. That changed, as should the law to reflect it. But so far as say the vote for women or slavery goes, nothing really changed that suddenly demanded new laws. Women didn't suddenly become more able to vote. Slaves didn't suddenly become more worthy of freedom. Or so we from our standpoint would argue, because the beliefs and values that so deeply inform our social norms determines our perspective when we look back at history, they tell us that women should have equal say, that we're only allowed to marry one person at a time, that all people are deserving of their freedom, and all the people throughout history who ever tried to prevent these social changes were inexcusably and inherently wrong. These are our convictions. So we have to ask ourselves, if, during the course of history people could have so readily argued for what we perceive to be injustices, if they could have stood there with their books and their values and their social majority, believing without doubt that they were right, that their side was the good side, couldn't it be that in the face of so much need for change in our own societies, no matter how good our intentions may be or how educated we think we are, that some of us just might have it wrong? And couldn't it be that what may seem to be the prevention of a dangerous idea that 'threatens' society might in fact end up being the callous prevention of a social norm that future generations will hold us accountable for?

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