Discover more from Looking Forward by Stephen Johnston
Making Movements Happen: Adding Moral Outrage
Is Greta Thunberg the William Wilberforce we now need to activate change?
As a student at Cambridge University in 1785, Thomas Clarkson entered an essay competition, in Latin, on the subject of slavery. His contribution not only won the prize, but, enthused him, and others such as William Wilberforce to devote his life to the topic. When subsequently translated into English, it helped propel the nascent abolitionist movement, leading, 22 years later to the first piece of legislation to dismantle slavery, the Slave Trade Act of 1807.
For many in the nineteenth century, slavery was the status quo, and ending it the radical idea. Turning the tide of slavery required not just economic arguments and common sense but moral outrage and a campaigner’s zeal. Many of the abolitionists were evangelical Christians, and their proselytising and bible-bashing was in this case all for the good.
In a recent Guardian column, Oxford professor Eric Beinhocker suggests that Greta Thunberg has been so effective since she has provided the moral outrage – on behalf of a generation that has its future stolen – that has been missing until now. Half a century of academic consensus has failed to significantly raise the issue to the top of the agenda or deliver the necessary swingeing changes to business and society. Prof Beinhocker argues that slavery would never have been outlawed if slaves had just been subject to cost-benefit analysis, and taxes levied to discourage the ownership of other humans.
On the other hand, it seems that we now live in a world that is suffering from moral outrage, often perpetrated disappointingly by those elected to provide moral clarity and act with distinction. Could a moral component be what we need in the ageing world, to wake people up to the fact that they too will be old before long and things need to change? Or does that risk ‘othering’ older people and driving an un-needed wedge between the generations?
This post was originally published at sdbj.net on Nov 19, 2019.