Ever lost a pet, particularly a dog? I personally haven’t, at least in the sense of having one run away or be misplaced. On occasion, I see signs for lost animals on poles and in coffee shops; considering how I’ve felt about the pets in my life, losing one probably ranks very high on the suckage list.
Pets are friends and companions. In a more basic sense, they are also property. When you lose a pet, you often want to get it back. Let’s assume that you lost a dog and you come across it with another person. Let’s also assume that the dog looks perfectly happy with the new person, ecstatic in fact. Would you insist on the new person giving it back or would you be happy that your friend is now happier than it’s ever been and let it go? What if you got the dog for free? What if you paid $100 for it? What about $1000? What about $10000?
Some people would want the dog back simply because it belonged to them. The dog’s happiness and feelings aren’t relevant, it is simply a piece of property.
The standard routine when a dog is lost is to post pictures, maybe even a reward. I’ve seen these posters around and most have a basic description of the dog and a way to reach the owner. Some even include a description of its likes and personality, often in glowing and affectionate terms.
I’ve never understood that tactic. If you want your dog back, doesn’t it make more sense to describe it in the most negative terms possible? If your dog runs away, do you really want to do a sales job for the person that finds it? Hell no, you want to make it look like Cujo even if it’s an adorable little teacup yorkie. What animal is likely to be returned, a cute, happy one or a dangerous one?
If you put a poster up claiming that your dog is a borderline-rabid hellhound, no one is going to forget that information. And everyone who comes across it who has seen the poster is likely going to call you as soon as possible (or Animal Control, at least). It could be the cutest, cuddliest thing in the world but, on the whole, it is more likely that it will be returned if people think there is a reason to fear it.
Now, instead of a dog, let’s assume that it’s pre-Civil War U.S. and you own a slave.
I’ve thought a lot about racism and, to me, a lot of it boiled down to money. That isn’t to say that white supremacy wasn’t an actual thing because I’m sure many slave-owners took a sense of personal joy in owning another human being. But, the thing about slaves is they have an annoying tendency of wanting to be free. Maybe picking cotton for hours every day in oppressive southern heat isn’t actually pleasant. Maybe wearing scraps of clothing to combat harsh weather of different extremes isn’t very comfortable. Maybe being whipped to the bone didn’t feel very good. Maybe being raped wasn’t very romantic. I don’t know, I’m just spitballing.
Well, the inconvenient thing that slaves tended to do was run away. But, if you’re a slave owner, that person is your property and you can’t just have your property running away willy-nilly. Indeed, slave owners all over the Southern U.S. had the same problem, with millions of slaves being potential flight risks.
As a slave owner, you don’t want anyone to empathize with your property, think of him or her as a human being, or, god forbid, help them gain their freedom. Nope, you want anyone who comes across your slave to be motivated to contact you immediately or return him. So your slaves can’t be cute and cuddly. They have to be considered dangerous. Ignorant. Rapists. Murderers. Or the high potential for such.
You know there are people in the world who view slaves as real people, people with emotions, feelings, and, yes, even intelligence. To you, that slave is nothing but property. So you embark on a smear campaign. You produce countless literature denigrating them, painting them as sub-human animals that are not fit for freedom or “civilized” society. You ruthlessly paint them out as barbarics that will turn like rabid dogs against their “betters” if you spare the whip.
In rare instances, some may be companions. Some may even br friends. But, in the end, all are property.
Tell those same stories for hundreds of years and you may even come to believe them. Even worse, the slave may come to believe them too.