Saturday, February 18, 2012

Paved with good intentions

One of my social and psychological interests is in unintended outcomes, especially where the eventual effects of an action develop into something not only unintended but opposed to the original intention.

As a therapist, I often see it in couples, where one partner engages in a nagging campaign to improve the other, supposedly in the interests of a happier relationship for them both and succeeds only in driving the other farther away.

A much larger example is the drive in the 1990’s by Western Christians to deal with the problem of slavery in the Sudan. The slave-holding Arabs of the north, being Muslim, had never gone through the epochal change of rejecting slavery on religious grounds, a movement begun and completed by White Christians in the 19th century. Muhammad himself owned, bought and sold slaves and neither the Koran nor the Hadith condemned it but instead regulated and institutionalized it. America's first foreign war was provoked by the Muslim states of north Africa raiding American ships for slaves. The Sudanese Arabs continued Islam’s long and once enormous practice of slaving, focusing on the southern Sudanese Blacks, who are non-Muslim and therefore the permitted objects of the activity.

Western Christians, especially American Protestants, responded by buying these slaves and setting them free. But their good intentions were thwarted by the energy of the unintended outcome. Once the Muslim slavers realized that they could get a good price for their property from these Christian, some of them increased their slaving activity, precisely so they could sell the captives back. The demand increased the supply. The emancipatory activity of the Westerners had the unintended and opposite effect of bringing more southern Sudanese into slavery.

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