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Servants, Masters, and the Coercion of Labor

Inventing the Rhetoric of Slavery, the Verbal Sanctuaries Which Sustain It, and How It Was Used to Sanitize American Slavery’s History


David K. O’Rourke

This book by David K. O’Rourke presents a study of language and linguistic forms and the roles they played in the initial imagining, developing, and maintaining of a society based on coerced labor. It focuses especially on the contexts of coercion and on the differences in the roles of masters and servants from society to society. In the interaction between colonial powers and conquered peoples, O’Rourke also describes how the European colonial nations imposed their own languages, social metaphors, and utopian views as a way to disconnect those they conquered from their historic roots and re-imagine, redefine, rename, and map them into new lands and places inhabited by inferior peoples needing control by masters who understand how they should now live.
O’Rourke begins by describing how this rewriting of history is not new. He calls on well-established classical and biblical language studies to describe how older and historic oral histories and texts were rewritten to reshape the past to fit new and more useful views. He explains how rhetoric, metaphor, and pseudo-sciences were used to change Europe’s earlier contracted and coerced labor in colonial America into the chattel slavery that became the hallmark of the new and growing United States. O’Rourke also describes how the dominant culture’s current values, foundational metaphors, and sacred notions were woven together into linguistic shelters that served to enshrine the repressive process from questioning and dissent. These same linguistic elements were then used after emancipation to maintain and sanitize the remains of the slave system by presenting it as a benign institution.
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Chapter 6: The Arrogant Rhetoric of Repression




To a people like ours, accustomed to choices and contracts in the work they do for a living, one of the remarkable aspects of the slave labor in our own history is that it survived as long as it did without the kinds of choice we take for granted. But here I want to propose another possibility. In the American slave system the masters actually incorporated enough by way of actual human choices that some workers were able to adapt, endure, and survive. Legally, rhetorically, the coerced workers were presented as chattel. But in fact, the masters saw them as sufficiently human and smart enough to understand what it was they had to do in order to survive. The workers in the usually lethal Nazi camps were seen as valueless, replaceable, short-term labor, often more trouble dead than useful when alive. But in America the slaves were very valuable and essential parts of the profit-making system. The coerced had to know that their masters were serious in what they demanded, and that they were stuck in their lot with little chance of escape. The general public had to know that they were safe from slave uprisings that many feared. But for the system to work the workers had to know that they had ← 111 | 112 → some kind of future, with some benefits, and what they could regularly expect in return for their role in keeping the system afloat.

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