Sometimes we’re very good at only seeing what we want to.
Walking into Sainsbury’s, my eyes always home straight in on the cookie section, and somehow manage to bypass the bargain fruit. Or upon spotting a dog down the road, I’ll become totally oblivious to other people/lamp-posts, often with disastrous effects.
It’s something psychologists refer to as ‘selective perception’. I wonder if it’s actually made worse by the age in which we live, where customised ads and ‘suggested for you’ boxes create an online experience designed to draw us in. And where a little notification from our phones distracts us for the next half hour.
It’s easy to filter out the things we don’t want to see, because there’s so much we’d rather look at.
But what about when the things going unnoticed truly, deeply matter?
Human trafficking has been one of those things for me.
I found the prospect so horrific as a teenager that I didn’t give it more than a cursory glance, but this summer I decided that wasn’t good enough any more. I watched a documentary about the global sex trade: ‘Nefarious: Merchant of Souls’, and, in all honesty, I couldn’t quite handle it. Halfway through I hit pause, shut my laptop, and just cried and cried. Then I thought about the mere fact that I could press pause and look away when millions of people are living this as their reality, and I cried more.
Every time I walk into the chapel in my college, I walk past a huge statue of William Wilberforce, who did his undergrad here from 1776-81. (Sometimes that statue prompts a little feeling of inadequacy when all I’ve achieved that day is return an unread library book and do some overdue laundry.)
One of Wilberforce’s own inspirations and closest colleagues was a man called Thomas Clarkson, who really startled to grapple with the slave trade as a student, during his own undergrad at John’s. It’s a wonderful thought, that these young fresh-outta-uni graduates saw something they wanted to change and fought for it relentlessly, even though the situation seemed totally irreversible: in the early 19th century the success of Atlantic trade and commerce was inextricably linked to the expansion of the slave system. But, as Wilberforce famously said: ‘We are too young to realise that certain things are impossible… So we will do them anyway.’
In 1807 the parliamentary act which outlawed the slave trade was passed – what a huge, wonderful moment in the recognition of fundamental human rights.
And yet… last year the Home Office estimated there are around 45 million victims of human trafficking worldwide. There are more slaves today than there ever have been before. And there will be even more tomorrow.
There are a few things that come to mind when I think about Cambridge. It’s a place of immense privilege – privilege that’s open to abuse, or to be channelled into helping others.
It’s a place full of passion.
And it’s a place full of amazing people – people with different skills. That was something Wilberforce recognised and hugely valued: ‘Different persons have various modes of excellence, and we must have an eye to all.’ Wilberforce and his fellow campaigners had a great gift for seeing what every person could bring to a cause.
But perhaps their greatest strength was in helping people to see – to truly see a glimpse of what was happening in the slave trade. That clear understanding was essential in bringing their cause into the public sphere.
‘Treated Right’ is the tiniest project in the midst of a huge problem, just attempting to unpack some of what’s going on in a way that’s accessible. This is going to be a journey and a challenge to me too… and one I hope may drive us into action together. Over the next few weeks we’ll be grappling with the statistics of modern slavery, looking at the work of charities, questioning how our own lifestyles feed into exploitation, and asking where and how we can make a difference.
Alongside that, there’s a weekly baking scheme running in termtime, which involves 10 students baking weekly for 10 friends (details) to raise money for 3 charities. This is a fun and lighthearted thing to raise money, but of course I don’t ever want that to obscure the awful reality of the issues we’re raising money to fight. I want to sugar-coat the cakes, but not the harsh truths.
And so this is an invitation to join me in looking, even if that is hard. A final bit of Wilberforce wisdom says:
“You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.”
So whether you are a student, employee, school goer or retired – whether you are well-educated in issues around trafficking, or if, like me, you’ve decided that now might be the time to engage, you’re invited to be a part of this with us.
In an issue where there’s so much that is wrong, we can be people who stand up for others to be treated right.
But first we have to take a look.