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Kanye West’s 13th Amendment outburst was baffling, but worth considering

Kayne West's tweet that the United States should amend the 13th Amendment brought renewed attention to a flaw in its language.

(Photo by Twitter)
  • On Sunday, rapper Kanye West tweeted that we should abolish the 13th Amendment, later backtracking that he meant "amend."
  • The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, but its punishment clause allowed an exception for convicted inmates.
  • The punishment clause isn't the exception but the rule, one that many argue continues America's slavery tradition to this day.

Should we abolish the 13th Amendment? No, no we shouldn't. Slavery is a grotesque, immoral practice, one that stands unequivocally among humanity's greatest sins. Enshrining the abolishment of slavery into the supreme law of the United States was a necessary step in the country's moral progress. I mean, who would even suggest such a thing?

Enter Ye (née Kanye West).

On Sunday, the rapper tweeted a picture of himself wearing a Make America Great Again hat with the message: "this represents good and America becoming whole again. We will no longer outsource to other countries. We build factories here in America and create jobs. We will provide jobs for all who are free from prisons as we abolish the 13th Amendment. Message sent with love."

Social media exploded at the suggestion, and the outburst quickly became trending new. West followed up with a tweet to clarify that he meant "amend" the 13th Amendment, not "abolish" it.

Meagan Flynn, a reporter for The Washington Post, speculated that West may be referring to the "13th Amendment's exception clause," a clause added to the Amendment that many scholars argue undermines its purpose. West thanked The Post for its coverage, suggesting that's what he meant the whole time.

But what is the exception to the 13th Amendment, and why do some scholars find it so problematic?

The abolishment* of slavery

\u200bPrisoners of Mississippi's notorious Parchman Farm hoeing in a field (1910).

Prisoners of Mississippi's notorious Parchman Farm hoeing in a field (1910).

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The 13th Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865, and abolished slavery as a legal practice in the United States. Here's the Amendment's full text: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction" (emphasis ours).

That emphasized clause is the penal labor exemption, aka the "punishment clause" or "convict exception clause." Basically, slavery remains legal in the United States but only for convicts, who can be forced to perform labor while in custody. Those who refuse to work face punishment. The Virginia Supreme Court summed up the situation pithily when it remarked in an 1871 case that prisoners were the "slaves of the state."

In her piece, Flynn notes that the Amendment's language can be traced back to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The ordinance outlawed slavery in the Northwest Territory while retaining it as a form of punishment. Hard work, the thought went, was essential to moral reform.

In the post-antebellum U.S., it wasn't long before the States began to re-institutionalize forced labor, especially African-American labor, using the punishment clause's vague language as justification. Erik Loomis, professor of history at the University of Rhode Island, chronicled this historical abuse in The New York Times:

Almost immediately, states, especially in the South, used [the punishment clause] to control black labor. They began rounding up ex-slaves after the war, passing vagrancy laws that allowed the state to sell their labor. Congressional interference during Reconstruction briefly limited this practice, but by the late 19th century, white rule created a huge economic sector based upon unfree black labor, especially in the prison chain gangs at institutions such as Mississippi's notorious Parchman Farm, a symbol of the Jim Crow era's murderous regime against black people, as well as in contract labor, where private employers worked black prisoners into the grave. Increasingly, prison authorities compelled labor out of nonblack prisoners as well.

The civil rights movement fought against this milieu but did not end it. As late as the 1970s, Loomis notes, prisoners in Texas were being used to pick cotton for no pay in segregated prison gangs. Texas prisoners instituted a prison strike in 1978, and by 1980, the Texas system was ruled unconstitutional.

Slavery, a modern punishment?

The Texas inmate strike was well-publicized but despite their victory, changes to the U.S. penal system have been glacial.

Arizona's Tent City prison was infamous for its inhumane conditions. It was overcrowded, prisoners remained outdoors at all times in the Arizona heat, and many were forced to work in chain gangs for no compensation. Although closed last year, Tent City remained operational for more than two decades, despite groups like Amnesty International protesting the conditions as abuses of inmates' civil rights.

In August of this year, inmates planned a nationwide strike to bring attention to prison conditions, listing low wages and the reestablishment of voting rights for ex-felons among their concerns.

Some states do compensate prisoners for their labor, but wages are meager. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, prisoners are paid less today, on average, than in 2001. Its data show that the average minimum daily wage paid for regular prison work is 86 cents, with an average maximum of $3.45.

States such as Arkansas and Georgia provide no compensation. (One imagines these state's legislators still believe that incarcerated individuals remain "slaves of the state," even if such words can't be uttered today.)

Opponents to the current penal labor system aren't arguing that inmates shouldn't work, but that the work needs to be humane, meaningful, and fairly compensated. Jim Liske, president of Prison Fellowship, argued such a case:

Meaningful work can be part of a restorative corrections policy [emphasis original]. Many prisoners need to learn skills that will make them employable after release. Prison jobs also help people maintain a sense of purpose and structure during long sentences. Society as a whole also benefits when prisoners' labor allows them to pay restitution. But slavery — labor that dehumanizes one person for the profit of another — has no place in prisons or in the Constitution.

Such punishments and cruel conditions may be foisted on any prisoner, regardless of race and gender. However, it should be noted that African- and Hispanic-Americans remain over represented among prison population. Blacks make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, Hispanics 16 percent. But they represent 33 and 23 percent of incarcerated individuals, respectively. Whites, by comparison, make up 64 percent of the population but only 30 percent of inmates.

Sexual slavery

\u200bDenver inmate is educated on voter registration information.

Denver inmate is educated on voter registration information.

Photo: Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Others have argued that the 13th Amendment needs to be reconsidered in light of sexual slavery as well. Sexual slavery is the practice in which inmates treat other inmates as sex slaves, raping them and trading them to others for favors or commodities. The practice is considered underreported and widely ignored.

Estimates for how many people are sexually abused in U.S. prisons each year vary, but according to a U.S. Department of Justice 2011-12 report, about half of reported incidents involved a prison staff member. Lovisa Stannow, executive director at Just Detention International, points out that consensual sex with an officer "is not possible when one party literally holds the key to the other one's freedom."

The law does provide protections for inmates. The Eighth Amendment provides protection against cruel and unusual punishments, and the Prison Rape Elimination Act, passed in 2003, creates a mandate for research into prisoner rape and to develop standards to prevent the practice. And the implementation of national standards is bringing more data to light.

However, as law clerk Kamal Ghali noted in the UCLA Law Review, there is something perverse about an inmate not being able to use the 13th Amendment to strengthen a claim of wrongdoing in cases of sexual slavery.

[…] Obviously, prison officials that cruelly and intentionally enslave prison inmates act in flagrant violation of the Eighth Amendment. Nonetheless, there is something unseemly about excluding government-perpetuated slavery from the scope of the Thirteenth Amendment. While the intention-based approach has the advantage of allowing prisoners to bring some claims, it has the major drawback of letting prison officials off the hook for their intentional acts of slavery.

Abolish? Amend? Ignore?

Given all of this, is Kayne West right? Should we amend the 13th Amendment to remove the punishment clause? That obviously depends on how we amend it, and West was mum on the details. (Turns out Twitter isn't the best place to discuss thorny legal issues with deep historical roots. Go figure.)

But there is precedent. As Flynn points out in her article, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts fought against the Amendment's wording even as it was being drafted. His preferred version read: "All persons are equal before the law, so that no person can hold another as a slave: and the Congress shall have the power to make all laws necessary and proper to carry this declaration into effect everywhere within the United States and the jurisdiction thereof."

Sumner's revision provides a good starting point, and the U.S. needs to reinvest in serious discussions on how to close this legal loophole. Because while the Eight Amendment may protect against cruel and unusual punishment, as long as the 13th Amendment remains as written, our status quo can be neither cruel nor unusual in the eyes of the law.

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

  • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

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