When President-elect Barack Obama was born, numerous U.S. states would have prohibited his black Kenyan father from marrying his white Kansan mother. The Voting Rights Act was still a few years away, and the Supreme Court’s order to desegregate schools was being fought tooth and nail. Look at how far we have come. Who alive then would have believed that just a few short decades later, Americans would elect their first black president?
We have broken through a significant barrier, but we cannot stop there. We must now break down the barrier that prevents us from caring about all the “others” who are “not like us,” regardless of race, regardless of gender, and regardless of species.
Prejudice and oppression come about because of a belief that “we” are important and that “they” are not.
In the days of slavery, for example—not so long ago—some people honestly believed that African men did not feel pain as white men do, that African women did not experience maternal love as white women do. And so it was quite acceptable to brand men’s faces with a hot iron and to auction off slaves’ children and send them vast distances away from their mothers. All evidence was to the contrary, yet highly educated people defied their own eyes, ears, and common sense by denying the facts before them. Society accepted this horrible exploitation, and then, as now, it takes courage to break away from the norm, even when the norm is ugly and wrong.
Today, we have abolished human slavery, at least in theory. But we continue to enslave all the others who happen not to be exactly like us but who, if we are honest with ourselves, show us that they experience maternal love as we do, that if you burn them, they feel the same pain as we do, that they desire freedom from shackles as we do.
In their natural homes, elephants live in complex multigenerational social groups, mourn their dead, and remember friends and relatives from years past. Yet we tear them away from their families, confine them with chains to stinking and squalid boxcars, and beat them into performing ridiculous tricks for our amusement.
Rats are detested, yet even these tiny animals—who are mammals like us—have been found to giggle (in frequencies that can’t be heard by the human ear) when they are tickled and will risk their own lives to save other rats, especially when the rats in peril are babies. Although no mouse or rat bankrupted our economy, invaded Iraq, or set poison out for us, we dismiss their feelings as inconsequential and somehow beneath our consideration.
Mother pigs sing to their young while nursing, and newborn piglets run joyfully toward their mothers’ voices. On factory farms, a sow spends her entire life surrounded by the cold metal bars of a space so small that she can never turn around or take even two steps. Chickens who are raised for the table fare even worse. Their beaks are seared off with hot blades, and the birds will never enjoy the warmth of a nest or the affectionate nuzzle of a mate.
The time has come to stop thinking of animal rights as distracting or less deserving of our energy than other struggles for social justice. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” All oppression, prejudice, violence, and cruelty are wrong and must be rejected no matter how novel the idea or how inconvenient the task.
And for those who think that we will never be able to achieve the dream of liberation from oppression, not just for human beings but for all beings, regardless of race or gender or species, I have just three words for you: Yes. We. Can.
Written by Ingrid E. Newkirk