With George Zimmerman’s upcoming trial in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the role that racism may have played in this incident will continue to be a heated topic of debate. And while these discussions may be uncomfortable, they should be welcomed since only by bringing prejudices to light do we have any hope of ending them.
We all have prejudices to dispel: the need to get away from thinking that “I” am important and special and “you” are not, and the frightened mindset that tells us that certain “others” are of no consequence. And homophobia, racism, sexism, speciesism, ageism, anti-Semitism, and other “-isms” not only separate us from one another but also can lead from words to weapons. To read the news is to see a world awash with examples. For this to change, we must ask ourselves whether we can take the uncomfortable responsibility for standing against all violence and oppression, regardless of the victim’s neatly compartmentalized “identity.” It sounds simple, but is it? A mighty fight is ahead.
PETA’s new campaign, “Never Be Silent,” is inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” It encourages everyone to speak up for others whose pain is often casually ignored and sometimes even laughed at, to speak up for anyone, regardless of how hard it is for us to relate to them or how alien their behavior, culture, or looks seem to us, including the individuals gunned down for a millionaire’s casual amusement, the chimpanzees poisoned in experiments, the elephants beaten to make them perform in circuses, and the foxes caught in steel-jaw traps for their fur.
The temptation not to defend members of other groups is strong and always has been. When Dr. King protested the Vietnam War, many of his most powerful supporters warned him to stay out of it, that it was a different issue. Dr. King replied, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” One form of prejudice often begets another; for instance, people who commit vicious acts of cruelty toward animals frequently move on to abuse their fellow humans as we see when we examine the personal histories of serial killers, many of whom have in common such practices as hunting and decapitating neighborhood cats. But it is the “casual cruelty” and the everyday disrespect that requires our attention if we are to be decent to all.
PETA’s campaign should be included in school curricula. If we can open children’s hearts and minds to animals’ needs, teach them to treat a dog or a chicken as if they feel fear and love and pain — as they do — then they will grow up to understand that we are all worthy of respect. Without that, we are doomed to a world in which those who find us alien, who fear us, can hurt us because we are different from them in some way, and we can do the same to them.
When I was 8, my family moved from England to Asia. The culture in which I had been raised was completely different from that of the other children, as was my clothing, my skin color, my language, and much of my behavior. One boy, who was afraid of me, came up and poked my skin with a stick, in much the same way that many humans still treat other animals. We do not comprehend these other animals’ languages, cultures, and behavior, and they look “funny,” so they get poked with a lot of sticks, figuratively or literally. It isn’t fair to them, any more than it was fair for that boy to do it to me.
Much of our bias is born of misunderstanding, of ignorance. In the days of institutionalized slavery in America, many educated people honestly believed that Africans could not feel pain nor experience parental love as white people do, so it was acceptable to brand slaves and to auction off their children. Not too long ago, well-respected physicians rejected the idea that any woman could ever “be allowed” to go to medical school and earnestly believed that women would faint at the sight of blood. People also genuinely thought that it was acceptable to allow children to work in mills and factories. Although we have, in theory, abolished human slavery, recognized women’s rights, and stopped child labor, we continue to enslave other species who, if we simply pay attention, show quite clearly that they experience parental love, pain, and the desire for freedom, just as we do.
It takes some effort and nerve at first to risk mockery and disapproval for going against entrenched prejudices — even when those prejudices are repulsive and wrong–but we must if we are to have any hope of achieving a just world. Recognizing the fundamental right of every individual to be respected rather than ridiculed and treated as a resource for “our own kind” is deserving of our energy if we believe in social justice. All tyranny, bigotry, aggression, and cruelty are wrong, and whenever we see it, we must never be silent.
This article originally appears on The Huffington Post.