Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."Taking his statement to heart, PETA recently launched a new campaign, "Never Be Silent," that encourages anyone who cares to use his or her voice to speak up for the elephants who are beaten and forced to perform in circuses, for the monkeys and rabbits poisoned and blinded in experiments, and for the foxes cowering fearfully in cold wire cages on fur farms.PETA's campaign is not just for those who consider themselves to be animal advocates. We all have a responsibility to use our voices to speak out against violence and oppression, regardless of the victim's race, gender or species. Those of us who work on these issues know that prejudice comes about because of the belief that "I" am important and "you" are not, that "my people" are the ones I care about and not these "others."The temptation not to defend members of other groups is ever present. When Dr. King protested the Vietnam War, black clergy admonished him and said that he should stay out of it, that it was a different issue. Dr. King replied, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Vietnam, of course, became very much a black issue when young black men were the first to be conscripted into military service and were blown apart in mind-boggling numbers.Much of our bias is born of ignorance. Not so long ago in the days of slavery, some people honestly believed that African men did not feel pain as white men do and that African women did not experience maternal love as white women do, and so it was quite acceptable to brand men's faces and to auction off slaves' children. Highly educated people refused to believe their own eyes and ears and common sense because society accepted the exploitation of these races.We have abolished human slavery — at least in theory — but we continue to enslave all the other animal species who, if we are honest, clearly demonstrate that they experience maternal love just as we do; that if you burn them, they scream just as we do; and that they desire freedom from shackles just as we do.If we feel that it is asking too much to open our hearts and minds to animals' needs, too much to treat them as if they feel fear and love and pain — as they do — then perhaps it is too much to ask that we be understood by others who find us alien.When I was 8, I left England and went to live in Asia. The culture that I was used to was completely different from that of the other children. So was what I wore, my skin color, my language and much of my behavior. The other children didn't understand when I tried to communicate with them. In one remote village, a boy came up and poked my skin with a stick. He was afraid of me, and his reaction was to treat me the same way that many humans still treat animals.We do not comprehend other animals' languages, we are ignorant of other animals' culture, and animals' behavior is often misunderstood. So, they get poked with a lot of sticks, one way or the other. It isn't fair to them, any more than it was fair to do it to me.It takes courage to break away from the norm, even when the norm is ugly and wrong, but we must. We must stop thinking of animal rights as less deserving of our energy than other struggles for social justice. All oppression, prejudice, violence and cruelty are wrong, and when we witness it, we must never be silent.
Ingrid E. Newkirk: In honor of MLK: Never be silent