I have been reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s writings. I’m doing this for several reasons: He’s one of my top four heroes, I remember being moved when I read his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” in college, race relations are being highlighted this year in the newspaper and other forums, and I want to understand the history of racism, bigotry, and civil rights better, but my foremost purpose is that I want to know how the lessons of the past can be applied to the present issue of animal rights. How can this man’s struggle to shame people into recognizing their better self help those of us today who want to bring another truth to light: speciesism is not a more logical or reasonable a position than racism.
I’m not going to explain speciesism here; I refer you to the first chapter of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation for an argument which is difficult to deny. No, here I’d like to share some of King’s words which seem particularly suitable for scaling up, or are at least food for thought. For example,
In their relations with Negroes, white people discovered that they had rejected the very center of their own ethical professions. They could not face the triumph of their lesser instincts and simultaneously have peace within. And so to gain it, they rationalized. – MLK, “Our Struggle“
This resonates with a quote from Kafka, as he looked at a fish in an aquarium: “Now I can look at you in peace. I don’t eat you any more.” Can you hear the compassion of King’s words? His writings are filled with compassion for those whose psyche’s are torn, a wall between their values and their actions so that impossible simultaneity is avoided. Surely we can see this dissonance in people who say “I love animals” and “Pass the pork.”
King continues, “They argued that his inferior…position was good for him.” King is referring to rationalizing segregation due to believing black people would not succeed if they set their sights too high, but we could just as well apply it to animals when we rationalize that animals won’t survive in big, bad nature, and so we must protect them by exploiting them on farms – it’s good for them! – this argument is taken directly from Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
White people “quickly were conditioned to believe that [segregation's] social results, which they had created, actually reflected the Negro’s innate and true nature.” We take animals out of any sort of natural environment, separate them from their parents, deny them their most basic needs, and terrify them, and then they are called stupid when they don’t seem to understand how to get on or off a transport truck quickly.
King continues that black people, immersed in racism, came to believe they were sub-human and accepted “an uneasy peace in which the Negro was forced to accept injustice, insult, injury and exploitation.” It is one of the few consolations in the situation of animal rights, that animals don’t know they don’t deserve this. I’ve walked past polluted rivers and new housing developments and, sad as it makes me, I find a small relief that the displaced and injured animals don’t know about injustice, don’t know about our selfishness, don’t know it’s Man, Man, Man.
In the case of animals, they never will. One enormous difference between the civil rights and animal rights movements is that the oppressed cannot rise up. They are utterly helpless. They cannot march in the streets or refuse to enter the slaughterhouse. One by one the exploiters will have to face that triumph of their lesser instincts. Who will help them see? Who will open the doors? Who will have the courage to testify for those who can’t?