Transcript of speech delivered at Melbourne chapter of the World Day to End Speciesism.
A wise woman once uttered the words: “Never let it be said that to dream is a waste of one’s time, for dreams are our realities in waiting. In dreams, we plant the seeds of our future”.
We have a dream. Each and every one of us here today has a dream, and we are here today because of our shared dream. From the bottom of my heart I want to thank you all for gathering here on this remarkable day as we take that dream from the recesses of our hearts and minds and place it centre stage as we seek to make the world a kinder, more just place for all of her inhabitants.
Today we will make history, but before we move forward I want to take a look back at another historic day that occurred just under three score years ago, ironically enough too in late August. On the 28th of August to be exact, in 1963. On that day, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. stood before a crowd of dreamers—thousands of people who had gathered in Washington to hear him speak. They too shared his dream that a kinder, more just world was not only possible, but was one whose time had come. His delivery of his famous “I have dream” speech stirred a nation into action. At the heart of Dr King’s poignant words was the idea that a person’s worth should never be determined by the colour of their skin.
Today, 54 years on, we are gathered here to say that the worth of anyone should never be determined by their skin, or fur, or fleece, or feathers or fins. That “species” should never be a yardstick for determining the worth of anyone, and most importantly that animals should be included in that number, for they are indeed some ones and not some things.
Alice Walker said: “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.”
Great thinkers, like Alice Walker and Dr Martin Luther King, have throughout history dared to follow their dreams and challenge systems that were anything but just. Although certainly not a great thinker of their ilk, I’d like to share with you some of my personal journey that has guided me here today, as I’m sure much of it will resonate with you.
Imagine if you will something happened in your life, something that was to shock you to your core, and destabilise everything in which you had believed. And that was that your world, and indeed the world around you, was founded on a wrong premise. That happened to me, although it didn’t happen overnight; rather it came about as a series of events that culminated in both an irrevocable thought and a life-changing action.
One of my earliest memories that something was amiss in our animal-loving household came when my mother served my sister and me rabbit stew. Now, rabbit was not the traditional dish served in our household, of meat and three vegetables. No, the meat normally served was either beef, chicken or pork, but not rabbit. My sister and I protested long and loud that we didn’t want to eat the Easter bunny. We cried and we wailed, and stomped our feet as much as we could. Eventually we won out and we didn’t have to eat the rabbit stew that had been served for us. So why did we protest? Our protest stemmed from fear: fear of not only eating a dish not familiar to us, but also from the fear of eating an animal we revered as a cute and fluffy little critter who held a place in our hearts, and most certainly not our stomachs.
Fear, I have come to understand, is incredibly powerful and also incredibly irrational, as it causes we humans to do some pretty unconscionable things and accept some pretty untenable practices, which a clear mind and pure heart never would. In a household that ate animals, what possible rational reason could we have offered our mother that rabbit stew should be off the menu? The truth was, there was none, except the fear of the unknown that challenged our family norms. On the one hand we ate animals, but not all animals. The rabbit stew that day crossed a very disturbing line and in doing so began to drag that little five-year-old me along for one hell of an ethical ride as the fabric of my world started to unravel. This tale speaks to the fractured relationship we humans have with the animal kingdom, and why we are here today.
Here’s another quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr:
“Cowardice asks the question – is it safe?
Expediency asks the question – is it politic?
Vanity asks the question – is it popular?
But conscience asks the question – is it right?
And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right.”
I ask: how has it snuck under our ethical radar that our treatment of animals is based not on their ability to suffer or their capacity for joy, or even their will to live, but based solely on how we humans choose to use them? How has it come to pass that the slaughtering of some animals for their flesh, the incarceration of some animals for our convenience and pleasure, the torturing of some animals for our expediency and entertainment, the reduction of some animals to the status of property and the separation of some animals from their beloved babies, have become socially permissible, financially rewarding and legal as well?
In a nation that prides itself on justice, and showers over $12 billion each year on the animals who share our hearts and homes, why is it that some animals’ worth is determined in pounds of flesh and not pounds of love? The answer is simple: it is called speciesism. Speciesism has provided us with not only a justification and level of unquestioning comfort for the way animals are treated, but also an exemption from ethical thought—and it happens because we humans believe we have dominion over the animal kingdom.
We humans like to think we are apart from the animal kingdom, we are superior by our design and separated by our species; yet the truth, based on sound science and rational thought, is we are very much a part of nature’s rich, multi-faceted tapestry. We humans like to think we are unique and special—and actually that part is true, each and every one of us is a unique and special being, but so too is every animal. There is more that unites us than divides. When cut we all bleed, when threatened we all feel fear: ‘we animals’ (as animal rights activist and photo journalist Jo-Anne McArthur puts it so well) all need food and water to sustain us, we animals cherish our babies, we form strong bonds with our friends, and we have likes and dislikes.
Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
We enslave, exploit and slaughter more than 64 billion land animals and over a trillion aquatic animals every single year. And while those statistics are daunting in their numbers, please never ever forget that each and every one of those animals was an individual who desperately wanted to live.
What if our forefathers and mothers got it wrong? What if our species has taken the wrong fork in the evolution of our humanity? What if our role in all of this is not to overpower animals and rule the world? What if our role is to be kind, and benevolent? What if our role is to be protectors and guardians of the planet and all of her inhabitants? Mostly certainly we have the might to overpower others, but increasingly we are being called upon to ask ourselves: do we have the right? And what if we could live happy and healthy lives without harming others? What compelling reason can we offer for not doing so? Hardening our hearts to the suffering, cries and pain of others not only takes from their lives, but ours as well.
Henri Junttila wisely said, “One day, you heart will stop beating, and none of your fears will matter. What will matter is how you lived.”
Since humans became vocal in their thoughts, there have been those brave enough to challenge the popular wisdoms that the treatment of others was anything but just. While it may have been socially permissible to incarcerate, enslave, torment, harass and kill those considered a lesser being, there have been those brave enough to challenge this. Throughout history our ethical progress has been marked by our ability to embrace those we once considered different, and in doing so our species inches closer to being the best we can possibly be.
There can be no doubt that it is daunting to question our relationship with animals, for the ramifications can seem enormous. People fear change, people fear the unknown, people fear challenging popular thought, people fear being seen as extreme, people fear they may lose something or have to give something up. But what if it is not so much giving up anything, but gaining something? Something called peace of mind, something called living in step with our conscience, something that is in keeping with the goodness of the human heart. What if being kind isn’t really that extreme after all? Too often, people are held back from doing something because of fear, because of the potential fallout, and because of the realisation that their life was founded on a lie. But if we allow fear of what might or might not happen to hold us back, we sell ourselves short—and a short-changed life is no life at all.
Today, 50 years on from my most vocal protest in our family kitchen, I can proudly attest that rabbit stew is still off my menu, but so too is not “beef”, but cows and steers, not “chicken” but chickens, not “pork” but pigs and indeed all animals and their products, as I have come to realise that wrong is wrong, harm is harm, pain is pain, suffering is suffering and killing is killing, no matter whom the victim is.
John Lennon, in his hauntingly beautiful song Imagine, paid tribute to the dreamers amongst us who yearn for the day the world can live as one. I say with confidence that the dreamers here today share that same dream, and the reason we do is because we know that animals too dream and we know that they are more like us than not. In fact, it is only form that separates us in our ability to experience the world and all of her magic. I have the privilege of witnessing this every day at Edgar’s Mission. I see the rescued animals come in: some in terrible states of neglect; others lost souls through absence of care and legal protection, with hunger in the bellies and fear in their eyes. I see the bonds between mothers and babies, and above all else I see them all respond to kindness—just as we would.
Rest assured that when good people unite, they can and will end the most terrible injustices. So, I ask you all as you leave here today to take with you a commitment as architects of a new world, to be the beacons of hope that animals dream of and help end the nightmare that so many of them are forced to endure. Let’s not only make that kinder world possible, let’s make it happen; let’s ensure speciesism will no longer be a barrier to our kindness.
Arundhati Roy says it best, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
I can, too—can you?