I didn’t expect to be as moved by the film Lincoln as I was, but on a recent Saturday morning, after wiping tears from my eyes and sniffling in the back of the theater, I was still trying to compose myself on the drive home.
Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s latest, looks at the last four months of the president’s life and his goal to pass the thirteenth amendment in the House of Representatives. Historical critics have been discussing the accuracies (or inaccuracies) of the movie since its release last month, but that aside, it was impossible for me to watch a movie about ending slavery and not think about the animals who we’ve left to that fate.
Watching the Democrats and Republicans argue their points in an 1865 Washington D.C., I was struck by the harsh truth of the matter: humans are oppressive. We have and do oppress one another. We have and do oppress other species. I watched Civil War battles and couldn’t help but think of the slogan on a Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary t-shirt I own: peace begins on your plate. I listened to politicians question the abolition of slavery. “What’s next? Are we giving them the right to vote? Are women next?” Events a century and a half behind us in American history, and it feels like we haven’t come very far.
In one scene of the movie, Lincoln said something that really struck me:
Euclid’s first common notion is this: Things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other. That’s a rule of mathematical reasoning and its true because it works – has done and always will do. In his book Euclid says this is self evident. You see, there it is even in that 2000 year old book of mechanical law; it is the self evident truth that things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other.
While Lincoln was talking about equality, I couldn’t help but think about all of the times I’ve heard an activist liken slavery or the Holocaust to what we do to farmed animals and how it’s often met with fight-back. “Things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other.” Slavery is slavery. Genocide is genocide. Comparing the treatment of non-human animals to the treatment of humans is not an insult to the humans who suffered at the hands of their brothers; it’s a wake-up call. We haven’t learned a damned thing since we started walking around on two legs and we really need to think about our legacy on this planet that we’re screwing up so completely.
Coincidentally, the day after I saw Lincoln, I caught an old episode of Oprah where she visited Auschwitz with Holocaust-survivor Elie Weisel. As they discussed the fact that Holocaust survivors are becoming rarer and rarer, Weisel said that to listen to a witness is to become one.
We are all witnesses to the atrocities that human beings have committed against each other and non-human counterparts. We all have a responsibility to really think about the parallels of violence and oppression in our history and decide to stop contributing to their continuation. Maybe the first step is to stop looking at those we oppress and hurt as unlike us, as less than us. “Things that are equal to the same things are equal to each other.” What will it take for society to take that thought and run with it in a truly meaningful, paradigm-shifting way?