In an abject fragment of a variegated society, some people scurry into cage houses, dozens of people tolerate taunts and differential treatment, and a few are put behind the bars as the price for advocating the truth. The enduring quote “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, which is extracted from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, serves as a wake-up call to the self-preserving individuals. Two tiers of meanings are embedded within the quote: first, our lives are intertwined, we are responsible for each other; second, we should take the initiative to alter unjust laws.
We are responsible for one another and no one can be off the hook. We are living on the same planet. History has spoken to us that epidemics spread, economic crises went through the domino effect, pollutions diffused, and local conflicts escalated into regional wars. However, have we ever asked ourselves: are we willing to use less air-conditioning to save the environment for our future generations? Could we consume less coffee to stop the exploitation of the coffee farmers? We often pay no need to our actions which may adversely affect the rights of the people around us.
We are also turning a blind eye to their suffering. In 2011, the two-year-old “Little Yue Yue” was knocked down by two vehicles in Guangdong. She was lying there unattended for seven minutes. More than 18 passers-by circumvented her body and were indifferent to her condition. In the end, she was sent to the hospital by a rubbish scavenger but died eight days later. Why, among the 19 people, there was only one Good Samaritan? Many have attributed the pedestrians’ odious reaction to the aftermath of Peng Yu incident, such that the Good Samaritans were framed for causing the injuries themselves. It made us wonder: what has our society become?
Someone may think that it is alright to simply look on when we are sitting comfortably at home without coming across any accidents. That’s not true. Every seemingly “trivial” injustice is an attack against humanity – an altruistic spirit we have inherited from our ancestors and this spirit makes us human. We incline towards love, benevolence and justice, and express contempt for bullying and deceit. As a result, an injustice somewhere elicits outrage from every corner of the world. When we do not stop injustice, we allow crimes to prevail and let culprits go free.
John Stuart Mill wrote, “let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing”. Good people become accomplices by procuring the bad people to administer evil plans because the former tolerate morally reprehensible acts.
“Send not to know/ For whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” John Donne has warned us that each death indicates our failure to safeguard the welfare of the human population. It is because of the unfair distribution of resources, the inability to put an end to torture, and the absence of timely help would a person die. These instances have also manifested our cowardice, indifference and incompetence. From a pragmatic perspective, a prolonged injustice to an individual may eventually evolve into a catastrophe. It would be too late to do anything at that time.
We should now turn to King’s second message.
I came across a solid illustration of the danger of inaction towards any injustices we witness. The German Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemöller said,
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
It was the society under the Nazi rule. Evil marched on until it was halted by the powers which stood up against and resisted the tyrant. Every faint call has its echo and together they make the loudest cry. This cry would change popular beliefs which are contrary to the moral values. Up to this date, slavery has become an embarrassing segment of human history; LGBT rights has been finally recognized; and democracy has been endorsed by many countries. They are not the results of changes in the law alone; they are the results of the people’s direct action to push forward legal changes. Justice does not automatically come through the courts; it comes through the people.
It is also King’s second message that we should not sit around passively. Yet, I still believe that law could regulate itself by answering to people’s inquiries, just that we must speed up the process and strengthen the enforcement of the law. The case of Brown v Board of Education of Topeka 347 U.S. 483 (1954) is a case where civilians took things into their own hands and challenged the legally recognized policy of racial segregation. Brown’s decision has overturned the decision of Plessy v Ferguson 163 U.S. 537(1896) which buttressed the then long-standing doctrine “separate but equal”. In fact, the doctrine was a masquerade of the heinous racial discrimination which internalized racism among the African-Americans since they were young. It made them feel inferior. The court unanimously held that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and declared racial segregation laws unconstitutional. The court restored equality and justice to the global society. Without the 13 Topeka parents, the Topeka attorneys and the different unions, it could be anticipated the law would remain stagnate and ethnic diversity would still be a long way. We should never underestimate our influence. Time changes, attitude changes and therefore law changes.
We do not need to be a law-maker all the time. We first need to be more responsible for our actions such that we do not infringe the rights of the others. Not only can’t we deliberately harm the others, we must avoid carrying out activities which would indirectly cause harm to the others. For instance, we could make fewer purchases at fast-fashion stores because these sweatshops hire children as workers. We could also consume less so that the solid waste would not be sent to the developing countries where toxins would be emitted into the air. At the same time, we could put an end to injustices by our choices. We stand against bullies by reporting crimes and seeking the truth. In fact, we could speak up for the suppressed individuals through signing petitions, propose legislative bills and render changes in the law via creating precedent plus responding to the court decisions. Just remember: be observant, be empathetic and be bold.