The language of oppression and animal exploitation–time for a new and just vocabulary

Kathleen Stachowski   Other Nations

Words matter. Language matters. You know this, I know this. Go ahead, google words create culture or language creates reality and see what you get–and you’ll get plenty.

“While names, words, and language can be, and are, used to inspire us, to motivate us to humane acts, to liberate us, they can also be used to dehumanize human beings and to ‘justify’ their suppression and even their extermination,” asserts Haig Bosmajian, professor of speech communication at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“Bosmajian’s scholarly research on the language of oppression began in the 1960s when he examined the rhetoric of Adolf Hitler and Nazis, especially the language used to demonize and dehumanize the Jews and other “enemies” of the State,” according to the 1983 entry in the UW Showcase.

And just how does one dehumanize human beings? Why, by equating them with animals, of course! Animals are so…so…inferior.

Charles Patterson discusses this phenomenon in the first two chapters of Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust. He lays it out neatly: humans on top, “lesser animals” below. This us over them hierarchy led to domestication, which led to exploitation and slavery of animals, which led to slavery of “lesser” humans, which was enabled by “…the use of animal images, such as “beasts,” “brutes,” “apes,” and “pigs,” as a source of dehumanization and a prelude to the exploitation and destruction of others.”

According to Patterson’s overview, as Native Americans were forcibly removed from their land and their way of life decimated, “…government agents and the press characterized them as ugly, filthy, and inhuman ‘beasts,’ ‘swine,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘wolves,’ ‘snakes,’ ‘pigs,’ ‘baboons,’ ‘gorillas,’ and ‘oran-gutans.’ ”

Animals fared no better in American propaganda during World War II, when the Japanese were likened to snakes, rats, and monkeys. “The image of a subhuman primate was key to undercutting the humanity of the enemy. The enemy was less than human, thus much easier to kill” (A. V. Navarro).

With such contempt for the “lower” species, it’s no wonder humans don’t have to work too hard at justifying animal exploitation. I mean, who cares what a renewable resource thinks and feels?!? (If, indeed, “it” actually does think and feel…) And when we harvest a renewable resource, nothing of import is lost, right? Why, it’s not much different than picking an ear of corn!

Readers of this blog have no doubt already done their own vocabulary intervention and culled the speciesist stuff.  I caught myself nearly saying something was a “hare-brained idea” the other day and then wondered why–I’ve never heard that rabbits are notably lacking in intelligence; in fact, they are wily and intelligent tricksters in many folklore and mythic traditions.

Our linguistic legacy surrounding animals is back in the news with the advent of a new peer-reviewed academic publication, The Journal of Animal Ethics, published by the University of Illinois Press and co-edited by Rev. Professor Andrew Linzey, director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics (scroll down at that page for a list of his books), and Dr. Priscilla N. Cohn of Penn State.

In “Terms of Discourse,” the introductory section to the first edition (read the first page here), the authors say they “…intend to provide a regular forum for inquiry, exchange, and debate about animals and our moral obligations to them.” But first, they caution, “We will not be able to think clearly unless we discipline ourselves to use more impartial nouns and adjectives in our exploration of animals and our moral relations with them.” We must “address the power of misdescription” and expunge words of past thought: brutes, beasts, subhuman, etc.

So how do some media outlets characterize this? (Bet you can’t guess.) With headlines like, “Drunk skunks frowned upon“; with opening lines that read, “Apparently I owe my dog an apology“; and with snark and absurdist reduction: “If some fellow is reaching out to a canine with a temper, instead of shouting ‘Don’t pet the dog!’ we’d have to warn, ‘Don’t manually stroke the companion animal!’ ” (Duh, let’s at least distinguish between the verb pet and the noun pet, ‘K?) Here’s one more: “Once again we seem to have an august and prestigious group of individuals telling us that we should view animals as if they are four-footed human beings in fur coats.” (This column actually prompted a response from Dr. Cohn.)

A local political blog I read from time to time features posts from a particular blogger who speaks of politicians as weasels, payday loan purveyors as sharks (complete with Jaws-inspired imagery), and so on. I’ve actually noticed that the MCLU–the Mustelid Civil Liberties Union–has paid him an online visit in the persona of one P. Marten and kindly asked him to cease maligning the weasel family. (Gee, wonder who might have been behind that???)

So I’ll throw that one–the maligning of weasels–out there as my pet peeve (er, oh dear, now I’ve insulted peeves–meant to say companion peeve, ha ha) and ask, what’s a term of animal exploitation that you particularly dislike? And I’ll leave you with this:

“Words are political. They can foster oppression or liberation, prejudice or respect. Just as sexist language denigrates or discounts females, speciesist language denigrates or discounts nonhuman animals; it legitimises their abuse.”  ~Joan Dunayer, Animal Equality: Language and Liberation, 2001

11 Responses

  1. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately! It seems that every time I watch TV someone is insulting someone else by calling them an “animal”. I used to be a dancer, my brother was an athlete. In both vocations (or avocations), being called “an animal” is a compliment! Dancers and athletes, for the most part, respect the extreme kinesthetic intelligence of animals, because they know what that kind of intelligence entails; whereas it seems that most people whose living doesn’t depend on physicality tend to denigrate it. In my current (sedentary) profession, people still look askance at me because I used to be a dancer, and therefore a “physical” being.

    It wasn’t until I left the world of dance and entered the sedentary world most First World human beings occupy that I actually paid much attention to comparisons to animals being used as insult. (Not that I wasn’t aware of it, just never gave it much thought. If someone called me an animal I preened about it ;)).

    I think this denigration of the physical goes way back (Stoics maybe?), and has a lot to do with the human exceptionalism we cling onto with tooth and nail (not speciesist, we have ’em too! haha) In other words, most animals are so much our betters in matters of physical intelligence that we have to denigrate that completely in order to keep proving that our one trump card — linguistically-based rationality — is the only thing that matters, morally.

    What I wonder is, why? We’ve obviously got the power. We’ve enslaved (domesticated) billions of animals, and we’re driving the rest extinct. Why are there such knee-jerk reactions (like you quote above) to any rethinking of the way we even talk about animals?

  2. What an excellent reply to an excellent blog on an excellent study!

    I find your observations fascinating, Lorien. Everything you say makes absolute sense.

    I had never considered the idea you present so perfectly that I’ll repeat it: “[M]ost animals are so much our betters in matters of physical intelligence that we have to denigrate that completely in order to keep proving that our one trump card — linguistically-based rationality — is the only thing that matters, morally.”

    I love that Joan Dunayer observation you cite at the end, Kathleen.

    The only example of “speciesist” language I noticed was in Dr. Cohn’s response to Stanley Coren, where she repeatedly uses the word “that” instead of “who.”

    ~ “…raccoons that get into garbage, deer that nibble on flowers or birds that eat the seeds…”
    ~ “Any animal that interferes…”
    ~ “…a bloodthirsty animal that wants to eat us.”
    ~ “…wolves are not the frenzied killers that…”

    A misplaced “that” may seem like no big deal, but it has the effect of subtly degrading nonhumans with the implication — even if completely unintended — that they are not a “who.”

  3. Great post! Specific language that get’s me riled every time is owed to the animal users themselves… It’s when they say they “harvest” the animals. It does give the impression that these beings are nothing more than “ears of corn” or stalks of wheat. It’s infuriating!

    I suppose many seconds on my list would be calling nonhumans “livestock”, “meat animals”, or “production animals”. It’s all a ruse to set sentient ones into a grouping of “things” — Their language mocks every truth in reality. 😦

  4. Calling wild animals “it” rather than he or she. Especially true when dealing with captured wild horses. Example: when a foal is killed or injured the BLM never calls the little one a filly or a colt, and if the vet examined the injuried or dead horse they surely know–male or female. This IS important!
    Also, animals are NOT “put down” or “put to sleep” they are killed by lethal injection(maybe for humane reasons or maybe not) either way we kill them not nature.

  5. Excellent observations from all. Lorien, I can relate–I used to race bicycles and amongst our group of racers, too, being called an animal was a compliment. Speed, strength, agility–these are things that our species can safely admire, apparently, while exploiting animals as a class of lesser beings in all other respects.

    Bea, the verb “harvest” has got to be one of the most dishonest uses of language ever. I would put “renewable resource” right up there with it.

    CQ, I only scanned a few paragraphs of Dr. Cohn’s response, and am astounded by your observation regarding the use of “that” instead of “who,” which is echoed in Honor’s comment about using “it” for animals.

    In today’s local paper, an article about abuse of Indian kids by priests and nuns… Speaking of the still-tormented, now-adult victims who are seeking justice: “They arrived speaking little English. They learned some words fast. “Dirty.” “Pigs.” ”
    Lest we believe these things happened in the historical long-ago…

  6. Bea: yes, hands down, “harvest” when used about animals makes my blood boil. The other is “processed” (as in “chicken-processing plant”). Grrrr.

  7. If you have room for just one more… It’s the word “finishing”. As in the “finishing” barn — Or when cows get sent to be “finished”. Of course the word means exactly what it’s meant to… How ironic that it’s disturbing when they use words “correctly” or for the exact opposite than the definition. Ha! When it comes to what language they use… Guess I just can’t be pleased. 😦

  8. Mares who are ovulating are said to be “in heat” now where does that come from? Maybe the same boys who call female dogs “bitches”. These sexual terms have had an impact on the girls and women of this culture. We do not view our animal bretheren
    with respect and it shows in our language!

  9. Thank you for the excellent post! While it can become ridiculous to be overly careful with our language, it’s important to remember how important it is for shaping the issues among those we’re trying to change.

    On this topic, readers might be interested in a past blog post from the Humane Research Council: “The Power of Words in Action: An Interview with “Hugs for Puppies”

  10. I hope it’s okay to direct readers to this post that examines the word “slaughterhouse” as opposed to “abattoir” and “meatworks”. Someone in the comment section may have give the most accurate definition of them all: “an animal killing factory”.

    In any case, in any language or country, their double-speak and “pc correct” verbiage is unending.

  11. […] Nota: Este artículo a sido traducido por miembros de Defensa Vegana bajo expresa autorización de su autor: Kathleen Stachowski . El texto original se aloja en ”The language of oppression and animal exploitation–time for a new and just vocabulary“. […]

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