Thursday, June 16, 2016

Speciesist Language Reinforces Animal Inequality

The Vegan Vine: Speciesist Language Reinforces Animal Inequality
Violent animal idiom: Kill two birds with one stone.

As vegans, we're usually focused on our behaviors, forgetting that words have power, too. So much of our language is subconscious and mindless, and all too often it conforms to the speciesist notions we have been raised with that we, as vegans, are trying so hard to thwart. Our common usage of certain speech and adages that engender violence and indifference toward nonhuman animals have gained traction through protracted use and long held beliefs to reaffirm perceived inequalities. Whether we intend to or not, when we reiterate these phrases and uses of grammar in speech and in word, we continue to mark nonhuman animals as less than and others.

As a writer, I've noticed that even my computer's spell checker is programmed to uphold speciesism. When I refer to a particular animal as a heshe, him, her, or who, the program highlights the selection and suggests that or it instead. 

In an article I submitted to a newspaper regarding animal testing, I wrote about "great apes languishing in cells who have never experienced climbing a tree or feeling the warmth of the sun.” Even though I ignored the rule change suggested by spell checker, the editor of the newspaper did not and printed my piece exchanging who for that. His correction did not strike me as editing per se but, rather, an unjustifiable license to strip animals of their sentience through words. I've since learned my lesson when submitting letters to the editor; I now inform them beforehand that my use of pronouns is intentional, and I request that they not be revised.

Unfortunately, even writers and publishers of books on veganism and animal rights have incorporated the standard grammatical usage into their works, unaware of how they, too, are promoting speciesism.

How does a that or an it experience anything? Beings think and feel, lifeless matter does not. Our society's treatment of other animals as commodities and tools rather than as individuals is so insidious and far reaching that even our computers command us not to consider them as living creatures who experience joy and pain.

Similarly to the way in which derogatory words are used against ethnic and racial groups to demean so as to discriminate or cause harm, speciesist language also reinforces speciesist behavior.

Franz Kafka's masterpiece Metamorphosis offers a great illustration of cognitive dissonance and species devaluation through word usage. By the end of the novel, Gregor Samsa's sister no longer refers to her brother as a he, but as an it. Even though Gregor transformed into an insect at the very start of the novel, by the end his sister can no longer bear his new form and obtrusive presence, and so she affirmatively declares "It's got to go." Her word choice reflects her new mindset. Regarding her brother as a somethingnot a someonemakes it easier for her and the rest of the family to neglect Gregor.

Many animal phrases attributed to human animals have negative connotations, so when we refer to someone as a "dumb ass" or a "stupid pig" we sustain the speciesist ideology that nonhuman animals are inferior and unworthy.

Additionally, many popular idioms that have been passed down through the centuries involve violence against animals. In her book, Vegan's Daily Companion, Colleen Patrick-Goudreau cites these customary adages and offers compassionate alternatives. Here are some of them:
  • Kill two birds with one stone.  Alternative: Cut two carrots with one knife.
  • Like a chicken with its head cut off.  Alternative: Run around in a frenzied state.
  • More than one way to skin a cat.  Alternative: More than one way to squeeze a lemon.
  • Don't let the cat out of the bag.  Alternative: Keep it a secret.
  • It's no use beating a dead horse.  Alternative: It's no use filling a flat tire.
  • Don't put the cart before the horse.  Alternative: Don't put your shoes on before your socks.
  • Stop cold turkey.  Alternative: Stop completely.
  • Your goose is cooked.  Alternative: You're in big trouble.
  • Put all your eggs in one basket.  Alternative: Put all your berries in one bowl.
I encourage people to use these alternatives and others, but be prepared for strange looks because these newer phrases tend to stop people in their tracks, which is exactly what is needed for consciousness raising.

Likewise, vegans are encouraged to use words of power when talking to non-vegans. For example, if someone brings non-vegan food to work and asks if you can eat it, refrain from saying you can't; instead, say you won't or you choose not to. The word can't implies deprivation and weakness, not power. According to Dr. Susan Jeffers, I can't connotes lack of control, whereas I won't frames the situation in the realm of choice. "Thank you, but I won't eat animals and animal products," states that I have made a conscious choice not to partake in animal suffering and exploitation. This statement has truth, integrity, and power.

Using pronouns, verbs, and alternative phrases that don't espouse speciesism is not only authentic, but it also opens the door to further discussions on veganism and those practices that transcend language and actually contribute to a more just world.

"We need to stop making veganism a culture and instead make veganism a thought process that transcends all cultures. Thoughts drive words and words drive actions," says fellow animal rights activist Matthew Sikora.

Indeed, each word and deed precedes the next on our way to animal rights and a vegan future.

How Do I Go Vegan


Rose Reina Rosenbaum said...

Nicely written and well said. Thank you for the alternatives.

Jan Fredericks said...

Best wishes. Hope this goes viral. :)

Colin Wright said...

A wonderful post. I am writing one currently but it's in very rough draft. I am also one who particularly likes how you included the alternative terms and phrases and am going to reference your post in mine.

Keep on keepin' and we'll make a Vegan world sooner than we think.

Matthew Sikora said...

I just had a person contact me and say " pls extend my thx to her for her awesome elephant ltr in the daily news yesterday!"

Bethany said...

Thank you, Matt! :-)

Colin Wright said...

Thank goodness I got the alert that Matt posted this comment, I was reminded to drop this here: