Majority Rules in the Language of Animal Rights
I recently read "ORIGINS OF THE SPECIOUS: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language," By Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman. I was already partial to O'Conner from WOE IS I, which I highly recommend, though it also has a hokey, punny style that some might find annoying. ORIGINS includes items I didn't know about, and I've read far more about misconceptions of English than the average person.
What's interesting to me today, however, is the process of "the flip" (my term). The flip is when, for instance, the word "bad" comes to mean "really good." A flip doesn't have to be a complete flip in meaning to the opposite of the original meaning, though some are. More likely, a flip is a shift significant enough to make the old timers who were acquainted with the original definition carp about the youngins and their wanton destruction of the English language, which for some reason they think should never change.
The reality is that language is not stagnant. It changes constantly, leaving the perpetually-frustrated purists spending most of their lives correcting others in vain.
Anyone know where I'm going with this one? Here's a hint from the authors:
The animal rights movement, such as it is, is experiencing somewhat of a crisis of usage. And here's what will always be true in the evolution of language: majority rules. And the purist, ever in denial of that fact of history, will forever endeavor to maintain whatever definition he or she believes is correct, and malign all others.
And I feel for the purists, trust me. I feel the unique pain they experience when they hear or read (gasp!) the word irregardless. I feel for the purist also with regard to the terms "animal rights" and "abolition." I have been "accused" (which tells you something about the tone) of being a "new welfarist" and told I am not an "abolitionist." I recently read a very-lengthy, round-and-round discussion that I had the good sense to not participate in, that devolved into whether or not an individual was an abolitionist, and such discussions have occurred right here at Animal Person back when I quite frankly asked for them. But when you step back from those discussions you see that:
2. The argument centers on the territory of language. Each side wants their use of "animal rights" to amass the most territory (the most votes, the most users), which will make theirs the winner of the common usage contest, where majority rules.
So who's right? On the language front, only time will tell who wins more of the time, as who's "right/correct" can change at any point. Right now, for instance, animal rights activists include those individuals who believe that welfare reforms might some day lead to the abolition of animal use, and that they should campaign for such reforms even if they provide the smallest improvements in comfort.
That's not Mary Martin, PhD saying that's what animal rights is, that's what the majority is saying animal rights is, and majority rules.
If you don't like that reality, stop people in their tracks when they say something that doesn't sound like your definition of animal rights. But remember that linguistically speaking, the other person isn't necessarily wrong and you're right. Wrong and right are less useful and more fluid in language, but they're not in morality.
Do you want people to stop using animals? If so, helping people examine their relationship to sentient nonhumans should be your priority. Your belief about the rights of other sentients won't change. But know that the language around that concept might, and choose your battles wisely.