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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:

In the end, it's not the grammarians and usage experts who decide what's right. It's you–the people who actually use the language day in and day out. In the eighteenth century, for example, grammarians tried to stamp out the use of "wrote" as the past tense of "write." They considered "writ" or "writt" the only correct forms. At least fifty-nine grammar books of the period pounced on "wrote," calling the usage "absurd," "bad," a "barbarism," "colloquial," "corrupt," "improper," "inelegant," "ungrammatical," a "solecism," or "vulgar." No matter. Once again, the people wrote the rules (43).

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:

1.    The people involved are usually vegans, so there's no one to convert (though their charitable dollars might need converting if they go to an organization that doesn't have the same goal as the individual); and
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.
I have a definition of animal rights and for abolition that makes me an animal rights activist and an abolitionist. And you do(/might) too.

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.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Angus #

    It seems almost no one in the AR movement thinks it worth fighting over the word "welfare", which has been conceded to the happy-meat crowd. Here's how the OED defines "welfare":
    "The state or condition of doing or being well; good fortune, happiness, or well-being (of a person, community, or thing); thriving or successful progress in life, prosperity."

    I wonder: what have those crazy animal-rights types got against the welfare of animals?

    July 19, 2009
  2. Hi Mary,

    While I usually find myself in complete agreement with nearly everything you're posting, I'm reading here a dismissiveness over linguistic squabbling that I think misses some important philosophical differences that are emerging in the animal rights movement, and those differences *deserve to be discussed* and not just waved away with a claim that "Well, majority rules, suck it up."

    The emerging abolitionist movement is trying to make a case that there's a fundamental *philosophical* divide between what we're promoting and what I've come to call the "interim welfare" approach. Without necessarily trying to make this a whole discussion about the merits of *either*, I don't think it's quite as simple as arguing over who has the right to call themselves an abolitionist.

    People are going to call themselves a beef sandwich if it makes them happy to do so.

    But that's not really the important issue.

    July 19, 2009
  3. To be clear: I'm not claiming exclusive ownership over any particular term. I'm just saying we need to be able to clearly say what we mean, or we're never going to get anywhere. I'm happy to call myself an "Abolitionist Animal Rights Advocate" if an ungainly construction is the only possible way forward here, in order to clearly distinguish myself from the rest of the animal rights movement (if, indeed, it's true that a majority of the animal rights movement does in fact support a neo/interim/whatever-welfare approach that I explicitly reject).

    But a discussion of the language *does matter.* Should we have never objected to watering down the term "vegetarian" into near-meaninglessness on the grounds that somebody else might read that as mere squabbling over terms? Sure, that may be all most people see when these disagreements arise, but that's not really the important bit, I think.

    July 19, 2009
  4. mary #

    I'm a woman obsessed with language, hence the PhD in Applied Linguistics. I'm the last person to be "dismissive over linguistic squabbling" and I certainly didn't mean to come across that way.

    I understand the differences in the animal rights movement and at one time was accepted by "abolitionists." But alas, I have been removed from their blogrolls. What is going on that I'm tired of is exactly what you say you're not doing (and you might not be–I have no idea): claiming exclusive ownership over a particular term.

    THAT is my objection, as the majority says it's one thing, and a small minority says it's another and claims ownership, and then proceeds to tell the others that they are wrong. But they're not. At least not on July 19, 2009. I'm simply pointing out the reality of the language as understood by the majority (not dismissing it).

    We all choose our battles, and after choosing this one for a bit, and not being at all convinced of its efficacy, I'm merely choosing others, where I think I can be effective. I'd rather educate vegetarians about dairy and eggs, or help non-vegans see cows the same way they see dogs. Or help the average person who claims to care about animals examine that claim in relation to their actions.

    People will debate this all day long, and if more people stop using animals due to such debates, great! The fact is that, for me, the discussion isn't that interesting. Fortunately, others speak and write about it daily, so it's not as if I'm needed (or wanted) anyway.

    July 19, 2009
  5. If it's true that the majority of the movement means "regulationism" or "neo-welfarism" or heck, pick-your-personal, non-loaded term, here, and I *mean something very different* when and where should I make a case that folks are misusing the term "abolitionist" when that term is – at least to my mind – VERY clearly defined?

    Again, I *really* don't want to make this a rant on the merits of either, but we have to be able to clearly make a case about what we MEAN. If your post is a reaction to the discussion on My Face Is On Fire, the central issue between several of us, and one of the commenters was that one cannot *logically* call oneself an "abolitionist who supports some welfare measures" because an abolitionist *as defined* rejects that approach explicitly.

    It really isn't about who gets to call themselves x. It's that x is *already defined*, or at least it was.

    If it's actually true that we shouldn't object to the misuse of the term because, well, "language is fluid, get over it" how in the world can we *ever* really have a discussion about very different (and, to my mind, *conflicting*) ideas?

    July 19, 2009
  6. …and, yes, sure, much of the above can easily be read as my claiming exclusive right to define the term "abolitionist" if you like. What's my alternative? Call myself a Furby if somebody else decides that their personal definition of "abolitionist" trumps mine?

    At what point does this devolve into utter meaninglessness and an inability to ever communicate ANYthing, lest we run afoul of this "majority rules, suck it up and deal" critique?

    Yes, fine, the majority will out, in the end. That's going to happen with or without my personal agreement. But given where the entire movement is in the culture right now, I can't see how making that particular claim really means anything. The WHOLE MOVEMENT is a ridiculously tiny minority, right now, and the larger culture ALREADY confuses "animal rights" and "animal welfare."

    Should we never – ever – try to make a case that there are important distinctions between those ideas, and just let the majority sort it out on its own?

    Fine; I'm running afoul of Mary Martin's "don't claim ownership of the term!" critique, maybe.

    Should that matter?

    July 19, 2009
  7. Ultimately, what this boils down to is the fact that I have to spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with the detritus of folks' preconceptions and misconceptions about what "animal rights" actually means, before I can ever get to anything useful in any given discussion. There's HSUS and PETA and these 300 people over here – you know, those "animal rights" people – are all saying these various things, and here you come telling me not to buy from pet breeders? I thought you "animal rights" people were all about the animals?

    Just as the term "vegetarian" these days means anything from, "I'm a vegan" to "I only eat beef on Sundays" – *because* we allowed the term to be watered down into utter meaninglessness – we're running exactly the same risk of the *concept* of "abolitionist animal rights" being co-opted by people who don't actually support the underlying ideas. I cannot meaningfully use the term "vegetarian" to communicate any effective *ideas about what I mean* because the term "vegetarian" has been utterly co-opted by non-vegetarians…and the same thing is happening to vegan. Why shouldn't we be able to say, "well, *hang on a minute…*"


    This is not an irrelevant objection.

    July 19, 2009
  8. Hmm. How about: Non-Regulationist Abolitionist Animal Rights Advocating Vegan Who Rejects The Paradigm of Interim Welfare As A Means For Communicating a Rights-Based, As Opposed to a Suffering-Based Approach?

    (Oh, come on, Ward, that's not nearly enough syllables yet. I really will have to keep at this…hehe.)

    July 19, 2009
  9. mary #

    I like that last one the best.

    July 19, 2009
  10. Ready for the kick in the rubber parts? I will bet you a dozen vegan cookies (loser bakes) that if this meme EVER catches on, SOMEBODY will use it and tack on the end…

    "But I also eat fish."


    July 19, 2009
  11. Great point, Angus. Following Joan Dunayer's language guidelines, I only use the term "welfare" in quotes when talking about nonhuman animals in a system of exploitation. If animal-oppressors really cared about the welfare of other animals, they would not breed, confine, and kill them. The animal rights movement should make this point clearly and do so at every chance possible.

    July 20, 2009
  12. What are your thoughts on the co-opting of the term "vegan"?

    While I find this offensive morally (trendy hipsters trying to reap the benefits of a "fad" – veganism – without actually partaking in it…or even understanding it), it's even more problematic on a practical level. When I eat out, unless I go to a specifically veg place, chances that the server and cook will know what I mean by "vegan" are slim enough. With food writers like Mark "vegan but only before 6" Bittman and websites such as Virtually Vegan "except for the fish" watering the term down so that it means whatever the hell they'd like it to mean, in the future I expect to have *more* trouble figuring out which food items are suitable for consumption, not less. And if you question the server too thoroughly, in order to ensure that he knows that "vegan" means "no meat – *not even fish* – no milk, no cheese, no eggs, no honey, no gelatin, no animal-derived products of any kind", then you risk coming off as a preachy, inflexible, deprived vegan. (Which certain *other* vegans also have a problem with.)

    So what's an actual vegan to do? Do you think it's worth fighting to keep the term "vegan" pure?

    July 20, 2009
  13. mary #

    Writing about that tomorrow, or later today if I get a chance. Sort of related to today's post but I will address it in greater depth tomorrow.


    July 21, 2009

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