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On Speciesism and the Relanguaging of Reality

The primary reason I wanted to blog was to point out the way our language belies our behavior when it comes to nonhuman animals. The relanguaging of reality to conjure up a contrary image used to be a mere fascination for me. But now it’s a cause for worry.

I worry that the average American doesn’t find anything odd about the phrase "humane slaughter." I worry that the concept of "ethical veal" can actually make someone feel good about eating a calf. I worry that the "lethal removal" of cougars (and read Deb for commentary and action to take), despite including the word "lethal," doesn’t cause more ire.

And when I read that some people might not want to eat veal because it comes from a baby, I find myself thinking: So you’d rather him suffer longer before you eat him? 

And for those upset by the prospect of eating a baby, what about lamb? What about eggs? Here’s an educational tale that goes under the category of Too Much Information, but it’s worth telling.


Mary is getting an ultrasound of her ovaries.


What’s that?


That’s a follicle, you know, it holds an egg.


    (pointing to oblong bubble)

No, that. What’s that?


Oh, that’s a sac of fluid. It came from the egg when you ovulated.


Oh, so it’s like the egg cracked and that’s the egg white. Just like with eggs you have for breakfast.


Exactly. . . . Wait . . . I never thought of it that way . . . Ewww.


I’m so glad I don’t eat eggs.

It is odd that they’re called eggs, though. Amazing that we haven’t created a word that would make them sound less like what they really are. Then again, as my technician who looks at human eggs all day demonstrated, it’s altogether possible that most people aren’t connecting the idea of an egg with the reality of an egg.

I worry about the culling of birds, mushing dogs, Greyhounds, race horses, day old chickens and sea lions, as if culling them is a relief, as killing them would have been cruel.

I worry that when I speak of the enslavement of animals, people get offended, as if enslavement is a condition applicable only to humans. I worry that we don’t refer to what we do to animals as rape, when we are indeed raping them, according to several definitions.

I worry that when I comment that "what I find most unsettling is that there is no hint that bringing sentient beings into existence for the sole purpose of dominating, exploiting and slaughtering them, when there is no need to, might also be some kind of crime," someone named evie responds, "for 1 split second I thought you were speaking of humans. Yikes."

Speciesism, in addition to our propensity for wanting to turn away from the atrocious things we do, has created a jargon that is now common usage. Those who exploit nonhuman animals have been allowed to label what they do and what they "produce," and the mainstream public has lapped up and incorporated their language, thereby lulling themselves into a false sense of what it means to be humane or just.

So what can you do? Attend to the precision of your language, and clarify the language of others when you can, whether in conversation or in a letter to the editor or a producer. Yes, we could all spend entire days doing this; I’m aware of that. But we are such a minuscule minority, and we need to step up and combat the lies that have become reality for most people as they become unwitting accomplices to the multi-billion dollar business of dominating and slaughtering sentient beings and destroying the planet.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Patty #

    At work just in the last week alone, I have "corrected" colleagues on the usage of common idioms.

    Tuesday, when a colleague trying to make a point said, quite matter-of-factly, "there's more than one way to skin a cat," I interrupted him without giving him the opportunity to continue by offering an alternative: "You mean there's more than one way to peel an orange."

    Thursday, the phrase, "Let's not put the cart before the horse" came up…I suggested, "Let's not put on our socks before our shoes."

    This morning (Friday), the analogy was that of riding a horse and knowing when to pull on the reigns and when to whip the behind. I offered: "It's like riding a bicycle and knowing when to shift higher and when to downshift."

    The one expression I hear A LOT is "Let's not beat a dead horse." (As if beating a live horse were acceptable practice.) I once left the room when a keynote speaker decided to inject humor into the address with this "humorous" list of corporate alternatives to "beating a dead horse:"

    Of course, there are many people at work who don't get it and just think that I am crazy. But, I'll risk that to point out how speciesist our language is. It has become so accepted that people are numb and do not make the connections.

    April 25, 2008
  2. I too am saddened and disturbed by the double speak heard in the animal industries…. They use substitute jargon, that attempts to hide the sin and keep us numb and dumb to truths.

    This podcast "Compassionate Clich├ęs" by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau shines further light on the importance of words in regards to animals.

    Thank you for calling attention to the beguiling tactics the animal users employ in order to vindicate their misdeeds. Adhering to the correct meaning of words is a critical benchmark to calling a spade a spade….

    April 26, 2008
  3. Thanks for the link, Patty! And for the ideas. I hadn't thought of any of them. And thanks for the Colleen link, Bea. I love Colleen.

    April 26, 2008
  4. Mary…. who could not love Colleen?

    I think I might request from her, and everybody here, an alternative to the sad saying that involves a camel and straw? I'm at a loss….

    My favorite though is: "Cutting two bannanas with just one knife"…. It addresses comments about our "cruelty to plants" every time –

    April 26, 2008
  5. Yes. Definitely time to get more specific, less euphemistic, and less speciesist.

    Here are some options/suggestions/observations…
    "milk" = cow milk, goat milk, sheep milk, human milk, milk of magnesia, soy milk, coconut milk, secretions, inter-species milk consumption, et cetera.
    "eggs" = avian eggs, bird eggs, chicken eggs, turkey eggs, quail eggs, robin egg, eagle eggs, human eggs, et cetera.
    "chicken" = body parts of chickens, hunks of chicken corpse, et cetera.
    "meat" = flesh, tissues, muscles, internal organs, skin, et cetera.
    "leather" = skin
    "wool" = hair

    "Milk" in particular seems to have become an extremely abstracted commodity, though they all are. I think advocates for nonhumans would do well to contextualize the word as much as possible.

    Breaking these terms down reveals some additional ways of looking at problem of focusing on "fur", which is basically just "leather" with the attached hairs preserved and accented. A "leather" coat is a particular variety of "fur" coat. If someone ripped the skin off every Animal Person readers' arms, and stitched it all together to make some coats, it would make little difference whether the sparse arm hair that humans posses would qualify the coats to be "fur" or "leather". What would matter is the lack of skin on *our* arms.

    "Leather" is also essentially "meat". It's a worn/decorative body part, instead of an eaten body part. Ethically, the distinction is without difference.

    "animals" = nonhumans, nonhuman animals, sentient nonhumans, sentient beings/creatures/individuals, legal persons, et cetera.

    I was not fully aware of this until today, but apparently the five familiar kingdoms (and there were originally just two) might already be slowly on the way out…

    This reinforces something I have been thinking about… our language should reflect where we draw the line: between entities with moral significance, and those without. The line must be moralistic, not taxonomical. Not every member of "the animal kingdom" is necessarily sentient.

    Ultimately, morality stems from empathy, which stems from acknowledging shared sentience. Drawing the line between one of the five kingdoms, and the other four, is problematic because not only are the kingdoms themselves continually being challenged and adjusted, but the kingdom in question (animal) is primarily composed of invertebrate species, many or most of which are very likely not sentient, and thus not bearers of morally significant interests.

    There are undoubtedly numerous great reasons not to use sea sponges, but sea sponges are not *themselves* able to care one way or the other. The line should be between beings with sentience, and those without… not between animals and non-animals. This might be particularly helpful in light of how, for example, a phrase at the tip of every Americans' tongue is: "treat me/them/her/he/us like animals".

    Though there is something of a conundrum, because while the simple word "animals" does quickly relay your topic, humans do have those snap, speciesist judgments and associations surrounding the word. Therefore, I think it is generally preferable to just go ahead and initially confuse people a little bit with our language, to try and bypass some of the snap speciesism, and hopefully generate some nice cognitive dissonance, that when resolved, establishes the precondition for rejecting speciesism. When individuals implicitly understand that humans are on an entirely different plane than other animals, it's very unlikely they will successfully recognize the problem with excluding others from the moral community based solely upon their species. Such individuals aren't even cognizant of, or comfortable with, the fact that human *is* just another species of animal.

    April 30, 2008

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