This has been rolling around and around in my head for a long time, noticing it here and there and well – everywhere – and finally I have to say something about it.
Animal activists, stop your use of the word “savage”! Stop saying “barbaric” and “savage” to describe acts against animals which you would like to paint in the worst of lights. Please, check yourselves: these words are of European and Greek descent and they are xenophobic, insulting, racist terms. You may care about animals, but if you preface your plea for justice with perjorative words, what you are showing is a lack of care for certain groups of humans who have been misunderstood and brutally persecuted by other groups of humans for centuries. Expand your vocabulary. Find time to think and take the words that really describe what you are thinking of, instead of reaching for the most sensational, attention-grabbing language you can think of: because it is drawing the wrong sort of attention.
I was just listening in on a ‘chat’ at an animal rights board, where Lee Hall was the invited speaker. Addressing tactics from some prominent publicity groups which involve sexist, racist and demeaning tactics, Hall asserts:
Thinking people don’t rush to hear about species bias from a source that shows little or no understanding of social hierarchy in any other context. – Lee Hall, http://arzone.ning.com (I’m including this quote with the understanding that the transcript of the conversation will soon be posted to that website. An interesting chat and a good swift briefing on the nature of Hall’s writing and work, for anyone who’s interested.)
So that’s one thing I’ve been thinking of lately about language use. I mentioned in a comment on the previous post (about climate justice) how I have been challenged lately by several readers, who pointed out inconsistencies in the way I wrote about animals. In one post, I referred indirectly to animals as “things” – as in, “to put something on your plate;” in another one, I referred to an animal whose name I didn’t know as an “it.” In fact, I find that I repeatedly refer to animals as “it” if I look back on some of my writing. While referring to animals as ‘things’ was a surprising oversight, I found that I had to interrogate myself on the use of the word “it” to refer to animals.
I grew up in Victoria BC, and my grandparents lived in a nearby town called Comox, a town about three hours north by car. When I was a child we would visit there as often as possible, and one of my favourite things was to sit on the green shag carpet inside the circle of chairs where my loved ones sat, and watch the National Geographic documentaries that I couldn’t see at home. Documentaries about hippopotamus families and their mud holes, where they struggled to outlast the yearly dry season; documentaries about wolves, Bighorn sheep, cougars, tree frogs, undersea creatures … I can ascribe some of my early-formed love for animals to these documentaries, which showed free-living animals in their habitats, proud, powerful and doing what they have done for millenia. And in these documentaries, the narrator almost always calls the animals “it.” So my use of the word “it” for animals comes from biologists, from documentary film-makers, and in my mind is no denigration.
And yet … and yet I completely see the point of not calling an animal an “it” if I don’t call other humans “it” (and while some do in the stance of gender-neutral politics, I haven’t found myself comfortable with that term). Because to so many people, saying “it” about an animal is the same as calling it a “thing”: mindlessly, we carry on in the European ‘rational’ traditions that have taught us that animals are so far below us, they’re hardly even life forms. They’re just … well … things, that don’t really suffer the way we do, that don’t care about their own lives, and that we should use to our advantage because … well … it’s just what we’ve always done. In that context – the real context of most of the human world in relation to other animals – using “it” for animals becomes another way of continuing and not thinking about oppression.
And making a commitment to veganism means committing to interrogating all forms of oppression, and challenging ourselves to be better, more peaceful, more integrated and articulate people on all levels. So I dropped the “it” and re-wrote my blog post.
What do you think. About language, or more generally, about connections between oppressions.