Monday, November 4, 2013

The Evil use of Language: On ‘Animal Equality'

"What you speak with your tongue,
You speak with your heart.
Say not the untrue thing."

If you ever doubted the power of language, I recommend you read 'Animal Equality: Language and Liberation' by Joan Dunayer. With lucidity, courage and brute honesty, the author shows us that the way we speak about animals is inseparable from the way we treat them.

Evil, in any form, has the nasty habit of gathering euphemisms around itself, until it grows to unmanageable proportions. ‘The final solution’, ‘ethnic cleansing’ and other expressions are a prime example. But the way we use our language as it relates to nonhuman animals deserves a special medal for self-deception and evil.

In her book, Dunayer opens our eyes onto the world of hunting and fishing, zoo keeping and aquariums, vivisection and animal agriculture. Each branch has its own ‘language’, which is designed to justify the immense cruelty, suffering and pain that are inflicted on nonhuman animals. Through what Dunayer calls 'speciesism', similar to sexism or racism, we lie to ourselves.

One of the most effective tools to justify our inhumane treatment of animals is to deny that they are individuals. Just as racists have spoken of ‘the Negro’ and ‘the Jew’, people speak of ‘cattle’, ‘game’ and ‘how much deer’ there is on a shooting ranch. They are a ‘substance’, like sugar, or sand. They are all one single animal. Killing one doesn’t matter, since they are all the same.

Almost all our interactions with nonhuman animals suffer from this ‘speciesist’ use of language. The term ‘circus animal’ implies that there is a special animal category of hoop-jumping tigers. Without that role a ‘circus animal’ has no purpose for living. Would a housewife cooking dinner ever be called a ‘cooking female’? As if that was the only thing she was good for and if arthritis prevented her from cooking, we would get rid of her? Another example is to justify inbreeding animals for human pleasure by calling it by positive names such as ‘purebred’ or ‘thoroughbred’. This always leaves the animal with physical defects, which they would not have naturally.

When we use words like ‘brute’, ‘bestial’, ‘inhuman’, etc., we are creating a language that justifies the ‘brutish’, ‘bestial’ and ‘inhuman’ treatment of nonhuman animals. We do not call hunting by its true name, which is murdering for sport. How many hunters are marksmen that kill with one clean shot to the heart? Hunting means maiming, wounding, prolonging a slow painful death. It should be called 'torturing to death'. It is ritualized murder. And they call it a ‘sport’. We do not call vivisection ‘torture’ but a necessary evil. Slavery was also called a necessary evil until people realized that it was not necessary, but pure evil.

Were it not for this evil use of language, society would have to face these practices from a different perspective. At least we could have an honest conversation.

In a recent ‘Psychology Today’ article, the author argues that we are hard-wired to eat meat. It is as natural to us as breathing and drinking water. But isn’t one of the reasons that it is so easy because the source cannot protest. It is a habit that gives us pleasure. And habits and pleasure are hard to give up. Slaves were hard to give up; treating women like cattle was hard to give up. Does that mean it was ‘natural’? And even if it IS natural, is it right? As Hume once said, ‘you cannot derive an 'is' from an ought’. We ought not to let people starve but we do. Isn’t the reverse also true? An ‘is’ shouldn’t necessarily justify an ‘ought. Just because we can does not mean we ought to. Animals suffer physically and emotionally just like humans do, even more, because they cannot control or understand their plight, or foresee an end to it, which would make their suffering more bearable.

But comparing nonhuman animals to other groups that have been oppressed and discriminated doesn't work. Animals cannot fight for equality. We have to do it for them. They cannot create a suffrage movement, march down the street with rainbow flags, and follow leaders who chant ‘I had a dream’. They are literally at our mercy. Language is a powerful tool to preserve the status quo. Why are we protective of children and other human groups that cannot fend for themselves, but not protective of animals? We do not use gender when we talk about nonhuman animals. We talk about an ‘it’. Nonhuman animals don’t ‘eat’, they ‘feed’, they don’t get pregnant or nurse, they ‘gestate’ and ‘lactate’, when they die they don’t turn into ‘corpses’, they turn into ‘carcasses’ or‘meat’. If we were honest with ourselves we wouldn't call removing and killing off undesirable members of a herd ‘culling’. We would call it ‘ethnic cleansing’. We would call a ‘gamekeeper’ by its true name, a ‘killer’.

I have to revise my own relationship to nonhuman animals. Like everyone else's, it is schizophrenic. I love my pets, but when it comes to consuming, wearing and using animal products, I conveniently put blinders on. Is there an unbridgeable gap between the is and the ought? Between what I ought to do and what I do? I have always had an intense reaction to animals' suffering. My instinct always told me that they need protection. They are the underdog and I am a sucker for the underdog. Now, my reaction stems more from an instinctive knowledge that what we do to animals is wrong because it goes against the natural balance of things. But the problem is being shoved under the rug of rationality, the most dangerous adversary of our moral instinct.

I hope there will come a day when eating, wearing and using nonhuman animals, treating them like ‘things’ will be a thing of the past. Right now, only 5% of Americans do not eat nonhuman animals. They are the visionaries, the vanguard. They have quit successfully. But quitting is not that easy. And even if I did become vegan, which I hope is the next step in my evolution, I would still be inhaling secondary smoke, I would still be affected by the realization that so many animals suffer because of our filthy habits. leave comment here