Choosing Our Words Wisely
Using honest, direct and accurate language seems simple enough, but when working in the field of animal protection it is anything but. Many of the typical ways of talking about animal issues in the English language are inherently biased against animal interests. Common words and phrases mask animal abuse, reinforce human exceptionalism and dominance, and normalize animal exploitation.
How Our Language is Problematic for Other Animals
Replacing descriptive words with euphemisms or using subtle language to describe extreme concepts masks the exploitation, misuse and abuse of other animals.
For example, to make meat-eating more tolerable, words such as poultry, hamburger, and bacon are used to replace more accurate words like dead chicken flesh, shredded cow body, and sliced pig belly. It seems kinder to euthanize or “put down” a homeless animal than it is to kill one.
In our culture, language de-individualizes animals by referring to them as groups— species, herds, swarms, schools and colonies—rather than as individuals. We also often reject giving personhood and individuality to specific animals by replacing the gendered pronouns “he” and “she” with the generic, objectified term “it.” The program I am using to type this post highlights how engrained this tendency is; every time I write about an animal who does something, my grammar check feature corrects me to write instead about an animal that does something.
We also establish human dominance in the words we use to describe our relationships to nonhuman animals. Most people use the word pet rather than companion and call themselves owners rather than guardians. Guardianship of a companion implies both a mutually reciprocal and respectful relationship as well as a position of responsibility on the part of the human toward the needs and desires of the nonhuman animal. In contrast, ownership of a pet asserts that other animals belong to humans; neglect or disposal of property is more acceptable than abuse or abandonment of a companion.
Through idioms (expressions that are often culturally specific) and adages (short, memorable phrases), animal abuse further slips into everyday language and is so normalized that it goes unnoticed. Colleen Patrick-Goudreau addresses this topic in detail on her podcast and discusses the history of many of the more common idioms in the American-English language. Just for fun, a colleague created this “Automated Animal-Friendly Idiom Generator” that replaces all animal terms in common idioms with vegetable terms. Lots of these come out as nonsensical, but this is a fun way to spend a few minutes and it certainly highlights the absurd violence inherent in many idioms.
Correcting Our Language
One simple thing that animal advocates can do to help animals is to reject the use of problematic language. Using honest language that promotes respect for and the equality of other animals can help to highlight the abuses animals experience daily in our culture. Next time you have the urge to say, “Kill two birds with one stone,” try instead, “Free two birds with one key.” This will have the effect not only of rejecting the violence of hunting, but also of labeling the caging of wild animals as unjust and something from which animals can be freed. In making this small linguistic shift, a person has articulated the intended idea of accomplishing two tasks at once, while also rejecting animal abuse and promoting animal equality.
The idea that changing the way we talk about animals can change the very fate of animals is the focus of the Guardian Campaign from the animal protection group In Defense of Animals (IDA). The Guardian Campaign promotes the simple linguistic shift from “Ownership” to “Guardianship” for individuals, in animal care facilities, and in the language of city and state ordinances and codes.
According to IDA:
IDA’s Guardian Campaign promotes the use of “guardian” instead of “owner” when referring to our animal companions. This shift promotes a more compassionate relationship between people and other species. The term “guardian” does not change legal standing, but it does more accurately describe the responsibility we have for the wellbeing, treatment, care, and quality of life of our animal friends.
While programs like the Guardian Campaign are promising, it is not clear what effect shifting language will have on the mission to promote animal protection. Anyone who works for an animal protection group knows that in the public relations battle against animal exploitation, words must be carefully selected. In 2004, Faunalytics conducted a study for the National Council of Animal Protection (NCAP) that examined attitudes among non-advocates toward the terms “welfare,” “protection,” and “rights,” as well as “advocates” versus “activists.” The NCAP research found that the terms “rights” and “activist” alienated a large segment of U.S. adults for various reasons; this discovery led to a shift among many groups toward using the terms “animal protection” and “animal advocates.”
The Need for Research
If simply describing our movement with different words can have a significant effect on how willing others are to listen to our message, it is clear that the language used to talk about the animals for whom we advocate will likely have an impact. Unfortunately, research has not explored how shifting language can shift outcomes for animals.
There are many practical questions that need to be answered in order for our movement to move forward pragmatically and productively with this issue. Not only must we understand what type of linguistic shifts will promote increased respect of animals, animal protection groups need to understand how to shift the language used in both internal and promotional or educational materials. The decision to replace biased language that devalues or disrespects other animals must also be weighed against any possible negative outcomes. For example, large animal protection organizations may work with animal rescuers who are not vegetarian and will need to consider if a language shift from “meat-eating” to “eating animals” would have a net benefit. Would it turn away non-vegetarian colleagues and potential supporters? Or would it create the long-term effect of normalizing vegetarianism within the organization while effectively highlighting the need for vegetarianism as part of the foundational ethic within other areas of animal protection?
The only recent studies I know of that specifically investigate the topic of language as applied to the animal protection movement are the aforementioned Faunalytics study and a 2007 study by Pamela Carlisle-Frank and Joshua Frank. If you know of any studies addressing this topic, please add to this discussion and share in the comment field below.
Carlisle-Frank and Frank examined differences in attitudes toward companion animals based on whether people referred to themselves as “owners,” “guardians,” or “owner-guardians.” They found various differences in the groups’ attitudes toward their animal companions. While the results suggest the importance of linguistic shifts, the study leaves unanswered questions. Many of those in the “guardian”/ “guardian-owner” groups had exposure to the previously discussed Guardianship Campaign so it is unclear to what degree it was exposure to the campaign more broadly or the vocabulary shift specifically that produced effects. It is also unclear as to the direction of these shifts—did people’s attitudes change when their language changed, or do people use different language because of their underlying attitudes toward other animals?
The issue of language is of extreme importance but has been left an unstudied field of inquiry in relation to the animal protection movement. Researchers can do much by developing and conducting empirical studies to test the impact of specific linguistic shifts. Animal protection organizations can add more by considering the language they use and considering campaigns that focus on language. And as individuals, we can all do more to speak in a deliberate manner that reflects our personal respect for other animals.