How Do People Feel About Non-Speciesist Language?
When a person refers to an animal as “someone” rather than an object or “something,” it signifies a resistance to objectifying them. Furthermore, avoiding euphemisms like “culling” (instead of killing) and “pork” (instead of pig meat) highlights their suffering and acknowledges the harm they endure. However, talking about animals in commodifying ways remains the norm in Western society.
In this study, researchers wanted to address two questions: Does compassionate language mirror an individual’s ethical stance towards animals? And does it provoke backlash, especially from meat-eaters who may feel morally threatened by such language? The authors carried out three online studies, described below.
Study 1: Non-Speciesist Language, Dietary Choices, And Moral Stances
In Study 1, the authors investigated how non-speciesist language use is perceived in terms of the speaker’s dietary habits and ethical positions regarding animals.
250 U.K. adults read mock social media conversations with someone named “John” who used either speciesist or non-speciesist terms. For example, the speciesist dialogue referred to pig meat as “pork” and an individual pig as “it,” while the non-speciesist dialogue instead used the term “flesh” and called the pig a “she.” After reading the content, participants were asked how likely it was that John was a vegetarian or vegan (veg*n), and whether he held speciesist beliefs.
As the authors expected, participants were more inclined to believe John was veg*n, and less likely to believe he held speciesist beliefs, when he used non-speciesist language. This suggests that the choice to use non-speciesist language serves as a strong indicator of an individual’s ethical commitment towards animals.
Study 2: Social Consequences Of Language
Study 2 aimed to isolate the effects of different types of non-speciesist language. The authors also wanted to learn how meat-eaters feel about interacting with individuals who use such terminology.
350 U.K. adults (mostly meat-eaters) were shown a series of three social media conversations with “Jamie,” “Ashley,” and “Alex” containing either speciesist or non-speciesist language. The language was categorized as one of the following:
- Euphemisms (e.g., alluding to killing animals as “going through” them in the speciesist version vs. “murdering” them in the non-speciesist one)
- Dichotomized and Essentialized categories (e.g., defining animals by their use such as “food animals” in the speciesist version vs. calling them “animals reared for food” in the non-speciesist one)
- Objectification (e.g., calling animals “it” in the speciesist version vs. “she” in the non-speciesist one)
Participants had to estimate the likelihood of the speaker being veg*n and their likelihood of interacting with the person.
Results indicated that meat-eaters tended to classify someone as veg*n if they used non-speciesist language. This was especially the case when someone avoided euphemisms such as “meat” in preference for words like “flesh.” Furthermore, meat-eaters preferred to interact with individuals who adhered to speciesist language norms, especially those who avoided euphemisms. However, they were neutral toward those who personified (vs. objectified) animals. These findings suggest that using non-speciesist language may cause social consequences, especially among those who eat animals.
Study 3: Social Impressions And Avoidance
Study 3 aimed to explore the judgments that people make about those who use non-speciesist language, and how these judgments differ based on a person’s diet.
485 U.K. meat-eaters and 300 veg*ns were told they were being paired with another participant named “John.” They were then given a story written by John about his recent trip to a farm, using either speciesist or non-speciesist language. After reading, participants shared their impressions of John, if they thought he was veg*n, how compassionate or arrogant he seemed, and if they’d like to interact with him.
A noticeable trend emerged among meat-eaters, who were less interested in interacting with someone whose story contained non-speciesist language. Conversely, veg*ns displayed a more neutral stance on what type of language was used.
Both meat-eaters and veg*ns felt that those using non-speciesist language seemed arrogant. Yet, meat-eaters felt this way more strongly. Meanwhile, meat-eaters felt those using non-speciesist language were less compassionate, while veg*ns felt the opposite, viewing them as more compassionate.
For meat-eaters, perceiving someone as compassionate and arrogant made them less desirable to get to know. For veg*ns, perceiving someone as compassionate made them more desirable to interact with, but seeing them as arrogant made them less desirable. The authors argue that meat-eaters are being critical of those whose outspoken moral leanings make their own choices (i.e., eating and exploiting animals) seem inferior — this is called “do-gooder derogation.”
From Language To Action
Many animal advocates work to change the way people think about — and speak about — animals. This study suggests that using non-speciesist language can backfire, especially when engaging meat-eaters who often feel attacked or looked down upon by those who morally reject animal exploitation.
Nevertheless, there may be opportunities to change how everyone refers to animals moving forward. Because omnivores were less reactive to personifying language, advocates may want to focus on changing social norms around referring to animals as “it” vs. “she/he/them” before moving onto other types of non-speciesist terms. Ultimately, as with any campaign, it’s important to know your audience before crafting the language and messages you use to reach them.