Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Against Non-Human Animals: How Language Shapes Our Worldview


Imagine for a moment a scene in which a turtle is talking to another turtle about a nearby rabbit. They are in a little vegetable garden together, and the main turtle, let’s call him Sheldon, nudges his friend, let’s call her Shelley, indicating the rabbit with his wrinkly turtle head.
 “See that guy over there with the long ears?” asks Sheldon.

 “You mean the non-turtle animal?” asks Shelley.

“Yes, that one. He seems to really like the carrots,” says Sheldon.

With Shelley’s framing, the rabbit has been described by what he is not, which, in this case, is not a turtle. This framing positions turtles as not only the dominant species but also the main benchmark by which this other being in the garden, the rabbit, is understood. When other beings are filtered and described through a lens that ineluctably points back at those who are describing them, they are, in effect, measured against another’s contours. It isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine why a vegan would find this kind of structuring problematic. At best, it is sloppy and at worst, it is another example of anthropocentric arrogance.

The phrase non-human animals is an example of a thoughtful restructuring of language, created to challenge how we conceptualize ourselves and it is used by vegans as a way to remind people that, yes, humans are animals, too. The intention behind using it is a good one. Despite this, I have always done my best to avoid the phrase because it sounds and looks and sounds clunky to me but I have used it when I felt it was better than the common alternative, which is the distorted separation of “people” and “animals” in our language, as if we were not also animals. A few years ago, though, I realized that there was something else that bothered me about the phrase, and it wasn’t just an aesthetic one. Once I fully worked out the problems with the phrase, I stopped using it altogether and I think other vegans should consider doing the same. Here's why: I believe that when we say “non-human animals,” we are unintentionally reinforcing the same human-as-center-of-the-world conceit that underpins the mindset that allows for the domination of other animal species. Remember that rabbit? His own autonomy vanished when viewed through distinctly turtle-centered lenses: he was no longer a rabbit, he was some other entity that was simply not a turtle.

Given the enormity of what other animals face, I will admit that this sounds like a trivial thing to get hung up on. I would argue, though, that as we move ahead in re-conceptualizing coexistence, the language that we use is of critical importance. The theory of linguistic determinism posits that the words we use shape and even help to determine human thought. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein observed plainly, “Language disguises thought.” The thought that is disguised by that ungainly (but, again, well-intentioned) phrase is that other animals disappear and are replaced by our own example as the dominant point of reference.

The words we choose have real consequences and these consequences can inadvertently reinforce the very status quo that we are trying to dismantle. It is a minor alteration, but I think we should leave behind the expression "non-human animal." Ask yourself if you would like to be referred to as a non-male human being (if you’re not a male) or a non-white homo sapiens if you were not Caucasian. Can you see how a ripple effect of such framing could diminish your own rights to sovereignty and equality, as well as reveal an intrinsic partiality that necessarily denigrates those who aren’t part of the dominant standard?

Given all this, I propose that we rethink using the term “non-human animal” and come up with something that is more respectful and less self-absorbed. Of course contexts always vary, but when we are trying to communicate that we are not talking about humans (who are also animals) but other animals, I propose that we say something along the lines of other animals or other beings. I’ve heard others who say fellow animals. That works, too, but to me it sounds a little precious. Other animals has its flaws, too, as there is a built-in “othering” element that distances and leaves room for objectification but this is the best that I have arrived at so far.

Your thoughts are appreciated. What do you think about the expression “non-human animals”? Do you have a preferred alternative?


Alan Roettinger said...

How about just naming the animal in question---human, pig, cow, rattlesnake---when speaking about him/her, and reserve "animals" for speaking about all of us as a group?

Anne said...

I like the term "sentient beings". To me it encompasses what we do have in common, we are beings who can feel. "No sentient being should have to live in conditions like that" leads me to think "what would it be like for me to live like that" leading to "no one should have to live in those conditions". Or, to put it more positively, "all sentient beings want food and water, and just as importantly care and freedom, and the ability to live in comfort". Great blog post, I really loved it.

Dale West said...

Great article, I use the term pig being, bovine or cow being if I am talking about human beings in context with other animals. Giving value to all life and maintaining their dignity and right to be a part of creation is essential.

Eriyah said...

I too dabbled with non-human animal, and stumbled when saying it so I resonate with the clunky description. I typically go with fellow earthlings or sentient beings, or individuals.

M said...

I generally use "other animals".

Keith said...

Interesting point! Perhaps a good alternative would be "individuals of other species"?

One phrase I take issue with is "animal products", so I always say "products of animal exploitation", which I feel is far more accurate.

Victoria Hart said...

A very eye-opening piece, Marla. Bravo!!

Consider this also, that the human habit of naming animals (such as is shown in your first paragraph) is yet another way we assert our domination status and anthropomorphism. I am not in favor of naming animals, as if we could -- and should -- sum up their character in such a concise manner,... but this is difficult to put into practice. The tendency to name (or label) someone/something has deep roots. As a child, I named my stuffed animals just as gleefully as I did the family "pets", thinking that naming them brought me closer to them. But does it? My gut instinct tells me that animals care little, if at all, for names given to them -- with or without their input. Especially by humans who are still learning to see/feel the connection to the whole. This by no means excludes those fighting for animal rights and empty cages; speciesism has its hold on all of us, to some degree. If an animal -- any animal -- doesn't want to be named, would we even recognize their refusal, let alone respect it? We still have a long way to go, in letting them BE who and what they are, without a name to live up to. Is naming animals, even with such endearment, something akin to someone marking his/her/their turf or (... dare I say it...), property? Ugh! I believe we can see any being's individuality, their inherent worth, without bestowing a name upon their heads. Perhaps far more so.

To understand this in a deeper sense, may I suggest some enlightening reading on the subject? I can recommend a short (feminist) story by Ursula K. LaGuin, titled She Unnames Them, which begs the questions -- are names liberating... or binding? What relationship is there between the name giver and the name receiver? And I recommend a book by Joan Dunayer titled Animal Equality, which is thick with thoughts on language usage and animalkind.

Links here: (Ursula K. LeGuin's short story) (Joan Dunayer's book)

Thank you for your blog posts, Marla. I learn so much from them.

Evolotus PR said...

So far "other animals" seems most interchangeable, but if you want to disqualify that on the basis of othering, I don't see any viable alternatives so far.

The real point of its usage is to refer to living creatures aside from humans. "Sentient beings" doesn't do that; humans are sentient beings (most of them). "Animals excluding [or except] human beings?" This unfortunately isn't going to work because it potentially affects meaning or confusion. Alternatives can also become too wordy and awkward.

"Nonhuman animals are denied rights and freedom" --> "Animals excluding human beings are denied rights and freedom." This makes it seem as though there are no humans who are also denied rights and freedom.

And what about "nonhuman primates" - primates excepting humans - now there's another potentially challenging one.

"The use of nonhuman primates in laboratories is declining" --> "The use of primates except human beings in laboratories is declining." So, does this mean less chimps in cages and more humans?

Marla said...

Thanks, all! Keith, that's a great distinction. Thank you!

Marla said...

Thank you, Anne! I use that as well.

Marla said...

I like that, Dale. Thank you!

Marla said...

Thanks so much, Victoria, for the food for thought. I will definitely check out the story and book you recommended, Victoria. I really appreciate it!

Marla said...

So much to think about, Evolotus. Thank you!

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