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?