It is a well-established fact that language perpetuates the agenda of the powerful because the group in control creates language just as it creates society. Take, for example, men as the group in control. Our language reflects male dominance at every turn. “Man” is the name given to the species; alternatively there is “homo sapiens” and “homo” itself denotes the male not the female. I will not go into gender in language, as that topic could support a symposium of essays. My quarrel is with the speciesism of our language that serves to continue in the most pervasive and insidious ways the ideas that human beings enjoy a special privilege and have moral obligations only to other human beings. Just as euphemisms allow humans to hide their atrocities behind words, as George Orwell pointed out in “Politics and the English Language,” so do terms and phrases support our depraved treatment of nonhuman animals.
The first and overarching instance of human bias comes with the use of the word “animal.” There on the front page of the New York Times today is a statement “They Are Slaughtering Us Like Animals.” Clearly there is something horrible going on (and of course I would say that no creature should be “slaughtered”), but the linguistic subtext is that humans are not animals. Has anyone disproven the validity of Carlos Linnaeus’s taxonomy of animal, vegetable, and mineral? There, in that first category is the species homo sapiens. Does anyone doubt that we are animal? Why is that derogatory? Our language has made “animal” a handy insult. “You are acting like an animal” is so common that it reinforces the idea that humans are not animal and that non-humans are depraved and beneath “us.”
Then there are the euphemisms, which are as bad as the political ones that Orwell denounced. We do not have a dead cow for dinner, or ground up cow, or the flesh of a pig for dinner, we have beef and pork. The worst of all is the marketing phrase, “grass feed beef.” Beef does not eat grass, cows do. Also, there are a slew of colloquial expressions like, “I have my own fish to fry,” “There is more than one way to skin a cat,” and “Filthy as a pig.”
Culture, informed by religious tradition and a myriad of insecurities that lead to the human need to feel superior by all means to something, have subjugated animals and created a language to support that endeavor. The more we identify ourselves in our speech accurately, as animals, the more difficult it would be to accept the atrocities that we heap upon them.
We are animals. We do have instinct. We are mammals who are born, suffer, and die just like all the other animals. Why must we feel the need to be above? Why the recurring drive to put things in a hierarchy with the most powerful at the self -designated top, giving license for any kind of deplorable behavior?
Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the parent of modern Stoicism, classed humans and the other species as one in considering that we all have a special talent. Man, he said, has a special talent and so do each of the other species. Seneca said that Man’s special talent was reason. With all due respect, I beg to differ (which questioning Seneca would endorse because he did not think anyone should follow the views of others without applying one’s own power of reason). I think, and the many recent studies of “animal” (non-human) cognition support my view, that other species do have reasoning ability even if it is not identical to Man’s. As a second basis to differ, sadly, there is more evidence of hypocrisy and cruelty as Man’s unique talents.