Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Words We Use and Why They Matter

[Note: this is a slightly different version of an essay that appeared on The Poppy Foundation Website]

Studies have indicated that surveys show completely different outcomes depending on the way the questions in the survey are worded. One person will answer the very same question in two completely different ways depending on the wording of the question. Therefore, one survey could have two or more completely contradictory outcomes based simply on the way the questions were worded.

Words matter. Words have a profound effect.

Choosing one word over another, even if those words seem to mean the same thing, can make a huge difference in the way we look at things, and can even completely change one’s world view. In our relationship with non-human animals, the words we use can have a major impact on the way we view animals and therefore on the way we treat them. Words we use without even thinking about them can color the way we perceive non-humans, and can perpetuate their exploitation.

An example is the word “owner” versus the word “guardian.”A study done by FIREPAW shows that people who refer to themselves as their animals’ guardians were more likely to treat their animals well than those who referred to themselves as their animals’ owners. It makes sense. Seeing ourselves as "owners" invites us to see our animal companions as property. In Defense of Animals has a program called the Guardian Campaign, the goal of which is to have the word “owner” replaced with “guardian” in official language, and it has succeeded in doing so in areas ranging from law codes to shelter and vet forms to signs in public areas. Many jurisdictions--even the entire State of Rhode Island--now use the word “guardian” officially.

Of course, it wasn't too long ago that humans "owned" other humans. We have done away with that, but legally we still “own” non-human animals. I eagerly await the day this law changes, and we regard the owning of any creature as abhorrent. But law reflects culture, and we can start by choosing to use the term “guardian.” As people think of animals less as property and more as fellow beings, we will treat them better, and the law will follow.
Something I hear often, even among many animal advocates–people one would think would know better–is the habit of referring to non-human animals as "it," with its concomitant “that” or “which” instead of “who” or “whom.” This seems to come so naturally to some people, but whenever I hear it, it is so obviously discordant, it affects me the same way as hearing someone use terribly bad grammar. Many people give the excuse that they don't know the gender of the animal, and therefore can't say "he" or "she." But if you didn’t know the gender of a human, would you call that human it? I doubt it. Referring to non-human animals as "it" helps people to think of them as objects, not the living beings they are, and therefore gives permission to exploit them, to treat them any way we please without regard for their feelings.

There is another type of word usage, or mis-usage that has a slightly different background. The use of the word “shelter” to denote a place where animals are taken in and killed, and the use of the word “euthanasia” to describe that killing have come about as euphemisms, a way to make the pounds seem like places that are protecting animals, and the killing that occurs in them seem like a favor to the animals. The use of such words intentionally hides what these places actually are and what actually happens in them. And this, too, has a disastrous effect on the animals. When the public thinks of pounds as “shelters,” they are lulled into thinking that animals are cared for and protected there. They are more likely to abandon their animals at these places, thinking of the "shelter" as a safe haven where the animals will be cared for and protected until a good home is found They are also less likely to be outraged at the killing that goes on and to want to do what it takes to stop it. Often those who are working to help animals will buy into the use of these terms, even though they know how inaccurate and misleading the words are, simply because they don’t want to be seen as too radical, or to alienate the people affiliated with the system. But until we quit using euphemisms that hide the truth and begin using accurate words for these things, the killing will continue.

Another word that is wrongly used to denote killing an animal is destroy, as in “the animal was destroyed.” No. The animal was killed. You kill living beings. You destroy inanimate objects. 
The way we talk about animals in the wild also affects the way we think of them and consequently the way we treat them. When they are no longer seen as feeling individuals, but rather "natural resources," well, aren't resources just things we use for our own benefit? When we kill them and refer to it as "harvesting," we turn them into something like wheat or oranges, not the feeling beings they are. Then, when some animals who haven’t been targeted for killing are accidentally killed in the massacre, they become “trash animals” (the non-human equivalent of “collateral damage”).
Then there's meat--oh, the euphemisms we use to distance ourselves from the fact we are eating someone's dead body. It has been sanitized so entirely that we don't have to think about it–to even connect the meal with the individual we are consuming. We don't eat pigs and cows and calves; we eat pork and beef and veal. If you eat pork, well, pork is not an animal, it’s food, and you don't have to even think about the living, feeling pig it once was. If we called it what it really was, I think more people would hesitate before they dug into that piece of meat, and many would finally make the connection and perhaps give up meat altogether.

Unfortunately, our everyday language is filled not only with thoughtless references to non-human animals, but also with downright derogatory ones. To merely call someone an animal is considered an insult, as are, more specifically, the terms "pig," "rat," “snake,” and so many others. We talk about "killing two birds with one stone" as if that were a good thing to do. These references are deeply ingrained in our culture, so much so that even those who are at the forefront of protecting animals are not immune from it. Even such a major voice for animals as Paul Watson, in an email alert, once called seal hunters “cigarette smoking ape[s].” He is trying to protect seals, but in the process he is sending a subtle but pernicious message that apes are something bad. Only by being vigilant, not only in removing them from our own language, but also in bringing it politely to the attention of others who use these terms and phrases, can we weed them out. One might ask, “is this really necessary? After all, they are just expressions, and have nothing to do with actual animals.” But that’s one thing about the power of words; it is insidious and often subliminal.

The words we choose to talk about anything or anyone color the way we view that thing or being. In the case of non-human animals, this can give us an unspoken permission to treat them in harmful ways. After all, wouldn't it be easier for you to "harvest" a "resource" than to murder a fellow being? And doesn’t it seem perfectly permissible–even the right thing to do–to “euthanize” someone rather than kill him?

Of course, simply changing the words we use to talk about animals alone won't magically change our treatment of them. Words not only shape our attitudes, they also reflect them. But words can serve to perpetuate a mindset. If those of us who are actively working to help animals remain vigilant and only use language of respect, it can help others think differently about animals, which may in turn help them to act differently.