Or, when you look back on an occasion, you find that the words you spoke seem alien to you?
What if I said that some of the words you use today may one day seem like that? This blog piece will dive into that idea, so please keep reading and we’ll dive in together.
So, the words we speak are given to us through the structures of our societies – from our environment; from the humans we are raised by and with; and from our schools. We then filter these words through our own minds, which creates a diversity of language use unique to each of us – our very own idiolects.
However, there are many similarities between our language due to the power of the societal structures in place around us. This means that the words we use would be different or have different connotations if our society was different.
If you lived 2500 years ago and said ‘hippopotamus’ you would have known yourself to be describing a ‘river horse’, but fast-forward to today and the word is still here but the original meaning has largely been forgotten.
Now, that was just an interesting little example of how language and meaning change through societal changes, but there’s something important we need to talk about in relation to this point.
We need to talk about how the language we use has an impact and that impact can potentially be a negative one.
You may be tempted to switch off after that last sentence, and I get it, there’s friction there. After all, I’m saying ‘we must be careful with our words’, something a lot of us have heard a million times before, right? Well, please bear with me – yes there’s a natural resistance to this, but there are clear reasons firstly why we feel that resistance and secondly why we must be careful with our words.
Firstly, the resistance, I would argue, largely comes from the repeated idea that if we say something that has a negative impact, we are automatically ‘bad’ people. This is a false notion. We all do, in fact, say things that can have a negative impact – this is a part of living in a world with societal structures and influences – but that does not mean we are ‘bad’ or ‘evil’, it just means we are living in this world. The good/evil binary is something that holds us trapped, immobile and unwilling to change our language and this needs to change.
Secondly, the reason we need to get past our preconceived notions of language use and be open to changing our language is that a lot of our words perpetuate unnecessary violence.
Again, this can be very true and yet not mean that we are ‘evil’. We just need to be open to adapting when considering the information available to us.
Here’s an example:
‘People must respect animals!’
This well-meaning sentence has a lot of good in it but there is something there that could be changed to help us avoid reinforcing the structures of speciesism. Can you see what I mean?
Making a distinction between ‘people’ and ‘animals’.
Did you get it?
When we make that distinction, intentional or not, we are allowing the subtext of the conversation to be an acceptance that nonhuman animals are not individuals with ‘personhood’, are not ‘persons’, are not ‘people’. In fact, we are saying that humans are the only individuals who have personhood. This is something that is aggressively debated in philosophical circles but let’s simplify things for now – let’s see another slightly different example:
‘Humans must respect animals!’
This time the problem might be clearer. We again see an assumed difference, this time between ‘human’ and ‘animal’, but we know that humans are indeed animals and so we can all agree that this assumed difference is factually unfair. This is both a symptom of and a contributor to the system of oppression that allows for so much violence to nonhuman individuals.
The idea that humans are not animals is steeped in the idea that to be ‘animal’ is to be some ‘thing’ devoid of individuality, sentience and personhood and therefore in no need of the fundamental rights that would protect them from, say, unnecessary exploitation, mutilation, manipulation and killings by the billions each year.
When we look at that example sentence through this lens, I think most of us would agree that to use that sentence would be problematic.
Instead, we could say:
‘Humans must respect other animals!’
‘Human individuals must respect nonhuman individuals!’
In this way, we more accurately describe what we mean, without unknowingly perpetuating oppression.
Now, this is merely one example in a long, long interlocked web of examples and so it should be clear that this blog piece cannot hold all the answers to solving this complicated issue. What I can say is that this is something that is a practice, that takes time, and will undoubtedly highlight many words that can be problematic – if we are open to learning and relearning.
Thank you for reading this piece and being open to changing our language to aid our work against oppression. Let’s all work together in developing our work to be as effective as possible and…
Let’s keep taking action together for animal rights!
Social Media and Campaigns Coordinator
Animal Justice Project