Improving Our Language
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org

FROM

Roger Yates, On Human Relations with Other Sentient Beings
February 2014

We live in a culture that has institutionalized the oppression of animals on at least two levels: in formal structures such as slaughterhouses, meat markets, zoos, laboratories, and circuses, and through our language. That we refer to meat eating rather than to corpse eating is a central example of how our language transmits the dominant culture's approval of this activity.

Improving our language on veganism to recognise that it is more than diet means we should no longer run into the "celeb vegan" problem.

The term "health vegan" is wrong because all it means is that someone is eating 100% plant-based for their own reasons. Veganism is everything but a self-centred movement (not that caring for one's health is wrong). The earliest pioneers of the vegan movement were told that they would suffer, health-wise, and may even die, if they went for a 100% plant-based diet. I used to say that the 1940s pioneers (Donald Watson and co.) decided to risk it for a vegan biscuit, which I always thought was rather neat.

Now I'll have to say that they decided to risk it for the sort of biscuit vegans eat!

Some of the struggle ahead for the animal advocacy movement is linguistic in nature. Social and institutionalised values are embedded into language, a fact which was never lost to the feminist movement(s), especially, perhaps, those in the 1960s and 1970s.

In the animal advocacy movement, Carol Adams and Joan Dunayer are prime movers in terms of focusing on the importance of language.

We live in a culture that has institutionalized the oppression of animals on at least two levels: in formal structures such as slaughterhouses, meat markets, zoos, laboratories, and circuses, and through our language. That we refer to meat eating rather than to corpse eating is a central example of how our language transmits the dominant culture's approval of this activity.
― Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory.

Deceptive language perpetuates speciesism, the failure to accord nonhuman animals equal consideration and respect. Like sexism and racism, speciesism is a form of self-aggrandising prejudice. Bigotry requires self-deception. Speciesism can’t survive without lies.
- Joan Dunayer, Animal Equality: Language and Liberation.

Language has the power both to reflect our attitudes and to determine them, as we know from the battle for language that is inclusive of women. This book looks at the way our language choices enable us to disregard the interests, sentience and consciousness of non-human animals so that we can exploit them for our own ends.
- Lyn, reviewing Joan Dunayer's Animal Equality: Language and Liberation.

Sociologists have acknowledged the importance and indeed the power of language. This is what Berger and Berger write in their book, Sociology: A Biographical Approach (see my blog entry, Language, Power & Speciesism, HERE)

Language thus confronts the child as an all-encompassing reality. Almost everything else that he experiences as real is structured on the basis of this underlying reality - filtered through it, organised by it, expanded by it or, conversely, banished through it into oblivion for that which cannot be talked about has a very tenuous hold on memory. (1976: 83-4.)

In the animal movement, we have increasingly seen objection to the use of the pronoun "it" to describe individual other animals. The movement has also experimented with various forms of words to describe other animals, as I explained in Language, Power & Speciesism in relation to the work of criminologist Piers Beirne.

Since language can bolster or challenge conventional power relations and, since one recognised task of social movements may involve challenging prevailing linguistic convention, Beirne notes the attempts made to overcome a central juxtaposition –“humans” and “animals”- within the animal advocacy movement and academia. He suggests, for example, that the term “non-human animal” is in vogue within the advocacy movement although, in my experience, it is still most common for advocates, be it on email listings, forums, or in general correspondence to the mass media, to refer to nonhuman animals simply as “animals,” thereby often missing the opportunity to challenge the status quo. Beirne further suggests that the construction, “animals other than humans,” is rather cumbersome - and then there is fellow criminologist Geertrui Cazaux’s lengthy acronym developed in her PhD, “animals other than human animals.” Noting that these constructions do not fully escape the clutches of speciesism in the first place, Beirne says that his own practice is to outline these language issues and then enter “hereinafter, ‘animals,’” after the term “non-human animals,” so that he can move on. This sounds like a sensible strategy for a long article, especially when addressing a largely academic audience, whereas the point would probably be lost if used, for example, on an online forum.

language linguistics semanticsIs it time for the vegan community to sharpen up on its language use? We almost casually say such things as, "is that bread vegan?" and "that vegetarian restaurant has vegan options."

This may be a convenient shorthand but it seems sloppy and inaccurate. We shouldn't say, "I had a vegan breakfast this morning." Rather, we should say, "I had a vegan's breakfast this morning." No breakfast is vegan since living vegan means adhering to the philosophy of veganism.

So, perhaps, instead of saying, "that vegetarian restaurant has vegan options," we should be saying, "that vegetarian restaurant has food choices that vegans will choose."

Improving our language on veganism to recognise that it is more than diet means we should no longer run into the "celeb vegan" problem. We need not say that ex-US President Bill Clinton is a vegan: we merely have to say that Clinton sometimes eats 100% plant-based meals like vegans do all the time.

The term "health vegan" is wrong because all it means is that someone is eating 100% plant-based for their own reasons. Veganism is everything but a self-centred movement (not that caring for one's health is wrong). The earliest pioneers of the vegan movement were told that they would suffer, health-wise, and may even die, if they went for a 100% plant-based diet.

I used to say that the 1940s pioneers (Donald Watson and co.) decided to risk it for a vegan biscuit, which I always thought was rather neat. Now I'll have to say that they decided to risk it for the sort of biscuit vegans eat!!


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