Pictures are great, songs are lovely, and videos are powerful. But words alone are perhaps the most telling. How we talk: the words we use, and the way we say them, says a lot about us. It says a lot about us as a culture too since our collective language is evolving from our own citizens every day. In a world where ‘retweet’ and ‘OMG’ can now be found in the Oxford English Dictionary, well let’s just say someone does a reasonable job at keeping it up to speed. But do we keep the rest of our language up to speed with our current practices, beliefs, and consciousness? I would have to argue that we do not.
In a recent session at Vegetarian Summerfest, Colleen Patrick-Goudreau shared with us her some intriguing revelations about our language. She made me think about my words in a completely new way and it was totally eye-opening! The language demonstrates a part of our culture that is so outdated and archaic! Sadly, it also shows how we’ve used language to distance ourselves from animals and to raise ourselves above them in an rather convenient way.
Think about some of the expressions we use on a regular basis:
There’s no use beating a dead horse; Kill two birds with one stone; There’s more than one way to skin a cat; Take the bull by the horns; Eat high on the hog; Let the cat out of the bag; Like lambs to slaughter; Like a cat that swallowed the canary; Not enough room to swing a cat; Canary in the mineshaft; Straw that broke the camel’s back; Not enough room to swing a cat…
A bit violent, no?
Some are not as violent, but still a bid odd… Ate like a pig; Look like a pig; Fat as a cow; Drunk as a skunk; Poor as a church mouse; Monkey around; Gone to the dogs; Taking the reins. How about calling someone a rat? A pig? A dog? A snake? These are all pretty negative, right? Holy cow – I’d say so!
I daresay none of us have skinned a cat or kept one in a bag, or much less swung a cat around to judge the size of a room. So why do we talk like this? Sadly, this type of language is so prevalent in our culture that we don’t even hear ourselves saying it. If we did, we’d surely find a more appropriate way to express ourselves.
This type of language evolved as a way to separate ourselves from the other members of the animal kingdom. The word animal is derived from a latin word animalis meaning “having breath.” Yet today, calling someone an animal is usually meant as an insult. As are so many of the other more specific terms given above. We’ve evolved our language for the term “pig” to apply to someone who is filthy, sloppy, fat, sexist, or any number of other negative characteristics. While pigs wallow in the mud to stay cool, because they are completely incapable of sweating (like pigs), they are very clean animals! They are among the most intelligent animals on the planet – ranking just below chimpanzees and dolphins, and just above dogs and 3-year-old humans!
All of the characteristics that I’m referring to are (strictly) human characteristics. Being sexist, sneaky, underhanded, or sloppy are all human characteristics that we’ve projected onto animals, not the other way around. I dare you to find a rat that’s truly a tattle-tale/traitor, or a mouse that’s worried about her bank account. Redefining some of these characteristics with animal terms and idioms not only displaces our own faults onto our animal brothers and sisters, but it has the effect of lowering them beneath us even further. We accidentally think of pigs as filthy creatures, mice as lowly beings, and rats as – oh the horror of even having to think about one! Shudder!
All of this human characterization of animals has led to one serious problem – because animals are lower than us, we assume superiority over them. Like any incidence of racism, slavery, genocide, or holocaust, the ones with the power simply assumed it because they found a way for the ‘others’ to be different, and therefore lesser. We are born with a moral code that prevents us from hurting our own kind, but once someone is something other than us, look out. With superiority we gain the ability to do anything we want to the others. We do what we want and it becomes ok. People working on farms and in slaughterhouses and butcher shops are so completely desensitized and they must remain so in order to maintain some semblance of sanity I suppose.
As consumers, when we shop in the grocery stores where cows and chickens and turkeys and chickens’ eggs are wrapped in sterile packaging, we too are desensitized to it all. We carry on without even a thought as to where the meat came from, and without a moment’s pause to reflect on why we’re doing what we’re doing. The evolved language of violence has helped to breed a culture of violence and a lack of caring to the point of apathy.
Next time you catch yourself saying something expressing violence against animals, consider whether this language reflects your consciousness. If it doesn’t, try to find a more compassionate way to get the message across. Instead of, “kill two birds with one stone,” try switching it to , “cut two carrots with one knife!” All you need to do is get the visual across in a slightly less violent way. Try it and you’ll see how easy it can be.
I’m sure we can all find another way to express ourselves. After all, there’s more than one way to peel a potato!