The power of misdescription: ‘animals’ now a term of abuse

It seems that it is not sufficient that the UN is considering a treaty on the human rights for birds, bees, and trees, there is now a new publication under the auspices of the University of Illinois Press with the illustrious name of “Journal of Animal Ethics“.

Make no mistake though, the thrust of this journal is not that animals do – or should have – “ethics” but rather that of our ethics towards animals. The Editors – and no doubt guiding lights – of this publication are a theologian, Andrew Linzey (Oxford) and a philosopher, Priscilla Cohn (Penn State … home of Michael Mann). The journal is, unfortunately, behind a paywall; but in Terms of Endearment Discourse, their maiden Editorial, these self-appointed arbiters of anthropomorphic correctness advise that:

This is the first journal of its kind – multidisciplinary in nature, international in scope, and, of course, peer-reviewed.

Linzey and Cohn exhort:

[W]e need to be mindful of our words. … [This has] major implications for how we conceptualize and think about the many worlds of animals. … The words we use reflect and solidify our existing perceptions.

[…] the past is littered with derogatory terminology: “brutes,” “beasts,” “bestial,” “critters,” “subhuman,” and the like. We will not be able to think clearly unless we discipline ourselves to use more impartial nouns and adjectives in our exploration of animals and our moral relations with them.

[…]
Unless we address the power of misdescription, we shall never be able to think straight, let alone see straight (that is, impartially or, at least, with some measure of objectivity). Even “animals” is itself a term of abuse (which hides the reality of what it purports to describe, namely a range of differentiated beings of startling variety and complexity). … We shall not possess a new understanding of animals unless we actively challenge the language we use, which is the language of historic denigration. [emphasis added -hro]

Wait a minute … shouldn’t they be practicing what they preach? How on earth did “new understanding of animals” get past their peer-review? Surely they should have written, “We shall not possess a new understanding of this range of differentiated beings”. And I suppose that now that they’ve tainted the word “littered” we may no longer use the collective noun “litter” when speaking of the new-born offspring of any of these differentiated beings.

Unfortunately, the rest of this exhortation to enlightenment is behind their paywall. The U.K.’s Daily Mail, though, seems to have ventured beyond the call of duty (or perhaps picked up from a press release) to relay that:

… words like ‘pests’ and ‘vermin’ should be dropped altogether and ‘pets’ replaced by ‘companion animals’

‘Wild animals’ should be termed ‘free living or free ranging animals’ because ‘wildness’ is too close to ‘uncivilized’.
[…]

[The authors] said: “Despite its prevalence, “pets” is surely a derogatory term both of the animals concerned and their human carers.

OMG, there they go again … speaking of ‘animals’ rather than ‘differentiated beings’. And now I’m a ‘human carer’ … not even a caregiver, just a ‘carer’ to Amber, the feline (if such a word is still permitted) with whom I co-habit.

I do hope that the Arab world is taking note of all this and that the powers that be therein will immediately decree that Jews, Israelis and other assorted infidels should henceforth no longer be known as ‘dogs’ and/or ‘pigs’ because it is quite clear that in the eyes of the likes of Linzey and Cohn this would be “derogatory” and a “denigration” of such “differentiated beings”.

Whatever happened to the good old days when one could call a spade a spade, eh?!

2 thoughts on “The power of misdescription: ‘animals’ now a term of abuse

  1. It’s all getting a little Orwellian, in a silly sort of way. Mind you, I look forward to commentators in the Guardian/HuffPo who now write things like “Humanity is the greatest pest on the planet” being made to change this to something like “Humanity’s fecundity indeed surpasses that of our fellow differentiated beings of the infectious, single-celled persuasion.”

    Most liked comment on the Daily Mail article, from “bej”: “I asked my pet cat and she has stated categorically she doesn’t want to be a companion, she expects to have her every need catered for and companion sounds like she might have to put some effort into this relationship.”

    I think that if animals (sorry – “differentiated yet equal brethren before Gaia”, I mean) could read and comprehend all of this, they would be highly amused. I suspect that my cats would, anyway, as would your Amber?

    • Oh, you’re quite correct … Amber would, indeed, be amused and appalled! And I had a great chuckle when I read that particular comment on the Daily Mail, as well. What I find “interesting” (for want of a better word!) about all these shenanigans and verbal contortions (not to mention some of the ever-changing phrasings of choice) is how similar they are to what I had experienced – in a completely different field – twenty years ago! You might be interested in a (non-peer-reviewed!) paper I had delivered to a conference of my (then) peers. Written in 1992, it constituted my reflections on the state of a field broadly referred to as services to people with developmental handicaps. Someday, when I have some spare time (hah!) I might update it to reflect the parallels and paradigms of the enviro-advocacy movement.

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