The Language of Liberation

The following is the original version of the speech I gave today at Toastmasters (I had to cut it down a little for time):


Let us take a few minutes to examine language or, more specifically, the words we use every day. We use so many of them, so often without even thinking, that we forget: Words are powerful.

Well-chosen words hold the secret to liberating animals, those who cannot speak for themselves. How? Because emancipation begins in the mind. We can physically rescue as many individual nonhuman animals as we want, but the only way to truly achieve lasting liberation for all nonhuman beings is to first alter the mindset, or attitudes, of a meaningful percentage of those responsible for their exploitation. But how best to alter attitudes? By reshaping the way humans perceive nonhumans. And how do we alter perception? Language. Words.

What I’m talking about is shifting the dominant paradigm, our society’s current framework for understanding the world around us. Humans develop their attitudes toward the world through the frameworks they’ve been taught, words and phrases that have molded their minds from a very early age to see things in a certain way, a paradigm validated solely because it has been successfully indoctrinated in such a large percentage of the population for so long.

In order bring about a more egalitarian paradigm, it is crucial that we reframe society’s perceptions of nonhuman beings by challenging speciesist language in our daily lives, that is, language that fails to accord equal consideration and respect to other species. In our advocacy, it is essential for us to carefully choose words that paint a vivid impression of nonhuman animals as morally relevant, morally meaningful beings. As the use of our non-speciesist language takes root, it will expose the injustice of speciesism, and rational humans will eventually come to recognize the inherent cruelty of using other beings as resources for their own purposes.

So where do we begin? Let’s focus on three scenarios in which the choice of words may influence the public’s perception of our fellow beings.

The other day I was watching a CNN piece on Oscar, a cat that seems to know when terminal patients at a nursing home are going to die. During an interview, a psychologist representing the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals repeatedly referred to Oscar as “it,” even though CNN’s reporter had already referred to the empathic kitty as “he.” Let’s deconstruct this: A person brought in to represent animals knew Oscar’s gender and called him “it,” implicitly approving and encouraging the objectification of sentient beings.

Granted, ASPCA reps are far from animal rights activists, but surely they know that nonhuman animals are not inanimate objects. This particular rep lost an opportunity to reach hundreds of thousands–even millions–of engaged, interested television viewers with a powerful message that other animals matter, too. Moral of the story: even if you don’t know the gender of another species, never refer to him or her as “it.” Get people used to thinking of nonhuman beings in terms of identities, personalities… individuality.

Here’s another recent scenario. At the national animal rights conference a couple of weekends ago, I heard several activists refer to chickens as “broiler hens” and cows as “livestock.” Why do we let the dominant paradigm influence how we describe or advocate for nonhuman animals? Haven’t we shattered that way of looking at the world for ourselves? Then why should we lend creedence to the terms “livestock” and “broiler,” among others? When you use speciesist vocabulary as an advocate for nonhuman animals, you are implicitly endorsing its use by others, as well as reinforcing its validity.

Why not describe the reality behind these terms instead? Livestock and broilers are, more descriptively, cows and chickens bred and slaughtered for their flesh. If we hold up this reality in place of the usual euphemisms, we can invalidate those speciesist terms and educate the public at the same time, eventually influencing society as a whole to reject speciesism, the same way activists before us sought and continue to seek to eliminate racism and sexism. So don’t be lazy–Wipe speciesist vocabulary from your speech.

My third example deals with animal disparagement: “Ugly” bugs, “dumb” cows or “stupid” chickens. How often have you heard the interests of nonhumans dismissed because they are not as attractive or intelligent as humans, as if such criteria are somehow a moral basis for dismissing the interests of any being? Do we dismiss the interests of a mentally incapacitated or conventionally ugly human? Of course not, but rarely is language like this challenged when it comes to nonhumans. And, along these lines, when animal advocates call for primate rights ahead of other animals, they further reinforce the notion that animal rights ought to be granted based on how human a given nonhuman animal is fortunate to be. We, as advocates for all animals, must shatter this anthropocentric view of the world.

Defining the value of other beings based on how much like us they are is self-serving and morally repugnant when, in fact, our morally relevant interests are the same. Despite our differences in the areas of intelligence, appearance, and other morally irrelevant traits, we do share morally significant interests in avoiding pain, seeking pleasure, and living in sync with our animal natures. By denying these interests and using nonhuman animals as resources–by evaluating species on such an arbitrary basis as human-like intelligence–we reveal our own stupidity.

Can we breathe underwater, like fish, or take flight like the hummingbird? Do we see half as well at night as the common feline? What I wouldn’t give to be able to soar through sky, feel the wind in my hair, and to coast along on a current of air. But, alas, I am merely human.

While most animals may not have the intelligence that serves our ecological niche, assuming for a moment that even humans do–and there is plenty of evidence to the contrary–other animals certainly have an intelligence or other abilities that serve their ecological niche, and this is what matters. We must shatter this anthropocentric way of looking at the world. By looking at nonhuman animals and the environment as resources for us–by evaluating species on such an arbitrary basis as human-like intelligence–we reveal our own stupidity.

Quite simply, animals’ rights are not necessitated by their worth to us. Such “rights” would only be a reflection of our own vanities. True rights for animals–all animals–are rooted in their interests, such as the enjoyment of life and liberty. These are rights that we take for granted, but which are denied other animals every single day, simply because we’ve been taught that they are “dumb” or “ugly”. But isn’t that dumb? Isn’t that ugly?

Ultimately, it’s our language, and it’s flexible. It can be transformed. We can use this fact to our advantage as advocates for nonhuman animals within the human community. If, within our own spheres of influence–family, friends, the opinion pages–we implement the lessons of the three examples I’ve given, we can veganically prepare the soil, society, to receive the seeds of animal liberation.

As people adopt language that recognizes nonhuman beings as more than mere objects–and certainly not as beings below us–we will see the ground grow ever more fertile, allowing animal rights to flower into a world more favorably disposed to the interests of all beings. And there we’ll find liberation.



  1. Yes…very good. It’s time we put the skin back in HIDE. No more hiding behind words folks…Using language and words that objectify non human animals is not only speciesist it’s dishonest. It’s dishonest because people do not want to face the reality of having to feel anything. Using words to describe animals like “it”, or “livestock”, or “ugly” helps humans deny that non human animals that are used, abused and killed by humans can suffer. When someone is suffering you have to emotionally deal with it…and humans just do not want to deal with that. Because if they face that suffering they have to face their being complicit as well as face the idea that they may have to stop being complicit. Speciesist vocabulary also at the same time helps shield the cause of non human suffering at the hands of humans as well. The dishonest words and false phrases that humans use in regard to animals is what perpetuates the non stop injustice. Words like “Cull”, or phrases like “put down” “put to sleep” or “euthanize” are all used to deny the reality of humans killing animals. Even words like enclosure instead of using cage or using words like dairy even instead of animal milk industry or…my favorite..HIDE instead of animal skin.The language humans use every day hide (irony intended) the truth about animals and what humans do to them out of greed, out of sheer cruelty and for human pleasure. Holding everyone responsible to be honest with language we use when it comes to everybody…including language we use about other humans. It’s all related. We are all related even when we are embarrased by our fellow humans or our cousins, aunts, uncles, parents, spouses ok all humans..all all our relatives but that is a different issue…. To deny feelings to deny our responsibility and to deny that others are just like us we use dishonest language. We all want to be protected (our interests as well) and we all want to be happy.Two simple changes in our everyday words we can make are…begin referring to all animals as persons because they ARE.And STOP using the phrase human kindness….just replace it with kindness and ask others to do the same.

  2. Excellent speech, full of ideas that I hope served as a wake-up call to the audience.Referring to an animal as “it” now seems bizarre and detestable to me.I agree with phillip’s comments wholeheartedly, with the possible exception that “human kindness” is a useful phrase when referring to kindness specifically shown (or withheld) by humans. But I suspect he was talking about a speciesist practice of claiming kindness as a purely human trait, which of course is not only wrong but delusional.BTW…Shouldn’t we we say “a cat *who* seems to know” and “animals *who* are used?”

  3. Oh…! Identically, I have been thinking about writing a speech on the exactly same topic for a very long time now. I have recently written down some random ideas but I have not yet had the time to start writing it properly. So I guess it’s a very good opprotunity for me to read someone else’s thoughts on this topic before I start writing my own… Especially because I am Czech and in Czech language some of the linguistic speciesisms vary, as we don’t have the “it” thing instead of “he/ she” and so on. On the other hand, there are many influences on me from the English language that I can not properly express in Czech, as there is no edible way to say “companion animal/ guardian” instead of “pet/ owner”, simply the translations sound too much jerky… so it’s obviously up to me to find out a completely new way, I believe…So, thanks for the article. I believe the language we use is so much more important that people ever think, and personally I don’t understand how so many caring, compassionated people still haven’t challenged the use of such language. To challenge, to question, to think – that’s what I believe we need to do, then the language can truly, come to be The Language of Liberation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s