animal intelligence

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.