FLESH AND TONGUE: Eating and Talking About Animals
Peter Singer, philosopher of animal liberation, has suggested that "habits not only of diet but also of thought and language must be challenged and altered." Nowhere is this more true than in our expressions about animals. Once a friend tried to defend his usage of "beating a dead horse." "C'mon," he persisted, "give me a break! It's just an expression!"
I shook my head. "Then murdered animals are just food?"
Clearly exasperated, my friend sighed, "Well, if you want to know the truth, I guess I never really gave it much thought."
The transition from a destructive diet to vegetarianism (and the more healthful vegan lifestyle) is a weaning process. So is the switch to a new language free of allusions to violence and cruelty. The idea is gradually to eliminate the more egregious offenders: "there's more than one way to skin a cat," "let's kill two birds with one stone," "that's the straw that broke the camel's back," "cold turkey," "let the cat out of the bag," "in the doghouse," "a bat out of hell," "you're a dead duck," "your goose is cooked," "hog-tied," "like a lamb to slaughter," "a chicken in every pot," "hold your horses!" "milk it for all it's worth," and "like shooting fish in a barrel." These are examples of malignant usage we can eliminate from our diet of "harmless" colloquialisms.
In our quest for "gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals," (one of Thoreau's "Higher Laws") cow, calf and pig are first to go on the menu, soon followed by water-dwelling and sky-borne animals. Likewise, liberated language is further realized by cutting out debasing slurs, stereotypes and similes: sly as a fox, dumb as an ox, fat and smelly as a hog, madder than a junkyard dog, sillier than a goose, uglier than a moose. As dairy and leather are next on the list of forbiddens, so too go insults and innuendo in our animalspeak. "How is it," asks Marjorie Spiegel, author of The Dreaded Comparison, "that we find ourselves in a time when comparison to a non-human animal has ceased to be a compliment and is instead hurled as an insult?" Examples include: "You disgusting pig!" "You old nag!" "You lecherous goat!" "You little weasel!" "You stinking skunk!" "You silly ass!" "You dirty rat!" "You slimy snake!" "You animal! You beast!" Do our friends of the earth deserve such opprobrium? The powerful forces of market capitalism have conquered the hearts and minds of trusting consumers who truly believe that "meat is necessary" and "milk does a body good." Language is deep-fried in denial and larded in obfuscation to promote a deadly agenda of unhealthy products that sell for billions of dollars. Propaganda, doublespeak, half-truths and outright lies keep us, as John Robbins puts it, "prisoner by a point of view beneath the threshold of our awareness."
Keeping Numb by Playing Dumb
It's always easier to swallow a sugarcoated pill than face up to the ugly truths disguised by corporate advertisers' practice of euphemistic naming. The unpleasant awareness that you are devouring a mutilated animal must be repressed or seen as something more pleasant than it really is. Otherwise, the gourmand status bestowed on charred corpses might not sound so appealing. Take away what Carol Adams terms the tortured "absent referent" -- the animal that used to exist -- and all that's left is "veal," "steak," "bacon," "sausage," "pork" and "ham." Hey, where's the beef? In this way, drugs become "compounds and health products," pain becomes "short-term discomfort," hormones become "growth promotants," to castrate becomes "neuter," factory farming becomes "family farming," and slaughter becomes "process/harvest/go to market."
Along with euphemisms, oxymorons masquerade and parade through the language of corporate speciesists whose livelihoods depend on animal suffering. The "whole chicken" at the market is a macabre example: a bird minus her head, feet, feathers, and internal organs is not exactly whole! Oxymorons render us ethically neutral to the daily atrocities perpetrated by the meat and dairy industries. Other howlers include: "humane slaughter," "wildlife management," "fresh meat," "live boiled lobster," "tender cut," "grain-consuming units," "lean fat," "dolphin-free tuna," and "farm fresh eggs." Bad taste in both food and expression are human cultural traits. Challenging the supremacy of diet and language is one thing; actually altering our cherished cultivation of flesh and tongue is quite another.
Minding Our Language
In becoming less speciesist toward animals, we come to appreciate how similar, not different, we are. Many animals engage in the same purposeful behavior attributed to humans. But naturally, we have apotheosized the self-referential "human being." What about "cetacean being," "ape being," and "avian being"-- for aren't we are all cut from the same cloth, only into different patterns to make the quilt of life?
Will our children ever know what it means to treat animals with the love and respect they deserve and once merited from our species? A cynical answer would be that they won't if they continue to be raised on rotten diets and filthy mouths. Only by changing our present way of living, of thinking and talking about animals, can we hope to pass on to future generations a healthier, more all-encompassing compassionate world. When that day comes, it will herald a return to reverence and harmony with the sacred "spirit-that-moves-through-all-things." Recurring cycles of evolutionary consciousness will be completed. Humans, estranged from their roots in the earth for so long, will once again become a part of, not apart from, all Gaia-inspired life.