Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Is It Speciesist to Use the Term "Animal"?

Tom Regan nobly uses the term “NHA” as an abbreviation for “nonhuman animal” in his book, Empty Cages. After all, there are human and nonhuman animals, and we are all animals. By using “animal” in opposition to “humans,” some take that to imply that humans are after all not animals. An alarming number of religious fundamentalists actually believe that we are not animals. Now I would find it tedious to say “nonhuman animals” over and over again, and while Regan is savvy to use “NHA,” I do not think there is any universal obligation to use that abbreviation. Should we always speak of "NHA rights" when we mean "animal rights"? Someone might think I was referring to rights associated with the National Hockey Association (1909-1917), the forerunner of the National Hockey League. There are different acceptable stylistic choices available. In my own writing and speaking, although I am aware of the obnoxiousness of those who can witness that we are full of animal structures and functions who yet deny our animality, I sometimes use the term “animal” to mean “nonhuman animals.”

Now Joan Dunayer, who has done first-rate work on animal liberation language-usage in her book, Animal Equality: Language and Liberation, and who in my opinion does perhaps the best writing on the mental lives of insects, mollusks, and others, maintains in her book Speciesism that it is speciesist to use “animal” as I am wont to do (unless I say "nonhuman" emphatically of course). She objects that saying “humans and animals” is logically the same as saying “blacks and humans.” (Dunayer 2004, 12) I agree that someone using the latter phrase is assuming that blacks are somehow (I know not how!) not human. However, thanks to standard usage, someone who uses the word “animals” to refer to nonhuman animals does not imply that humans are not animals. In the case of such an utterance, anyone who is competent in the life sciences will speak and listen with the understanding that humans are animals too.

Dunayer would have us say “nonhuman rights” instead of “animal rights.” Yet “nonhuman” applies to stones and saucepans, and it also seeks to encompass animals with an ironically human-centred term: nonhuman. It can be construed as anthropocentric to require all uses of “animal” to be prefaced with a reference to humanity or non-humanity, as the case may be. It can be viewed as a celebration of animality independent of “us” to refer to animals without any reference to humans whatsoever. That is in a certain respect a more nonanthropocentric usage.

The short-form “animal” is defensible theoretically since its meaning will be well-understood, if it is otherwise stated or implied that humans are animals too. It would also be unwise to leap to the conclusion that a speaker who says "animal" must mean that humans are better than other animals. In general, I agree with the broader intellectual tradition that it is wise to employ the principle referred to as "charity of interpretation." That means interpreting what others say in a favorable way, or the way that they intend, unless there is a good reason to do otherwise. Certainly I can find no theoretical or practical reason to do otherwise. I have already addressed the theory part.

Practically, “animal” is acceptable in terms of animal advocacy. I reason this by answering some relevant questions in this context. Will using “animal” make anti-speciesists treat animals any worse? No. Will the word usage make speciesists treat animals worse? No. Will the word make speciesists less likely to be “converted” by anti-speciesists? I doubt it. Who has ever resisted “animal rights” just because they were not called “nonhuman animal rights” or “nonhuman rights,” as Dunayer would have it (and as advocates for the rights of stones would have it too, I suppose). Nobody dismisses “animal rights” because one stylistically awkward phrase or another is avoided. Therefore, there is no oppressive implication that humans are “above” animality, and the term “animal” can be defended both theoretically and practically.

It is a commonplace, and my friend JoAnne Schwab reminds me, that the way we use language affects how we think. However, I do not think seriously that deniers that humans are animals will ever change their views just because I use the term "nonhuman," let alone will anyone who agrees that humans are animals change their mind over word usage. It might help people who deny human animality though by reminding them and getting them to think about the matter. That is why this debate is not all-or-nothing. I concede there is merit in sometimes emphasizing, one way or another, that humans are animals too. I am just denying that it is oppressive to use the term "animal." It is more of a stylistic and practical consideration I suppose.

In her zeal to label people such as myself “new speciesists,” (I am in good company here along with Tom Regan, Evelyn Pluhar and others) I do not think that Dunayer, in this particular case, reflects lucidly on traditional usage. It is a pity, since much of her work on language is inspired. For example, she says we should call animals (or in her usage "nonhumans") who live with us "animal companions" rather than "companion animals," since the latter phrase implies it is the human or perhaps divine purpose of animals to serve as our companions. Her own rephrasing carries no such implication. Still, in the case of "animal," I say it is a case of revisionism that itself stands in need of revision.

Works Cited

Dunayer, Joan. 2001. Animal Equality: Language and Liberation. Derwood: Ryce Publishing.

Dunayer, Joan. 2004. Speciesism. Derwood: Ryce Publishing.

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