I just saw this brief piece in Time on academia’s ongoing efforts to diminish our vocabulary in the name of enhancing it. It’s always difficult to tell how well articles like this actually represent the content of the journals they report on (the journal itself is behind a pay wall). However, the basic idea seems to be that many words we use for animals are derogatory (including anything from “vermin” to “pet”). The terms we use reflect the unkind behavior of the past, and reforming our beliefs and behavior means reforming our language. In short, it’s another brand political correctness as the progressive civil rights model is mirrored for animal rights. There’s nothing really new here, but we might as well get a handle on refuting this sort of thing before we need to vocally oppose legislation based on it. Let’s start with the word “pet.”
It’s certainly true that the words we use have power over how we act as the journal suggests. But that very fact ultimately undermines their case about the language of animal rights. If “companion” is to be preferred and “pet” deemed derogatory, it is probably based somehow on the observation that calling someone a “pet” would be derogatory while “companion” would not be. We should therefore use the better, non-derogatory terms for animals because they’re no less valuable than humans. Unfortunately for their case, however, the word “pet” is derogatory specifically because it is dehumanizing, and dehumanization should only be offensive when applied to humans. How is humanizing an animal by using this new language any less offensive than dehumanizing a human?
Applying “better”, more human terms to animals still leaves humans as the gold standard to which animals must be compared. So what they propose is still rank speciesism–they should complain no less about this than about trying to improve the lot of African-Americans by making them more “white.” By this model, the basis for our relationship with animals therefore cannot rest in these human “prejudices.” So how do we treat each other “well” and “respectfully” and “kindly”? The meaning of the words must be abstracted away from humanity and drawn instead from across the animal kingdom. When this happens, they must necessarily lose any distinctly human concepts such as goodness, truth, or beauty. What is more, if humans apply these words to each other, they cannot reclaim such concepts, or we would be right back to the rank speciesism we started with. Ultimately then, humans must talk about each other without regard to the good, the true, and the beautiful.
And so the power of words begins to cut both ways. As is all too common in the animal rights movement, equating the value of humans and animals doesn’t mean treating animals better–it just means treating humans worse.
But what about “owner”? The article says that this word is even worse, and here, they might have a better case. What do we usually think of when we say “I own this”? Usually ideas of power and possession–some variation on “I can do whatever I want with it.” This certainly isn’t a very kind concept to apply to animals. However, their thesis would still be wrong because this use of language isn’t some holdover from unkind treatment in the past–it’s just that we’ve come to possess a very deprived notion of “ownership.” Contrary to progressive assumptions, it’s caused by something we’ve lost rather than something we’re holding onto.
Think about less common and more “old-timey” uses of the word. For example, when you admit to having done something wrong, you “own” up to it–you confess and take responsibility. This doesn’t indicate an act of power over property. On the contrary, “ownership” in this context is an act of humble submission. Or consider a more balanced use of the word: taking “ownership” over a task at your job. Here it implies both responsibility and the power to carry out that responsibility. It’s simultaneously a claim to authority and an act of submission.
In our hyper-individualistic culture, we focus so much on our rights that we completely forget about the responsibility part. Indeed, any solid concept of rights is inseparable from concepts of responsibility (and vice versa). Because we try to chase after rights while escaping responsibilities, pet “owner” has simply come to mean pet “user.” If, on the other hand, you think of “owner” as necessarily implying a humble submission with respect to taking responsibility, then “owner” isn’t really offensive with respect to pets at all (assuming we aren’t trying to humanize them in the first place).
Perhaps linguistic solutions to animal cruelty would be better served by nourishing our language rather than continuing to prune it.