There is a rich sociological analysis of the role of social movements in civil society, including a long-standing programme on the subject initiated and run by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. In general terms social movements are seen as examples of popular political action. They may be regarded as a major threat to prevailing power relations, or seen as subject to domestication – “bought off” perhaps – within social contract ideologies. Popular political action may occur for a variety of reasons which can range from issues like the limitations of democratic systems, problems that arise within democratising societies, felt grievances, anger against injustice, and countermovement activity. In a more Foucauldian sense -in that power may be considered to be diffused throughout the fabric of society- social movements may represent and attempt to articulate the values of certain social constituencies at particular times. As a general matter, social movement analysis acknowledges on some level that power or social influence is embedded in language and language use; and sees social movements as playing a role in challenging - or upholding - the language traditions that tend to be an important constituent part of the concerns of social movement mobilisation.
It occurred to me as I prepared for my presentation that the animal advocacy movement has not been particularly good at challenging the dominant language forms of human-nonhuman relations, although the influence of how we speak about human relations with other animals is clear. Attitudes about human and nonhuman animals are embedded in socialisation processes and are transmitted generationally throughout the fabric of society. Philosopher Stephen Clark argues that human beings resist the notion that we are animals, and we hear it negatively if we hear that someone has treated another human “like an animal.” Marjorie Spiegel refers to how insulted many of us feel if compared to nonhuman animals, while Barbara Noske describes a “sharp discontinuity between humans and animals” in Western culture and discourse. Animal behaviourist Jonathan Balcombe argues that such ideas are part of our age-old “imperialistic view” of other animals. Even “Darwin’s Bulldog,” T.H. Huxley, subscribed to the “vast gulf” thesis that separates “manhood” and “brutes,” even though he had argued that, “man is, in substance and in structure, one of the brutes.”
‘Postmodern’ and post-structural thought is said to be posited on challenging oppositional and dualistic constructions; in the ‘postmodern’ age, rather than denying difference, the idea is tocelebrate it. While recent academic nonhuman animal advocacy incorporates criticism of Cartesian or Cartesian-inspired dualisms, especially those of mind versus body, human versus animal, and reason versus emotion, Marti Kheel is among eco-feminist authors to point out the continuingdualistic nature of society. To be sure, language is certainly central in the social construction and maintenance of such dualisms, perhaps especially that which concerns me the most in this paper, human versus animal. Not only has the animal advocacy movement been exceptionally poor in terms of mounting any sort of substantive challenge to the dominant language forms of human-nonhuman relations, worse still, the vast majority of members of the mobilisation for nonhuman animals seem rather carelessly to use language constructs which are themselves speciesist - not the best way to shine a critical light on this powerful social institution.
Language as a social institution and in power relations.
Sociologists Peter and Brigitte Berger argue that language is the first institution human individuals encounter, while recognising that most people would suggest that “the family” is the first. In a sense, both ideas are accurate and, certainly, the experience of family life is a significant part of most biographies and the location in which most of us initially learn languages and the meaning of words. The family is the usual site of foundational primary socialisation. However, when very young, children experience their families in ignorance of the fact that they are experiencing a family. I remember the first birthday party of a granddaughter who appeared to have absolutely no idea that all these strange people suddenly making a fuss of her were the members of “her family.” Some she already knew well, others were infrequent visitors, and still more were with her for the first time.
While children experience interaction with the individuals around them – parents, brothers and sisters, other relatives like grandparents, and family friends and neighbours - they do so with no initial understanding that many of these people make up their families. This realisation comes later when familial members become known and known as family members – typically when people have been labelled as family members, and when children understand what such labels mean.
Language...impinges on the child very early in its macro-social aspects. From a very early stage on, language points to broader realities that lie beyond the micro-world of the child’s immediate experience. It is through language that the child first becomes aware of the vast world ‘out there,’ a world mediated by the adults who surround him but which vastly transcends them (Berger & Berger, 1976: 81).
The picture we are presented with, then, is the image of language helping to create the sense and understanding of our micro- and macro-worlds. In her micro-world, the child’s experience is structured by language. Furthermore, Berger and Berger suggest that, “language objectifies reality,” meaning that all their experiences are “firmed up” and stabilised into “discrete, identifiable objects.” Children rapidly learn to understand what surrounds them by learning the labels attached to the objects they experience in their lives. This is, the Bergers argue, certainly true of material objects, such as trees, tables, phones, and so on. However, the experience is more than just naming...it involves understanding how things might interact. A table can be placed under a tree someone wants to climb and the phone is of great help to request medical attention should she fall out. We get a sense of the experience of language developing –and of understandings and awareness expanding- from the centre outwards. Indeed, rather lyrically, Berger and Berger suggest that “mummy” is seen as a goddess whose throne sits at this centre of the expanding universe and, through language, we might come to know, or at least be told, that “mummy knows best.” Importantly, they note that it is only through language that such ideas could establish plausibility. Even more significantly, children use language to fully understand what’s going on as part of the crucial social experience of “taking the role of the other.” As with many aspects of social learning,repetition is important too – it helps create recurring patterns, something sociologists learn to take a great interest in.
Berger and Berger state that,
It is language that specifies, in a repeatable way, just what it is that the other is at again - ‘Here he goes with the punishing-father bit again,’ ‘Here she goes again putting on her company-is-coming face,’ and so on. Indeed, only by means of such linguistic fixation (that is, giving to the action of the other a fixed meaning, which can be repeatedly attached to each case of such action) can the child learn to take the role of the other. In other words, language is the bridge from ‘Here he goes again’ to ‘Watch out, here I come.’ (1976: 83.)
As children understand social roles, so social roles structure their world. The micro-world of roles extends into the wider macro-setting, just as the macro-world can enter the immediate micro-situation. Social roles represent social institutions. So the punishing father (doing the “punishing-father bit”) will use language (sometimes bad language) and, while some of his language can simply be expressing his own anger, other language of the father figure will invoke wider societal values. This acts to interpret and justify the punishment. While the offending act might be described, the fact that the punishment is well deserved is also articulated. The macro-world is involved because the punishment represents more than any individual’s reaction. The punishment is placed in social context; part of a bigger world of social manners and morals, and vast ideological social constructions such as “God” may also play a part in the punishment, invoked often as an authority on good action and the moral difference between good and evil.
What Berger and Berger describe as a “little micro-world drama” is inevitably related to the social structure as the father represents a generalised system of morals and good behaviour within which,
Language thus confronts the child as an all-encompassing reality. Almost everything else that he experiences as real is structured on the basis of this underlying reality - filtered through it, organised by it, expanded by it or, conversely, banished through it into oblivion for that which cannot be talked about has a very tenuous hold on memory. (1976: 83-4.)
If this perspective reveals the important role of language in society as a general matter, Norman Fairclough, and others who work in “critical language studies,” demonstrate the connections between language and power. Studying “the place of language in society,” Fairclough argues that, “language is centrally involved in power, and struggles for power, and it is so involved through its ideological properties.” He says that language requires being seen as social practice determined by social structures, and that discourse is determined by sets of conventions that are associated with social institutions, shaped by power relations, and located in both institutions and in society as a whole. Therefore, social structure and social practice exists within a dialectic relationship. Discourse affects social structures and social structures affect discourse and, therefore, discourse can contribute to social continuity and social change.
Fairclough provides a detailed analysis of an extract of a police officer interviewing a witness to an event defined as constituting a crime. He highlights the power relations reflected in these social roles (police officer and witness), studies the language used, and concludes that social conditions determine properties of discourse. Fairclough says that, “one wishes to know to what extent the positions which are set up for members of the ‘public’ in the order of discourse of policing are passively occupied by them.” He notes that the witness in the extract seems quite compliant -that the position of witness is “compliantly occupied”- and, given this compliance, the language used serves to sustain this type of power relationship. If the linguistic convention was challenged – on the other hand – that can be regarded as an attempt to change social relationships.
Language and Animal Advocacy.
Criminologist Piers Beirne discusses language use in relation to animal advocacy and, in a passage entitled “Speciesism and the power of language,” he points out that the distinctions between human and nonhuman animals carry with them cultural baggage, not least reflected in the perception mentioned earlier, that many humans tend not to see themselves as animals at all.
Beirne states that,
At root, the distinction assumes that non-human animals are necessarily the Other, among whose undesirable traits are uncleanliness, irrationality, untrustworthiness, lust, greed and the potential for sudden violence. (2007: 62.)
We seem to construct a world in which some lives are regarded as worthwhile and others are deemed less worthy, with little intrinsic value, or none at all. Beirne notes that we refer to ourselves as “human beings” without hesitation, yet we would find the term “animal beings” odd. While individual humans are understood as gendered beings of great complexity, nonhuman animals, with the exception of pets, “are seen as undifferentiated objects each of whom is normally identified not as ‘she’ or ‘he’ but an ‘it’ (it ‘which’…)” Noting a link between speciesism and sexism, Beirne argues that both human females and nonhuman animals are seen as “objects to be controlled, manipulated and exploited.” Moreover, he points out that, when men describe women “as ‘cows,’ ‘bitches,’ ‘(dumb) bunnies,’ ‘birds,’ ‘chicks,’ ‘foxes,’ ‘fresh meat,’ and their genitalia as other species, they use derogatory language to position both women and animals to an inferior status of ‘less than human.’” The fact that nonhuman animals are regarded as items of property, Beirne suggests, means that some forms of speciesist language are rather subtle. For example, “‘Fisheries’…refers to no objective ontological reality but to diverse species that are acted upon as objects of commodification by humans and, as such, are trapped or otherwise ‘harvested,’ killed and consumed.” Looking for other forms of “egregious misdescription,” Beirne lists the following: “laboratory animals,” “pets,” “circus animals,” and “racehorses.” In relation to the latter, he says this term misdescribes horses who “are used by humans to race against each other over tracks and on courses. In fact, they are horses used as racehorses.”
Since language can bolster or challenge conventional power relations and, since one recognised task of social movements may involve challenging prevailing linguistic convention, Beirne notes the attempts made to overcome a central juxtaposition –“humans” and “animals”- within the animal advocacy movement and academia. He suggests, for example, that the term “non-human animal” is in vogue within the advocacy movement although, in my experience, it is still most common for advocates, be it on email listings, forums, or in general correspondence to the mass media, to refer to nonhuman animals simply as “animals,” thereby often missing the opportunity to challenge the status quo. Beirne further suggests that the construction, “animals other than humans,” is rather cumbersome - and then there is fellow criminologist Geertrui Cazaux’s lengthy acronym developed in her PhD, “animals other than human animals.” Noting that these constructions do not fully escape the clutches of speciesism in the first place, Beirne says that his own practice is to outline these language issues and then enter “hereinafter, ‘animals,’” after the term “non-human animals,” so that he can move on. This sounds like a sensible strategy for a long article, especially when addressing a largely academic audience, whereas the point would probably be lost if used, for example, on an online forum.
The person who has most thoroughly analysed power and language in connection to human-nonhuman relations is Joan Dunayer, particularly in her first book published in 2001, Animal Equality: Language and Liberation. Dunayer argues that language is deeply embedded in the way we use nonhuman animals and in the way we talk about how we use them. She says, in fact, that we lie about what we do: we lie to ourselves and we lie to others. We lie about our own species while we systematically lie about others. Dunayer outlines in detail the role of language in our thoughts about human-nonhuman relations,
Deceptive language perpetuates speciesism, the failure to accord nonhuman animals equal consideration and respect. Like sexism and racism, speciesism is a form of self-aggrandising prejudice. Bigotry requires self-deception. Speciesism can’t survive without lies. (2001: 1.)
The depth of this issue is emphasised in Dunayer’s work when she points out that, “Standard English supplies these lies in abundance.” Moreover, the linguistic lies we tell about ourselves and other animals take many different forms and range “from euphemism to false definition. We lie with our word choices. We lie with our syntax. We even lie with our punctuation.” Toward the end of Dunayer’s text, she includes “do” and “don’t” style guidelines followed by a thesaurus of alternatives to speciesist terms. The style guidelines include advice on what to safely employ, and what to avoid, in terms of presentation, sentence structure, word choice and punctuation, while the thesaurus provides a comprehensive list of non-speciesist alternatives such as replacing words like “dam” and “sire” with “mother” and “father;” or “feed on” with “eat,” and “gestation” with “pregnancy.”
When I reviewed Animal Equality for a grassroots animal advocacy magazine, ARCnews, in 2001, I highlighted some of the more challenging recommendations in the book which I suggested wouldnot catch on or be taken up even within the animal advocacy movement. For example, Dunayer suggests the replacement of terms such as “caretaker,” “collection,” and “aquarium” with “captor,” “prisoners” and “aquaprison” respectively. She also recommends replacing “bacon,” “ham” and “pork” with “pig flesh,” and “beef” with “cow flesh.” She further proposes replacing “zoo handler” with “oppressor;” “beef producer” with “cattle enslaver;” “broiler chicken” with “enslaved chicken,” “farm (with enslaved nonhumans)” with “confinement facility” or “enslavement operation,” and so on.
Clearly, Dunayer’s style guidelines and thesaurus were created with a strong language challenge in mind. In a similar way to which feminists have linguistically attacked patriarchal values, she wants animal advocates to systematically confront linguistic speciesism. Although it is clear that language is routinely utilised to maintain and bolster existing power relations, there is no evidence, as I foresaw, almost a decade on from the publication of Animal Equality, that animal advocates have taken up Dunayer’s linguistic assault on speciesist language or even anything like it. As said, the vast majority of animal advocates appear content to use the term “animal” to describe nonhuman animals whereas, in Dunayer’s view, “animal” should be used to describe both human and nonhuman animals when spoken about together.
Would Dunayer’s aspirations for the animal advocacy movement still be worthwhile? According to Piers Beirne, “We humans routinely discriminate against non-human animals with our everyday usage of ‘speciesist language’, namely, utterances that express a prejudice or attitude towards one species – usually one’s own – and against those members of other species.” The key issue here, sociologically speaking, is the everyday usage of speciesist language. As part of socialisation processes – and embedded into the supportive pillars of speciesism: philosophy, theology and social practice - language use is a major means of transmitting normative values. Any social movement mobilisation would be wise to look very carefully at how orthodox language is used in the “battle of ideas” that they are involved in.
 While it is rare that human animals refer to themselves as animals, it is even less likely that we self-describe as apes or mammals. This issue arose when legal scholar and animal rights philosopher Gary Francione addressed an event during “Animal Rights July” at UCD in 2009. It was pointed out that humans do not make the “mammal connection” to cows when discussing cows’ milk, especially in the light that many people still apparently believe that cows “give milk for life” without requiring to be made pregnant at regular intervals.
 Police officer (p). Did you get a look at the one in the car?
Witness (w). I saw his face, yeah.
p. What sort of age was he?
w. About 45. He was wearing a…
p. And how tall?
w. Six foot one.
p. Six foot one. Hair?
w. Dark and curly. Is this going to take long? I’ve got to collect the kids from school.
p. Not much longer, no. What about his clothes?
w. He was a bit scruffy-looking, blue trousers, black…
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