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“Pig flesh” vs “pork”: changing the way we talk about animals

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Language is one of the most powerful tools we have as animal activists, or activists of all kind for that matter, and it’s so important that we constantly examine, and reexamine the words we use. Whether we are speaking to fellow vegans or those who oppose the entire of veganism, in order to create the cultural shift that is necessary in order to liberate non-human beings, taking advantage of semantics and word choice is perhaps one of our greatest tools.

One of my own short-sighted mistakes what pointed out to me by frequent Ecorazzi reader and community participant “Alpine Dan.” Dan’s discussion and promotion of the abolitionist movement is always excellent, and points out strategy as much as it does ideals. In a recent piece, Dan pointed out a mistake I’ve made that I didn’t even realize I was making in regards to using “it” to describe animals as opposed to she, they, or him. Activists should take extra precautions to always be using pronouns.

“Yes, it’s proper grammar to refer to infants and animals with impersonal pronouns, even when we know the gender. But it’s also acceptable to refer to infants and animals with personal pronouns….It may sound trivial, but it’s not: language plays a large role in our conceptual construction of the world. Repeatedly referring to persons as things reinforces their thing status repeatedly,” he wrote.

It was a comment that I welcomed- it’s not often a comments section calls authors out on a writing style, and actually makes a fair point. He is right, non-human animals are not things. They are not rocks or placemats or rocking chairs, they are sentient beings with a wide range of behaviors and a will to live that like us, distinguishes them from being simple objects. Of course, when it comes to pronouns, too much hand wringing over gender can get in the way, and I would argue that the singular “they” is perfectly appropriate as well. Non-human animals are more concerned with keeping their lives then they are with gender norms, of course.

It led me into another though path, do I use the term “non human animals” enough, or will “animals” simply do? Does the former further separate their status from us, or does it reinforce what ought to be an equality among all species? I would argue that this could go in both directions, but when discussing animal rights rights with non-vegans, I’m much more likely to use the term non-human animals to really drive the point home. Candid Hominid blogged about semantics a few years ago, and I found their ideas to be quite digestible. I was intrigued that they asked the question, is the term “non human animal” problematic, and does it further the idea of the other? “This problem of humans being excluded from the term animals has existed for centuries. Obsolete solutions include ‘sub-human animals’ and ‘lower animals.’” They wrote. ‘Nonhuman animals’ is just a short way of saying animals who aren’t human. Likewise, ‘nonwhite people’ means people who aren’t white. If someone is referencing people or animals in general who aren’t white or human, I’m comfortable with both terms. They allow us to quickly communicate exactly who we are talking about. Terms like nonblack people and nondolphin animals can be used in equivalent ways.”

Another problem worth mulling over is using terms like “pork” instead of “pig flesh” or “beef” instead of “cow’s flesh.” I think it’s important that we shy away from words such as pork as they further normalize meat consumption and distances us from exactly what meat eaters are consuming. This causes me to question what vegans should refer to meat replacements with the same names as, however. Perhaps it’s time to come up with an entirely new word instead of using “mock pork.” At the same time, does serving someone mock pork make it more appealing to a potential vegan as opposed to a totally new title?

Finally, semantics are important when it comes to the word vegan, as it has been stated again and again in previous articles.  Veganism is abstinence and rejection from animal products, ALL animal products. Donald Watson was incredibly clear about this in 1944. As vegans, we must object to “exceptions” to the rule, as it muddles our message. I’m exhausted by those who find it “too pure” to adhere to the semantics of something that has an unchanging definition, those who complain about vegans who are too vegan and hold all other vegans to a high standard. Words are important, folks. As I told three year olds time and time again in my career as a preschool teacher, use them, and use them correctly.
Words are our most powerful tool to changing minds and changing cultures. Apart from just blog posts and articles like the one you’re reading, use conversation to change minds and bring awareness to the problems within our culture. Use words to draw attention to reality- and accept no less.

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  • AlpineDan

    Thanks for highlighting this issue, Lauren!

  • cosmicblueprint

    Joan Dunayers’s book ‘Speciesism’ covers this subject in depth, and more.

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