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It’s not sticks and stones, but words can hurt your advocacy

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Guest Post by Dr. Frances McCormack


Vegan advocacy encounters don’t just involve presenting new ideas; they also involve talking about familiar topics in an entirely new way. Nonvegans know what animals are, and they understand the concept of justice, but thinking of one in terms of the other is probably entirely new to them. Certainly, they will be familiar with the language and (nonsensical) idea of animal welfare—of the concept that we can treat animals as a means to our ends so long as we do so in a way that we (as the ones inflicting the harm) perceive to be humane. The idea that animals are of equal moral value, though, is probably entirely unfamiliar. We can, however, use our word choices to better influence the conversation away from the idea of welfare and towards the idea of abolition.

Language is a powerful tool: it unites us and divides us; it is a marker of our identity and a signal of our sociability. The words we use can be hugely influential in how we communicate our ideas, and in how those ideas are received. When we are careful about shaping our message through our words, we can all the more effectively advocate for justice and help to win the listener over to the ideas we’re presenting.

Suffering, Cruelty, or Exploitation?

When we talk about suffering or cruelty, we are talking about animals undergoing (or us inflicting upon them) something that is deeply unpleasant for them (to say the least). But in terms of a system in which they are forced into existence, have their babies taken from them, are worked until their bodies give out, are confined and not able to pursue their own basic interests, and are then killed to have their corpses used for our ends, their entire existence is one of suffering and cruelty. But here’s the problem: when we talk about suffering, what our nonvegan listener will hear is that we should make the animals feel less physical pain. The EU Directive on battery cages, for instance, states that the doors of enriched cages should be wide enough that the birds may be taken out of their cages without any unnecessary suffering. Now, since we don’t need to eat, wear, or otherwise use animals, all of the suffering that comes from the system that treats them as a means to our ends is unnecessary. But what the nonvegan hears is that suffering is too small a cage, a kick dealt in the slaughterhouse, killing without stunning.

Using the language of exploitation, though, conveys the truth that the problem is treating animals unfairly to benefit from their labour. This places the focus squarely on the fact that they are used at all. There is no way our listener can derail the conversation towards humane exploitation, since there is no such thing; we are already making a moral judgement with our language, and we are compelling our listener to think of animal use in these terms, even if to disagree with us. That, in turn, helps us direct the conversation more effectively towards the vegan imperative. 

Compassion, Mercy, or Empathy?

It is common to hear people speak about our relationship towards nonhuman animals in terms of “compassion” or “mercy”. We urge others to be compassionate or to show mercy to the animals for whom we’re advocating. These terms are not without their problems, though; they are intricately bound up with the idea of pity, and they are always directed downwards from a perceived superior (in terms of a balance of power) to a perceived inferior. Using this kind of language draws on ideas of human supremacy, painting animals as our natural inferiors. These words are also frequently used to talk about suffering, and as a result they have been co-opted by the large animal groups to talk not about rights and justice but about treatment instead; that’s not where we want to place our focus.

Empathy on the other hand, carries with it a sense of sharing and understanding, and it creates a horizontal bridge between those enduring an ordeal and those witnessing it. For these reasons, it is a fundamentally egalitarian term, and therefore highly useful in terms of conveying to our listeners the idea that animals are our moral equals.

Love or Justice?

We don’t need to regard ourselves as animal lovers in order to be vegan. I have a friend who is completely uninterested in fostering relationships with nonhuman animals, who doesn’t coo over a sweet kitten, and who has never lived with a companion animal. They have been vegan for 17 years because they, as an active social justice campaigner, recognise that justice knows no species barriers.

There’s nothing wrong with loving animals; I am a self-professed and proud animal lover. But loving animals is not essential to being vegan. Talking about beloved animals is a useful way in to conversations about other nonhumans, but loving animals is not essential to the recognition that they should not be treated as things.

The concept of justice is therefore far less likely to alienate people who could possibly brush off our advocacy attempts with “I’m not an animal lover”, thereby thinking they have exempted themselves from the moral imperative. Further, the concept of love is subjectively defined and it imposes on the one who loves no moral obligations per se. The concept of justice, however, requires that we deal with others in an equitable way, and we can easilly show how, in terms of animals, this leads to veganism.


We see nonhuman animals as moral persons. This means that we recognise that they have their own interests, and therefore the basic right not to be treated solely as a resource; if animals are not persons, then they are merely things.

We use the language “it” to refer to things; the pronoun is fundamentally antithetical to the idea of personhood. We would never refer to our sibling as “it”, nor would we use that term for a beloved companion animal. When we, as advocates, use “it” of nonhuman animals, then, we are unwittingly reinforcing the speciesist paradigm and perpetuating the notion that animals are things. We should, therefore, use personal pronouns “she”, “he”, “they”, etc., instead. Similarly, we should avoid “what”, “which”, or “that” and opt instead for “who(m)”.


The pronoun “you”, when used to refer to your listener’s participation in animal use, sounds accusatory: it estranges, and it undermines rapport. Your interlocutor may feel judged, alienated and attacked, and all of these will be detrimental to advocacy. When talking about our use of animals, the pronoun “we” points out beyond the conversation to a larger cultural system of speciesism, and it is this system that you want the interlocutor to reject. “We” also helps to create an unconscious bond that will allow you to persuade more easily when the conversation turns to examining solutions to the problem.


The concept of fairness is one of the first ethical concepts we grasp as children; “that’s not fair!” is a frequent protest from young children who have a basic understanding of the principles of equity. The idea is a useful one, then, to convey the equal moral worth of animals and the notion that we should treat animal interests in the same way we would treat similar human interests. Using the language of fairness conveys the idea of the moral worth of animals and is likely to start the listener thinking about ideas of animal exploitation from the perspective of use rather than treatment.

Language can be a very important element in our advocacy toolkit. If we want to shake our listener out of their speciesist mindset, then we can’t use the language that has conventionally been used to talk about animal welfare; this will only perpetuate the listener’s belief that there is a right way to use animals. Talking about animals in a language that’s unfamiliar to our listener will be far more likely to engage them actively with the conversation and to cause them to question their own deeply-held beliefs.

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