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  • Dec
  • 29

Speciesism: Anti-Animal Bias

Posted by at 6:48 AM | Permalink | Comments (22)

speccatRecently, I’ve been thinking about how entrenched the use and abuse of animals really is. From grocery stores to clothing to the very words we speak, evidence of bias against animals is everywhere.

Speciesism is the belief that humans are superior to other animals, used as a justification for any kind of discrimination against nonhuman animal species. Of course, humans do have some unique characteristics, like written language, but we also have a lot in common with our animal cousins, like the ability to experience pain and fear, and the capacity for love. It is normal for the members of any group to look out first for themselves, and the most powerful groups do so with great success. But as humankind has evolved ethically, we’ve come to believe that the needs of disempowered groups have moral weight as well. Over time, we recognized the biases of racism and sexism, and we are fighting to eradicate them. But speciesism has yet to gain widespread attention. Even though a cow or a rat feels pain just like we do, many people believe that we have no moral obligations toward them.

The battle against species bias is still in its early stages. Humans use billions of nonhuman animals every year for food, clothing, experimentation, and entertainment. This relationship is usually viewed as  beneficial and profitable for humans, and this makes the human players highly resistant to change. Most people are uncomfortable with cruelty to animals, but it’s very difficult for them to envision a world without animal-derived foods on the plate, despite the terrible abuses inherent in factory farming.

Speciesism can be reinforced–or challenged–by the language we choose. The words and phrases we use every day say so much about our attitudes toward animals. Species bias is still widespread in our language, and I’m embarrassed to say that I’m an occasional offender myself.

A lot of figurative language is not very flattering to animals. “That was a bird-brained thing to do.” “I wouldn’t treat a dog the way she treated you!” Many of our favorite insults are simply the names of animal species: snake (deceiver), chicken (coward), pig (glutton). And some common phrases are pretty awful if you think about them: “Stop beating a dead horse.” “I was bleeding like a stuck pig.” “Let’s kill two birds with one stone.”

Animal-related euphemisms abound, enabling people to conveniently ignore what they don’t want to see. Meat is what’s for dinner, not dead animals. People eat beef, pork, and cheese, not cow and pig flesh, or mother’s milk stolen from a calf. Footwear and wallets made from the skin of dead cows? “Leather” sounds so much better. Cattle are “processed” in the slaughterhouse, not dismembered. “Domesticated” animals sound quite happy, but aren’t words like “enslaved” or “subjugated” a bit nearer the mark? Is that hunter harvesting some game? Or is a human killer shooting some defenseless ducks and deer? Most fundamental of all is when we call animals “it” rather than “he” or “she,” implying that they are just objects and not deserving of our compassion.

A great example of positive change is the movement to change us from “owners” to guardians of our companion animals. Many cities have already made this change in their ordinances. By the alteration of a single word, a dog or cat is no longer a piece of property on par with the sofa, but instead is a family member.

Do our language choices really matter? I think they do. Speciesist words reinforce the status quo, but every time we use nonspeciesist language, we create the possibility of change for anyone who’s listening.

Look here for more on species bias.

Have you come up with any animal-friendly replacements for phrases like “kill two birds with one stone”? Let me know in the comments.

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  • Lee Lower says:

    It made me think, too. Expressions like “Kill two birds with one stone” are grounded in real possibilities and, presumably, at least one actual incident. Unpleasant? Yes. Artificial? No. The formulation of the peaceful alternative, “Feed two birds with one seed,” though pleasant is a bit nonsensical. When was the last time you witnessed two birds peacefully feeding on one seed? The only way it probably works in any real world, at least if stated in English, is if you read seed as plural which violates even the English language rules that are currently in place. You could reconstruct it to say, “Feed two birds with one type of seed” (and I have actually seen it written this way), but this is not a very tidy replacement for the more violent expression. If creating more peaceful, less speciest expressions is important enough to bother with in the first place, it might be worth taking the time to develop alternatives that have a true, as well as animal friendly, ring to them. Using expressions like, “Feed two birds with one seed,” is almost an admission that we are unable – or unwilling to put in the time and effort – to counter speciest images with more animal affirming, real world images. I don’t personally find that especially inspiring or hopeful.

  • […] Why do we love and cherish some animals, yet find it socially acceptable to eat others? It’s speciesism. Love isn’t just a human emotion – I’ve seen it firsthand and anyone who has known the love […]

  • JT says:

    I coined the term “feed two birds with one seed” as a replacement, and it always makes people stop and think.

  • Kathryn says:

    I am so happy that an article has been written about this!! For years, when people say things like “What a cow!” or “He’s such a pig!”, I will say “Don’t insult pigs” or cows, etc. I also came up with an alternative to “Kill 2 birds with one stone”. I like to say “Feed two birds with one scone”.


  • Bonnie Shulman says:

    Great article. This brought to mind a very offensive and tasteless magazine ad that I’ve seen recently. It’s for condoms — and it shows ladies at tables in a nightclub, each being courted by a pig (the pig representing a man who doesn’t wear a condom). The caption reads something along the lines of, “Don’t be a pig, wear a condom”. Well, personally, I’ve never been taken for granted by a pig (the real kind, with the cute snout), and I find the comparison utterly disgusting and vile, being a person who loves pigs.

  • Pamela says:

    Thank you for bringing up this topic. I have noticed that people tend to respond with the first thing off the top of their head, often an oft-heard childhood saying. Many of these have roots in a rural background which was full of animals and so refer back to them, albeit in an ignorant and superior way.
    I like to stop myself when I hear such a phrase coming out of my mouth and correct it, such as “He’s such a pig. No, wait a minute — pigs are naturally clean and intelligent. Okay, he’s no pig. He’s just dirty and thoughtless.” By correcting myself, it doesn’t sound elitist and I like to think it sets an example to question the assumptions that slip so easily off the tongue without reason. Even if the people around you make fun of you at the time, your comment will stay with them and, hopefully, plant a pro-animal seed for the future.

  • Dianne says:

    Thank you for the great article! I was just relaying the same message in an email to a fellow animal crusader earlier this morning! Education is the key! If we can educate at an early age to bring in a new generation of thinkers and educate those who already think they are the more intelligent species into realizing that we are no more special than any other, we can make a change. Articles such as yours help to bring about a more humane way of thinking as well as keeping the topic in the spotlight. Thank you again!

  • Hi Lisa,

    Great article! Even going beyond the specific language that is used to try and justify the horrific cruelty to our fellow animals on this planet we forget that language itself is a social construction. There is nothing in the real world that is “human” or “animal”. These are concepts that we’ve created and labeled with these words. Now that we’ve created them we think these words are in fact the reality, and we behave as is there is a division between “humans” and “animals” that somehow exists in the real world. This process, of course, is political and has evolved because we have been able to dominate and exploit these “animals” and need a language and ideology to justify the horrible cruelty. We can do anything we want to them because we are “human” and they are just “animals”. This process is taken to its most absurd manifestations with “creationism” where some manufactured deity has created us and given us permission to “dominate” (kill, torture and abuse) the “creatures” of the earth. Thanks again for a great article.

  • Steven Campbell says:

    Speaking specifically of the insults often used in our language referencing animals, I find that they are largely undeserved. Chicken – for example, I mean, chickens aren’t afraid of anything! Birds are also extremely intelligent and able to adapt to their environment and changing weather conditions in ways that humans would find quite difficult. Pigs I have been around are not filthy or bad-mannered and they certainly seem to take their time and enjoy their meals. Wolves seem to have more of a tendency to really swallow large chunks of food quickly without much chewing, but not pigs. Humans on the other hand, well, you’ve seen it. Another one that gets me thinking is “humane” which is often used to mean “with a thoughtful gentleness” but “humans” are often anything but. I agree that it is high time for people to use words correctly and to say what they really mean.

  • Lori says:

    “Vegan Vittles”, a cookbook by Joanne Stepaniak has strung throughout the book, these animal-friendly phrase replacements to replace the more cruel sounding versions. Such as “Separate the wheat from the oats” instead of “…sheep from the goats”; or “There’s more than one way to peel a potato” than to “…skin a cat;” “It’s no use watering a dead rose” than to “…beat a dead horse;” “Pull the hat over one’s eyes” instead of “wool”; “Can’t make granola out of gravel” vs “make a silk purse out of sow’s ear;” “Peel two carrots with one knife” instead of “…kill two birds with one stone,” and a lot more!

  • Amrita says:

    I just love your post! The anti animal bias is so prevalent in all cultures and your article captures the sentiments so beautifully. Also you have written with so much of compassion that people are bound to give a thought. I want to forward your article to many. Thank you!

  • Chantal says:

    I, too, am becoming more and more conscious (and uncomfortable with) how our human species thinks we are so much more important than any of the other species that share this planet with us. We are only one piece of the puzzle, not the whole image. I am going to be extra vigilant not to use these abhorrent expressions!

  • Jan says:

    This is extremely thoughtful and accurate. It gives me hope that one day we will actually have some reduction in the horrible behaviours humans display if we become more sensitized to animals as beings with feelings and rights. Keep up the philisophical flow. It makes so much sense.

  • Ana says:

    Semantics is powerful and animal advocates need to take especial care when speaking and try to set the tone and example to the majority of human animals. Pig is used to describe sloppy people or slobs so why not just use those words. Pig is used to describe a man that treats women in a horrible manner so describe him as such. I hate the there is more ways to skin a cat one also. It is imperative to make others more sensitive to the plight of animals. I have gotten into the habit of simply saying “I don’t eat animals” as opposed to saying meat; the visual of my words takes on a different tone.

  • Natalie says:

    Wow, thank you so much for this article! I have thought about our poor animal euphemisms over the past couple years, and am so glad this article was written and will reach so many people. We may think that calling somebody a ‘disgusting pig’ is not a big deal, but we must realize that it does reinforce the idea (to the speaker and the listeners) that the animal is below us and therefore unimportant/ bad/ filthy/ expendable/ evil/ stupid/ you name it.

    We all do it; how many times have you called someone chicken, a cow, a pig, a rat, swine, or a bitch? (The last one is a bit different, calling a woman that implies that she is as “bad” as a female dog, which is just horrible. This is not only speciesist, but sexist as well. I wish the term for female dog was changed altogether).

    Really now, what have these wonderful animals ever done to deserve such cruel condescension? Let’s spread the love instead 🙂

    Happy 2009! Go Vegan!


  • Gary says:

    Excellent Post…!
    Words do carry values beyond their literal meaning, and it is important to think about the messages we convey thru the use of specific words. It is equally important to avoid creating the appearance of elitism in our choice of alternate words.
    I like the term “Companion Animal”, but it is a bit wordy and in Rural Culture it just doesn’t work. I usually use the Animal’s name, and if someone asks “who” I am referring to I say something like: “Oh, that’s one of my Critter Pals…”
    Thank You for reading…

  • Hello Lisa,
    First of all I want to compliment you for your excellent article.
    I am Italian, but live in London (UK), I am vegan of course (as well as my husband). Last year I started a practice of hypnotherapy and I have two websites: one general and the other specialised in Past-Life Regression. So far the two websites are really basic but I am working on preapring a full version of each of them. In the specialised one (for Past-life Regression) I want to write a chapter about our relationship with animals because in this field too there is still a lot of discrimination. Although there are many publications about the souls of animals, many people continue to think we are apart, superior. Five centuries ago they discussed whether women had a soul or not and now the same type of people are discussing the same thing about animals and I am quite fed up. Would you mind if I used some parts of your article in my website? It’s so well written that I think I couldn’t say it better. Many thanks.

  • Tove PisaRelle Reese says:

    I’ve been thinking about our little “sayings” also for the last year or so because of how insulting it is to the animals! So, when my Dad is eating without any manners, instead of saying to myself,”Gosh, he’s eating like a pig” I simply think to myself “He has no manners!” I simply call ’em like I see ’em now. And as for sayings like “Kill two birds with one stone” I say something like “Hey, it’s a two-fer” as in a two for one deal or “I just pulled two carrots for the price of one.” I think people just need to call things what they are, for example I bled “like crazy” this summer when I cut my finger rather than I bled like a stuck pig. Anyway, great article that many people should read, Thanks!

  • Laura says:

    Hi Lisa,

    What really drives me nuts- and you hear this all the time – is when someone refers to a really bad person as an animal. “He’s an animal” is constantly said in movies. I always wonder why a psycho killer, or anyone who is an extremely bad person, is always described as an animal. All the animals I know are sweet!

  • rrneal says:

    I agree with your posting on species-based bias.

    “Re-tooling” Idioms is an especially hard task due to the original sayings ingrained nature in our everyday vernacular. I usually respond to the seemingly innocent utility of harsh animal-in-harms-way euphemisms with a reflective comment, such as, “Wow, did you ever think what those two innocent birds did to deserve that?”

  • Dr Barry Kipperman says:

    Nice job. Whenever I order myself a veggie sandwich at Whole Foods, after I recite the ingredients, I’m asked “No meat?”. This tells me we still have work to do. I’d like to see the day when someone ordering a meat sandwich, is asked “No veggies?”

  • Myshkin says:

    I like to say “rescue two birds at one time!” What an awesome post. Very well-written, I like how you added your personal warmth to a very serious topic. I’ll be forwarding this around!

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