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Animal Talk

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Does the language we use when talking about animals reflect the way we treat them? Colleen Patrick-Goudreau thinks so.

My father used to call me a liberal pig. And it would make me shudder—not because he used the word “liberal” as an insult; but because pigs were being disparaged.

You’re a pig! You’re a rat, a snake, a cockroach, a dog, a cow.

If I wanted to insult you all I’d have to do is call you an “animal.”

You might argue that no pig or cow or snake is hurt or offended when we use their appellations as insults, and so what harm is there in a little innocent name-calling? The animals themselves don’t know the difference, and for our part, the metaphors conveniently serve as linguistic shorthand that everyone understands.


True though that is, we also know that our choice of words reflects our individual and collective values and reveals much about who we are, what we believe, and how we behave. Our language represents and reinforces the attitudes of our culture, informing and giving social credit to our thoughts and actions.

Whenever we propagate a discriminatory notion or behavior, we ensure its future survival. That’s why making sexist comments even when women aren’t present is still unacceptable; it reinforces sexist ideas and behavior. In the same way, using disparaging language about animals -- even though the animals are unaware of it -- gives social legitimacy to our depiction of them as being inferior to humans and thus undeserving of the right to possess and control their own autonomy, their own offspring, their own bodies, or their own lives.

Language has long been used as a tool for ideological indoctrination, and it’s no different when it comes to our rhetoric around nonhuman animals. In fact I would argue that the systematic violence we perpetrate daily against nonhuman animals on an unprecedented scale is not only reflected in our language but driven by it.

By changing the way we talk about animals, we can change the way we perceive them. By changing the way we perceive them, we can change the way we treat and relate to them. Every word we choose contributes to upholding the existing anthropocentric paradigm or to one that reflects a new paradigm based on compassion for all.

With a perspective, this Colleen Patrick-Goudreau.

Colleen Patrick-Goudreau is a vegan author and animal advocate.

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