Have you micro-aggressed a sloth lately? Or a snake, or a rat, or a chicken? If so, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) would like to have a word with you.
According to their new campaign, “using animals as insults perpetuates speciesism”. No, I’m not making this up — this is what they’re actually tweeting out:
Words can create a more inclusive world, or perpetuate oppression.
Calling someone an animal as an insult reinforces the myth that humans are superior to other animals & justified in violating them.
Stand up for justice by rejecting supremacist language. pic.twitter.com/HFmMWDcc5A
— PETA (@peta) January 26, 2021
There are further tweets in the thread, containing such snippets as “snakes are clever, have family relationships, and prefer to associate with their relatives.”
Most commendable, I’m sure — but speaking about animals using human categories of moral worth is dangerous thread to be pulling on. After all, should we think any less of a species that practices cannibalism or infanticide? The answer is no, because only humans are morally responsible for our actions or able to make moral choices. It’s what makes us human.
PETA insists that “calling someone an animal as an insult reinforces the myth that humans are superior to other animals & justified in violating them.” But, clearly, humans are superior to animals — and that is precisely why we should not abuse them.
In any case, our zoological idioms have very little to do with our violations of the natural world. For a start, we use some animal names as compliments (e.g. lion) or terms of endearment (e.g. duck), but does that doesn’t stop us from killing the actual animals. Similarly, the use of animal names as insults is not the reason why we ill-treat them. For instance, we subject pigs to the horrors of factory farming not because of our distaste for swine, but because we like eating pork. As for the poor old sloth, it’s not a metaphor that’s driving it to extinction, but habitat destruction.
The PETA campaign is not a special case limited to animal rights activism, but illustrative of a much wider trend. I don’t just mean the use of woke terminology, but something that applies across all shades of political opinion — and that is the idea that we can change the world by changing our words.
The language we use is important; but it’s not all-important. As Alfred Korzybski put it, “the map is not the territory” and “the word is not the thing.” And yet politics is increasingly constructed around narratives that are unsupported by reality. Just look at the paper-thin claims of the ‘stop the steal’ campaign in America or the empty words of the EU’s vaccine policy.
Growing concerns over government effectiveness or economic productivity should begin with a long, hard look at the cult of comms. The post-modern obsession with language at the expense of reality is a universal solvent, undermining the ability of campaigners, politicians and businesses to actually get things done.
We need to shift the focus of our culture away from talk and back to action. So, with apologies to PETA, let’s stop rabbiting on.