In the English language it is not uncommon to hear people refer to living beings as if they were objects, to demean someone by comparing them to non-human animals, or to use entirely different words and language to describe the behavior of another species, even if that identical behavior is found in humans as well.
The treatment of non-human animals as if they were objects, devoid of feelings and emotions, is what allows the horrific animal exploitation industries to exist. An aspect of this mindset though, may lay in the common language many of us use when speaking of, or about, non-human animals.
Because many people have difficulty distinguishing the sex of other species, they will use the pronoun “it” when referring to non-human animals. Although the use of “It” may be grammatically correct, the connotations that come with it are far reaching.
To use the word “it” when speaking of a living being, who is capable of complex emotions and thoughts, as many non-humans have proved to be, ignores such traits and abilities. It seems odd to use the same pronoun for a cup as you would a cat.
Many people will use “it” interchangeably when speaking of animate and inanimate objects, such as “I filled it with water” in reference to a cup, or “It was sleeping on the couch” when referring to a cat. This double usage goes unquestioned, but if we were to reverse the pronoun, to a more correct form, and instead say “They were sleeping on the couch” and then use it interchangeably again in referring to a cup, as in: “I filled they with water”, it makes little, to no sense.
The use of “it” when speaking of a living being is not simply an issue of inappropriate use of the English language; it goes much deeper than that. It reinforces the idea (even if only on a subconscious level) that non-human animals are objects — to be used and disregarded.
All animals have a gender and, therefore, deserve to be more accurately referred to by “he”, “she” or “they”, rather than “it”.
It is much harder for people to justify killing non-human animals when we use the proper pronoun for their victims. Making it a point to refer to dairy cows by “she” or “her” takes away the abstract nature of “it” and reminds the abuser that the animal they are killing or consuming was once a living, breathing, sentient being with feelings of her own.
Removing the word “it” from our vocabulary when referring to non-human animals is not a misguided attempt to be politically correct, but rather an important reminder for ourselves and others that the fellow species we share this planet with are more similar to us than many of us would like to admit.
It won’t completely obliterate the view of non-human animals as being objects, as many Latin based languages prove with their gender assigned nouns. But it will ask people to question, and perhaps rethink, how they look upon non-humans.
No animal, human or otherwise, is an “it” and should never be referred to as such. We all have feelings, preferences and lives that we cherish. To label anyone as an “it” robs them of these qualities.
When in doubt of the sex of another species, the use of the word “they” is appropriate, just as we refer to humans to whom we are unsure of their gender.
It seems that English-speaking (and other) human beings suffer from an extreme identity complex and will go to great lengths to distance our species from others. The use of the word “it” in regards to non-human animals, is just one of the many linguistic inventions people have come up with to separate ourselves from the other species of this planet, whether correctly or not.
Many people find it rude to apply the terms such as, “breeding”, “offspring” and “mating” to human behavior, even though the behavior is virtually identical in other species.
There is an entire group of words in the English language that are solely reserved for non-human animals. Even the word “animal” itself is a product of this. Although humans are in fact animals, it is seen as, and usually intended as, demeaning to refer to another human as an “animal”.
When people use words such as “love”, “children” or even “emotion” when speaking of identical behavior found in non-humans, they are usually shouted down as being anthropomorphic, or even worse, as sentimental. But when there are legitimate differences in behavior, we denigrate another animal’s natural behavior, by comparing it to that which we see and do not like in our own species, such as “pig” for someone who is dirty, or “rat” for someone who is untrustworthy or mean.
The truth is that a pig may appear dirty because she wallows in mud, which she does to cool herself because she lacks sweat glands. A rat may seem untrustworthy because he may scurry from one area to the next because of a legitimate fear for his own safety.
One of the worst and most common obscenities you can use against a woman is to call her a “bitch” which is simply the name given to describe a female dog.
By using the name of non-human animals to demean people, we reinforce the idea that other species are below us, which then somehow condones our perpetuation of their confinement, abuse and death. If 9 out of 10 times you hear the word “pig” used as a negative statement or comment, there is the potential for much less compassion for the actual animal forced to bear the name.
Why should being compared to another animal be considered such an insult? Is it because we dominate and kill other animals? If we stopped killing other creatures would our language change? If we changed our language would we stop dominating and killing other animals in the same way?
Rethinking how we treat, view and speak about the other animals of this world is important, not only because it will greatly evolve our treatment of them, but also for our viewing and treatment of other humans, whose nationalities, religions and colors are also different from our own.
photo credit: thanks to travlinman43 via flickr