Just Language [As In Justice]
by Raffi Ciavatta
Quite often I will look at my Facebook memories from 5 years ago and be like, “what the hell did I say??” Sometimes, even posts from 2 years ago surprise me. As activists, we use language as a powerful tool to ignite social change. But sometimes the words we choose can actually end up firing back at us.
Here are a few things I learned about language and frameworks that are just.
All Lives Matter
Context is everything. Saying “All Lives Matter” directly undermines “Black Lives Matter.”Yes, I know. The Animal Rights Movement was using “All Lives Matter” before BLM started. But understand that racists utilize “All Lives Matter” to attack and undermine BLM. And let’s be honest, when animal rights activist use “All Lives Matter”, do we really mean, all?
Like our meme illustrates: imagine if every time you went out to protest and said “Animals don’t want to die!” the response was “Well, nobody wants to die!” Don’t you think such a statement not only ignores the real problem but actually pushes it away and diminishes it? Then stop saying “All Lives Matter”!
First of all, insulting people with derogatory terms is not very effective, and it’s double not effective when you pick insults that are tied to someone’s gender, race, ability, religion, appearance and so on. In this case, fur hag is a derogatory term tied to gender (woman), her age (old-looking) and her appearance (ugly, witch, hagfish-like). Perhaps you have never thought about investigating what the word actually means, but it ain’t flattering.
As activists, we should be looking at dismantling oppressions, not perpetuating them.
“But, if I’m a woman and I want to say that, is that okay?” There are plenty of women who have internalized sexism, so no. “Oh, wait, what if I use fur hag at a man, is that okay?” Nope! Because it creates a situation where a man is allowed to be offended by being compared to an “ugly” woman.
We also need to investigate the reasons why we feel so compelled to demonize women wearing fur but not men wearing leather, or down jackets or a wool sweaters for example.
Watch a very informative video on this topic.
Let’s not appropriate others’ struggles in order to invoke a sympathetic emotion from people in relation to nonhuman animals.
The Holocaust comparison to slaughterhouses is quite often made:
- By non-members of the Jewish community.
- Very casually, ignoring the dehumanization of Jews by depicting them as animals.
- In an analogous manner, meaning Nazi camps = slaughterhouses.
When we have non-members speak on behalf of other communities to further their own agenda, that is not okay. “So, if people who are Jewish want to make that comparison then that’s okay?” We think Jewish activists have every right to say whatever they would like about this subject. However, they should also be mindful of the comparison and offer further contextualization in order to avoid non-Jewish people misusing the comparison.
We have learned that focusing on the systems of oppression rather than on the victims leads to a much stronger argument.
We also cannot forget that Jewish people have been historically compared to nonhuman animals in order to justify violence and dehumanization against them.
There are many flawed analogies between Nazi camps and slaughterhouses. Let’s not even go there.
“So there’s no right way to talk about nonhuman slaughterhouses and the Holocaust?” In a different framework, yes, there are moments when bringing the subject of the Holocaust can be productive, but we should leave that to activists who have a deep understanding and effective ways of connecting the dots.
Watch a very informative video about the Holocaust comparison here.
Monsters (and any other ad hominem attack)
In my personal experience, I have seen the word “monsters” used primarily in racist or xenophobic ways. For example, never have I witnessed any activist go to Whole Foods and say, “You’re a monster for shopping here!” But numerous times I have heard activists say, “Only Chinese monsters would kill pets!” during Yulin, or, “You’re a monster!” at Jewish people during Kapporos, or at Muslims during Eid al-Adha. We have to interrogate ourselves why we choose to call only certain people monsters.
“So if I call people at Whole Foods monsters, is that okay?” I don’t advocate for personal attacks even though I can understand where the sentiment comes from. It’s very natural to get angry at people who shop at Whole Foods and who are exposed to the truth but still continue to engage in animal violence. However, labeling people as monsters because they don’t want to accept animal violence, or because they laugh about it, or ignore it, doesn’t do much to convince them otherwise.
“If someone told you that they find it natural to kill LGBTQ’s I bet you would call them monsters!” I think if I was in the heat of the moment I would probably call them something much worse! However, I doubt I would convince them that killing LGBTQ’s isn’t natural by resourcing to personal attacks. So take a deep breath and keep fighting the good fight!
“Let’s imagine a second scene now. You’re at a coffee shop, explaining the moral inconsistency in loving dogs but eating chickens. Your friends are surprisingly interested, and you throw out an ableist term than many vegans still use: “moral schizophrenia.” One of your friends seems taken aback. She explains that she understands the point you’re trying to make. However, she also asks you not to use that term, because it implies that individuals with schizophrenia are inherently violent and immoral. She reminds you that she herself has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and like many with schizophrenia, she has never acted violently. She is, frankly, hurt.
“So you “apologize” to your friend, but you don’t actually own up to the hurt you caused. Instead, you explain what the term is meant to imply, that you mean no harm in using it, and that sometimes we need offensive language to explain such an important issue. Then you continue the conversation, using the term “moral schizophrenia” again. You probably even expect your friend to listen to your message and be totally okay with it.”
Read this very informative article too for a list of non-ableist words.
See “Monsters” example above.
Psychopathy means the inability to feel empathy. That’s scary, right? Because if we can’t feel empathy, that means we’re not human. But it’s a bit deeper than that. Psychopaths are quite often in thrillers, horrors movies and are portrayed as mass shooters, serial killers and rapists. We learn to associate violence to one’s mental illness. But going even deeper, we need to understand that slurs such as psycho, retard, crazy, insane, lunatic, blind, deaf and so on, are oppressive terms and we need to stand in solidarity with the disability community and reject this framework.
“So if I call a white rich man a psycho, is that okay?” Ableist language has long been used to reinforce other systemic forms of oppression like sexism, racism, classism, and… ready? Speciesism. So no. Not okay. One’s mental health should not be used to dehumanize anyone.
The way we at CF learned about how the word rape can be triggering and also how we don’t need to use it, was unfortunately when one of our activists felt triggered during a protest after hearing an activist use the word “rape” trivially.
We reached out to zir, heard zir concerns and asked zir to lead a panel discussion about the “Importance of Language In Our Movement” followed by a Q&A – we really recommend you watch it! We learned a lot from Heather that day. It pushed us forward to officially retire a poster which had the r-word in it.
The decision wasn’t because of personal purity, or because we care more about what other people may think, or because we don’t believe that mother cows are truly sexually assaulted – it was because we learned that we can achieve the same result in making people understand our message without running the risk of triggering them or alienating potential activists, especially when the analogy is made trivially.
One of the most touching speakouts I’ve heard was when Heather spoke about zir own experience of sexual assault and how that relates to mother cows. At 0:58, ze says, “The right to my own body was taken away from me for someone’s pleasure, and just like the mothers and the children that are exploited for the products of this store [Starbucks], they deserve the right to their own bodies and to their own lives. No matter how kindly they were treated when they were separated as families.”
We don’t need to display animals and replicate nonhumans at their worst. Imagine if anti-rape campaigns for humans showed graphic images of women being sexually assaulted. “But humans know what rape looks like, and no one believes nonhumans are sexually assaulted so we need to show it like it is!” It’s true that humans are incredibly desensitized to animal violence and that many people do not believe that nonhumans have their bodies violated. But we need to be very careful not to trivialize such heavy subject and how that may affect women. Women make from 70-80% of the animal rights movement!
The Vegan Feminist Network says:
Sexism is so normalized in our society that it has become invisible. You cannot turn on the television without being exposed to sexist remarks, jokes at women’s expense, sexual harassment, sexual objectification, and violent assault and rape of women. We are all exposed to a nonstop onslaught of sexist imagery in our society. It becomes as natural as the air we breathe. The bodies of women have always been sites of violence and domination, to the point where it becomes mundane and expected. So, when Vegan Feminist Network takes a stand against the encroachment of this violent imagery in Nonhuman Animal rights spaces, readers are understandably taken aback. They’ve never been made to think critically about the gender-based violence they have taken for granted as acceptable and normal for all of their lives.
“Words are powerful, and we shouldn’t be using euphemisms when advocating.” Again. There is power in words, and we are not asking anyone to use euphemisms but rather:
- Empower activists who have been through that experience and that are willing to speak.
- Describe the experience rather than just throwing a triggering word.
- Don’t make graphic imagery the focus of an action or campaign. There are ways of showing it without showing it.
Let’s not appropriate other struggles in order to invoke a sympathetic emotion from people in relation to nonhuman animals.
The slavery comparison to the suffering of nonhuman animals is quite often made:
- By non-members of the Black community.
- Very casually, ignoring the dehumanization of Black people by depicting them as animals.
- In an analogous manner, meaning suffering of slaves = suffering of nonhuman animals.
When we have non-members speak on behalf of other community to further their own agenda, that is not okay. “So, if people who are Black want to make that comparison then that’s okay?” We think Black people have every right to say whatever they would like about this subject. However, they should also be mindful of the comparison and offer further contextualization in order to avoid non-Black people misusing the comparison.
We have learned that focusing on the systems of oppression rather than on the victims is a much stronger argument.
We also cannot forget that Black people have been historically compared to nonhuman animals in order to justify violence and dehumanization against them for centuries.
As Syl Ko points out, the comparisons seem to obsess over the physical similarities humans and nonhumans have experienced. But we forget the face of the oppressor in both instances.
So there’s no right way to talk about nonhuman slaughterhouses and Slavery? In a different framework, yes, there are moments when bringing the subject of the Slavery can be productive, but we should leave that to activists who have a deep understanding of the matter and can offer effective ways of connecting the dots.
Dr. Wrenn refers to the Sistah Vegan Project to explain that the animal rights movement is “a movement that appropriates non-white experiences when convenient while simultaneously celebrating white leadership and white-centric, often racist tactics.” We have to be let that sink in and realize how much privilege non-Black people (especially white people) have when it comes to bringing up the subject of human slavery and animal slavery.
Read a very informative article about the Slavery comparison here.
… Like racism/sexism/ableism/homophobia, etc., speciesism…
Speciesism is a system of oppression and it should be included among other forms of systemic violence. Despite the fact that speciesism is a system designed specifically to target another species, it is still violent and it’s still systemic.
Usually when I hear this rhetoric though, is in instances that sound like this, “We already know that racism is wrong, and sexism is wrong and ableism is wrong, now it’s we understand that speciesism is wrong too!” The problem is that no, the vast majority of people are still okay with racism, sexism, ableism and so on. So to frame speciesism as the last remaining form of oppression to dismantle is a lie.
We can use other systems of oppression to draw solidarity, not to exclude.
“You” vs. “We”
In my experience as an activist, I find it that people quickly shut down when the advocacy starts focusing too much on an individual, as in an accusatory manner. Is a statement directed specifically to someone always bad? No. Use your gut! I’ve had very good experiences challenging individuals but use the “you” statement wisely, because…. Well, the vast majority of us have been brainwashed by the system to believe that killing and exploiting nonhumans is totally cool.
So I find that focusing on the system vs. the individual speaks to a greater audience and the idea is that eventually we will all unite to beat this very system that has taught us that it’s cool to discriminate against nonhuman and human animals.
Now sit with all of this and resist the urge to get defensive so that these ideas can sink in a bit and remember your speciesists roots too (and racist, and sexist, and ableist, and xenophobic, and so on roots….) Or better yet, get yourself exhaustively defensive, then when you’re too tired of being defensive, give it another read!
Activists are generally really well-intended people, and no one is doubting anyone’s intention to do good. I’m rather asking that we remain critical (and self-critical) and that we learn from our mistakes!
Remember that our movement is trying to convince people that nonhumans deserve equal consideration – how do we plan on doing that if we keep alienating people?