On Dec. 4, 2018, well-known animal rights organization, PETA — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — came out with a graphic that depicted alternative idioms to use instead of popular, demeaning animal phrases. They followed up the posting of the graphic with a tweet that compared using language that “trivializes cruelty to animals” to using racist, homophobic and ableist language.
People went berserk. A variety of reactions were hurled toward PETA, the majority quite unfavorable. Vegans and non-vegans alike were criticizing both the graphic and PETA’s comparison of negative animal talk to other demoralizing language.
PETA is the largest, and probably most popular, animal rights organization in the world — mostly due to the fact that they have been around since 1980 and many of their campaigns have been met with controversy in the past, gaining them a bad reputation amongst the general public.
“Unfortunately, I feel like people have been trained to think PETA is just a meme. So, their credibility is pretty low with the masses,” said Vinnie Gugliemotto, animal rights activist. “They do questionable things that I don't agree with, but I do agree with their overall message of animal liberation.”
PETA’s not-so-positive reputation could have been a substantial reason the graphic was received negatively by many, and PETA definitely could have approached the issue in a different way.
“I don’t think that PETA really worded it in the way that they should have because what they said was that it’s become unacceptable to use ableist, racist and homophobic language, which isn’t the case,” said Amanda Houdeschell, founder of animal rights organization, ‘Species Revolution.’ “We’re still really fighting for certain slurs not to be used and for a larger understanding of the way that our language impacts others.”
Despite PETA’s insufficient consideration for how the wording in their tweet would be received, by posting the graphic, they were addressing an issue that is worth starting a conversation about.
PETA has been discussing language-use when it comes to animals for a very long time, so the fact that this particular graphic went viral and received so much critical backlash is a bit questionable. However, the attention it got — no matter how negative — has helped to do exactly what PETA intends with many of its campaigns, which is to start conversations.
“I’ve never really heard any other animal nonprofit talking about the issue [of language] very much, so I was happy to see that PETA was talking about it,” said Houdeschell. “And it’s totally skimming the surface too—I mean there is so much other stuff to address when talking about speciesist language. And it was just a fun, silly meme that doesn’t even really get into the depth of the issue.”
Speciesist language can be found in so many different areas of life, so it is not just limited to silly graphics and harmless idioms. Speciesist language includes associating a negative connotation with the names of animals, such as when calling someone a “chicken” or — more controversially — a “pig”. It is also considered speciesist to refer to animals as “it” and “thing” because they are thinking, feeling beings who have personalities just as humans do.
“A lot of our language is really human-centered and we’re speaking in a way that doesn’t consider animals as experiencing the same things that we do,” said Houdeschell. “We’ll talk about things that aren’t exclusive to humans, but we act as if they are with our language.”
Houdeschell emphasized that even though animals can’t necessarily understand what humans are saying, using language that demeans them can still have an impact on how they are viewed, and therefore, treated by humans.
“If we can understand that it’s not okay to use racist or sexist slurs even if nobody from those marginalized groups are in the room with you, then it should be easy for us to understand that we should be using language that’s respectful to animals, regardless of our limited ability to interact with them in a linguistic way,” said Houdeschell.
Another issue that has recently come to the surface is the serious way the animal agriculture industry has been treating language, which sparked an interesting viewpoint in a BuzzFeed article.
The article was a reaction to PETA’s posting of the graphic, entitled, “PETA is Right and You All Need to Stop Revving a Dead Porsche”. The article addresses how the dairy lobby has been attempting to sue alternative milk manufacturers, such as almond, soy and coconut, over using the word “milk” because the dairy industry claims milk can only come from a cow, who – as the article points out – was likely artificially inseminated.
The article also notes how the Cattlemen’s Association wants the Department of Agriculture to redefine words such as, “meat” and “beef”, and that “Big Mayo” companies were angry, saying that certain mayonnaise products not containing eggs are not really mayonnaise.
With animal agriculture industries going up in arms, defending words that have characterized the products they sell, it only seems right that vegans and animal activists should do the same.
“Animal agriculture takes language so seriously, and so if they’re taking it that seriously, we need to as well – but we are totally not matching them,” said Houdeschell.
Houdeschell went on to say that language can have a positive impact on the way that animals are treated, and if – for example – people understand that milk can, in fact, come from a plant, the way language is used can also be a leverage for the spread of veganism. But the animal agriculture industries recognize this, and it is threatening their business – so they are fighting back.
However, despite animal agriculture industries feeling threatened by the spread of veganism, it is pretty widely agreed upon – as the Buzzfeed article points out – that the way animals are raised in the meat, dairy and egg industries today is far less than ideal. In addition, most people are aware of the negative impact that large-scale animal agriculture has on the environment.
Language, therefore, can be a crucial stepping stone to making the world better for animals and humans.
“The hope is that if vegans start using this language, and non–vegans are hearing it, then this will start a conversation about, ‘well, why are you using that language?’, ‘Why are you saying test tube instead of guinea pig?’ – well, because hundreds of thousands of guinea pigs are killed in labs every year—that kind of thing,” said Houdeschell. “It’s just one tool in a pretty big toolbox of how we can respect animals.”