The dictionary is one of my favorite books. I can go on a word journey and entertain myself following one definition to the next, connecting threads or traipsing off on a tangent into previously unknown realms. We humans have created an impressive system of symbols and sounds to express our feelings and our ideas and to just keep track of things. But do we really understand what we are saying?
According to Oxford Dictionaries, it is not even possible to get an accurate count of how many words there are, though English, with its mongrel ancestry and sponge-like capacity to absorb foreign or newly coined words, is comprised of upwards of three quarters of a million words.
With so many choices one would think that the precision of our descriptions and communications would be without room for interpretation – or the need for it. It seems that we would always be able to say what we mean and mean what we say. Yet, when the truth is unflattering or offensive or too direct, or we don’t want to be judged as lowly for unsavory or unseemly activities we resort to euphemism, giving our unpleasant concept a softer and more appealing taste. This manipulation of words is quite powerful as advertisers, politicians, religions and con artists well know.
However, the words that convey literature, poetry, lyrics, philosophy and science come from the same lexicon. Speaking or writing eloquently is admired as an art. Words are a medium which is crafted into complex philosophies or simple truths, embellishing civilization and defining culture.
Consequently, culture begets a psychology that can supersede one’s individual psychology, or perhaps it is better to say infiltrate one’s moral intuition, so that is it is possible that our behavior can be led in an irrational direction merely if rational language is applied, or if certain language is omitted. Euphemism works its magic.
This is well illustrated in the promotion of “humane slaughter”, “compassionate consumption”, “natural horsemanship” and, frankly, any case of exploitation of animals where the animal is purported to be “happy” in his or her servitude and imprisonment. The multibillion dollar industry of animal slavery and its inevitable cruelty thrive with the help of selective language.
Humanity is splintered into countless cultures and sub-cultures and most of us live under the influence more than one. A side effect of this is that we might unwittingly embrace utterly opposing moral attitudes within our lives simply because a sub-culture and its language obscure our insight. Consider your own immediate family values, your employment culture, your social network of friends and your personal hobbies. Undoubtedly, there are many overlapping features in each, but it might be that you are taking pleasure or pride in something that if it were described in another way would make you cringe.
Horse people – those that are attracted to horses and keep them for purposes of sport, or work or pleasure – are such a sub-culture where perfectly conscientious people in areas of, say, health and ecology and, in general, good citizenry for the sake of a better humanity simultaneously do terrible things to horses. There is even a stigma for being too kind to a horse. A horse that is too sick or lame to work or be ridden after he has been broken down through use is considered a burden. A horse that does not readily comply or fit in or in some way earn his keep is beaten and over worked. On the other hand he may be handed off in a quick sale or left to receive minimal care if not outright neglect. Or maybe he is just killed.
Through culture, history, advertising, and one of the worst forms of justification for malevolence, in my opinion, tradition, people who admire horses for all the reasons for which they deserve admiration go on to kick them, whip them, exhaust them, force them, demean them, enslave them and find disappointment in them. All of these infractions take place under the guise of positive definitions of words like athleticism, sports, adventure, pleasure, teaching, respect, gentling, skill, energy, therapy, etc.
There are the euphemisms like tap, bump, contact, support, leg, rhythm, squeeze, correction – all replacements for adverse pressure or a hitting impact intended to cause discomfort and pain. There are tie-downs and hobbles and gag bits, undisguised terms for available accouterments considered reasonable and necessary for controlling a horse.
Another vein of patois is the creative interpretations of a horse’s signs of communication, where fear is described as silliness or idiocy. Lack of understanding to a human’s request is willful resistance and disrespect. Curiosity and initiative is rudeness. And poor performance of any maneuver is just plain laziness with no accounting for possible pain or inability to physically conduct himself without risk of injury.
If the word child , woman or man is substituted for horse in any standard discussion of horse husbandry and use, it sounds like unconscionable and sociopathic behavior. The reason for that is simple; it is unconscionable and sociopathic behavior.
If the defense and rationale is that animals are not the same as people and they should be domesticated and bred to be used by us, then that is the shame of humanity for taking such a narrow view of our community of earthlings. Mankind upholds language as a signifier of his superiority as a species, but as I see it we are overstating that claim.