Tag Archives: language

As I Was Saying

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.


Be Vegan 

Acknowledgments: Thank you to Michael Bevilacqua and David Castro for the depth of their discussions with me, and to Alexander Nevzorov for telling it like it is.

Our Animals, Ourselves

With the undertaking of domestication of plants and animals humans took advantage of their environments and essentially stylized them to facilitate the acquisition of food.  One general long term effect is that gathering became centralized and hunting was restructured as highly “organized predation”.  [i]  With the advent of specialized food producers other members of the community were free to think about other things. [ii] This led to a boon of innovation for humans, and acquisition of knowledge about life and nature that we could hardly wish to be without, but did not come without a price.

When we domesticated those others we domesticated ourselves as well.  In the same ways that we cultivated, tamed, restricted, categorized, labeled and used plants and animals, so did many men, women and children fall into line as “others” while populations developed a hierarchical system of ownership, suppression of many by the few, and, most sadly, divorced themselves from nature by labeling animals and some humans as having an otherness less worthy of a full free life than some.

What astonishes me is that while humanitarian and civil activism rages against the segregations, the imprisonments, the slavery, the rapes  and any other humiliating injustice you can think of for humans, so come the cries to the effect of  “ These people are forced to live like animals!” or “It is a crime to treat people like animals!”

Statements like this are common vernacular.  In the dialog of recent episode of a popular science fiction television program a father defends his daughter’s right to privacy against authorities who want to study her ability to predict the future by saying he will not allow her to cooperate  since they only want to test her and probe her “like an animal.”  He is well aware of the inhumane consequences of such treatment.

And what of those animals brought up for comparison to humans? If people can see animals that live in such conditions or receive such treatment that no human should be subjected to the same, what have we done?  How can we point to an example of our own making as if it is somehow something animals bring upon themselves, as if it is a fault of their characters or that it doesn’t really matter to them?

Animals in their natural environments avoid unsanitary conditions, overcrowding and anti-social behavior.

Domesticated animals – most often animals raised as food, but even pets and service animals – are routinely subjected to lives of compartmentalized storage, artificial and forced breeding arrangements, and separation from family bonding, nurturing and socialization that can leave them emotionally ruined. Horses most certainly live within such programs.  In the name of human superiority and economics, not to mention frivolous entertainment,  this is usually ignored or twisted to fit neatly into our rationale for using animals for personal gain.

If the greatness of a civilization is judged by how it treats its animals, as has been variously quoted, most notably by Gandhi, I ask, is there yet a civilization that deserves the mark of greatness on that premise?   If we exploit fear and inflict pain, humiliate with punishment and deny intelligence and emotions of the animals we incorporate into our cultures we are operating at the lowest level of our potential.

The knowledge we have gained on the backs of animals has brought us to a place where it is not necessary to continue the practice. It’s time to listen to our words and actions towards animals and realize that if we would not accept treatment toward them as reasonable for ourselves it must cease.  Only then will the accolade of greatness we hope to attach to our civilizations be apt.

[i] Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape  , McGraw-Hill Book Company (1967)

[ii] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel , W.W. Norton Company (2000)