There has been quite a lot of work in the animal liberation movement that treats our abuse of animals in an abstract, philosophical manner – books where ethicists consider certain possible ethical theories and ask themselves whether those theories are reasonable or consistent. And that’s all well and good.
But there’s been a comparative lack of engagement with the abuse of animals, and the attitudes that support it, as a concrete ideological system. Feminism, for example, has been quite good at identifying patriarchal structures of thought and imagination, like the Madonna/whore dichotomy, and thus illuminating the actual existing ideological structure of patriarchy. I’ve not come across much such work in the animal liberation movement.
In this post I want to do something to remedy that, discussing how what I will call ‘human supremacism’ acts in the same way as other ideological structures of oppression.
There are lots of topics I could discuss here, but I want to focus on the words we use to talk about the general category of ‘animals’. Obviously many of the words discussed here can be used in a variety of ways, and do not always carry this sort of conscious intention – but this does not change the connotations and messages they carry into society on the whole.
“You’re behaving like an animal.”
“People like that are just animals.”
“This behaviour is animalistic.”
No literal meaning can be given to the word ‘animal’ here: people who would elicit these responses are acting in a way that is violent, destructive, thoughtless, insensitive – motivated blindly by lust or gluttony or rage. Is that the typical mode of activity of ‘animals’, i.e. birds, mice, horses, lizards, salmon, dogfish? What possible meaning could even attach to the claim that such a heterogenous group typically acted in such a way?
We have other words for such behaviour: we can call it ‘brutal’. A ‘brute’ is someone who lacks empathy and respect for others, who is cruelly destructive. But where does this word come from? It means: non-human animal. That meaning is now less common than the descriptive one, but it remains an integral part of what that word is.
Similarly, we might describe an act of extreme evil or vice as ‘beastly’, or call someone who engages in it a ‘beast’. What does that mean? It means a non-human animal. Similar thoughts apply to the opposites of these words, such as ‘humane’.
Written deeply into the very language we use is the following idea: that all animals that are not human, whether they have gills or lungs, wings or hooves, are in general aggressive, destructive, evil: a force for unreasoning chaos and suffering. When we want to describe a human behaving despicably, we say that they behave like a ‘beast’.
But this ‘beast’ is not a real entity: it is an ideological fiction. No animal, apart from those driven mad, is constantly, unremittingly, blindly, aggressive and destructive. Indeed, the great majority of animal species are on average less violent to their own species than humans. Relatively few animals routinely kill members of their own species – and if it is the killing of members of other species, then what animal comes close to the billions of animals humans slaughter every year?
Similarly, very few animals possess the randiness of humans. The idea of someone myopically seeking sex being ‘an animal’ is absurd – many animals have hugely elaborate courtship rituals and/or lifelong pairbonds, and even among those who don’t, mating is usually an event that occurs occasionally, when everyone’s hormones are at the right level.
The idea that ‘beasts’ are, basically, waiting for any excuse to attack and maim everything they come across is not just false, it has never even met the truth: it is not an impression of reality but a projection of an image defined by the psychological needs of humans. It is, in Jungian terms, the human ‘shadow’: everything that we are but wish to believe we are not. It is defined as not-us so as to preserve our good impression of ourselves.
Moreover, even if an animal, individually or as a species, were in fact extremely aggressive and prone to launching attacks at a moment’s notice (perhaps the small insectivores like shrews, whose rapid metabolism requires constant feeding, best fit this model?) – even then it would not be accurate to describe it in these human supremacist terms, it would not be a beast or a brute. Why not? Because those terms do not simply offer a false description – they essentialise. They say not just that non-human animals are, as a matter of fact, blindly destructive, but that blind destructiveness is the essential feature of them, that it sums them up.
We might make a comparison with a word that embodies patriarchal oppression: ‘slut.’ Many women are in fact promiscuous and emphasise their sexual availability as a means of gaining popularity – yet nevertheless, they are not sluts. ‘Slut’ is a word that serves to essentialise, to say not just ‘this woman is sexually available’, but ‘this woman’s sexual availability sums her up, it is the essence of what she is, it determines her value.’
Both terms prioritise a certain feeling toward the other being – and in so doing define the other not on their own terms but by reference to the speaker and the cultural ‘default person’. ‘Beast’ says that when we feel hostile, uncertain fear of animals, we are most fully and accurately aware of them – we have grasped their truth. ‘Slut’ says that when we think of, look at, or touch, the woman referred to in a sexual way, motivated by sexual desire, then we are most fully and accurately aware of her – we have grasped her truth.
Both terms likewise legitimate violence. ‘Slut’ says that even if this woman says she doesn’t want to sleep with us, the truth of who she is lies in her sexual availability, and so if we rape her we do no more than deliver her her own truth. Hence the efforts in rape trials to raise the issue of the survivor’s sexual history, to suggest that she is in fact a ‘slut’.
‘Beast’ says that even if the animal is afraid of you, even if it retreats, its essential nature is to be a threat – hence its essential nature is that it should be exterminated. And those animals which we best think of as ‘beasts’ (lions, wolves, bears, Tasmanian tiger-marsupials) are precisely those which humans have historically tried to exterminate by systematic campaigns of murder, seeking them out to slay and leaving their numbers and range now a tiny fraction of what they used to be.
Of course there are other ideological structures here: alongside the beast, there is, for example, the use of pigs to symbolise a certain human idea of gluttony and fatness – an idea which is also bound up with an oppressive ideology of body-image. But this is an example of how I would analyse the ‘beast’-structure, which stands out by being linguistically coded as universal, as applying to animals in general.
If any readers have suggestions of other structures in this ideology, other ways that we misrepresent animals, use them as symbols instead of recognising their reality, I invite comments – especially ways that animal-ideology serves also to reinforce other sorts of ideology, like sexual ideology, racial ideology, political ideology, etc. What do people think?