When I was involved with human-oriented social justice issues, paying attention to language was a big part of the work I did (along with the folks with whom I affiliated). Specifically, how should we refer to women? How should we refer to lesbians and other gay people? How should we refer to people of color? So on and so forth. Identity politics was at its height when I was an activist for other humans, and the utterance of one wrong word could brand a person for life in certain circles.
And yet I was not so zealous that I was blind to the problems involved in such a single-minded focus upon Using The Right Words. I knew plenty of people who used the word “homosexual” to refer to queer people, but they were more inherently accepting of us than plenty of “right-minded” progressives who were perfect with their word choices. I knew others who were old enough to still use the word “colored” to refer to black folks, but in their hearts, they were far more anti-racist than plenty of white liberals who knew to say “African American” but still locked their doors when they drove through black neighborhoods.
Over time, I identified this dynamic which I came to call the Edith Bunker Approach to Social Justice. Anyone familiar with “All in the Family” might well remember one of the more moving episodes when a couple of black guys came to rob the Bunkers. Archie, of course, has nothing to say but racist remarks. Michael, as we would expect, pontificates in true liberal fashion about the inequities of a society that drives black folks to robbery (as if all black folks were crooks). But “simple” Edith, once she understands the situation that drove these guys to steal the precious $30 she’d saved to enter a song contest, has nothing but compassion for them. It’s her gut-level understanding of pain, her ability to empathize with people driven to do things they might not otherwise do, in true color-blind fashion, that leads the men to give her back her money in the end.
Edith Bunker might well have used the word “colored” to refer to these guys, but her core self was far more aligned with true anti-racist ideology than anything Michael could have ever approached.
A brilliant show in many ways. And a lesson I learned very well. It didn’t take too long to begin to see through the facade of proper language to what was beneath. Often I saw a person struggling with the roots of their own internal oppressive nature, and language changes were a part of that. But just as often, I saw someone who was smug enough to believe that because they’d gotten the words down pat, they had no oppressive tendencies lurking deep within. Over time, I began to wish they hadn’t changed their words around to save us all the trouble of having to look beneath the trickery of their progressive language.
These are the folks who sneered at people who used the word homosexual, but felt incredibly uncomfortable with gay people who “flaunted their sexuality” (usually in a far less restrained fashion than most hets I’ve known). These are the folks who cringed when someone used the term “white trash” but locked up their jewelry when the cleaning lady came to scrub their toilets.
You get the point.
What started me thinking about the Edith Bunker dynamic was an incident that happened yesterday with a neighbor of the sanctuary. She was upset that some of our chickens made it under the electric fence to roam about one of her pastures. Apparently, she doesn’t like it when the occasional chicken poopie gets mixed in with her horse poopie. I will refrain from sharing any of my further thoughts on the matter, and will just note that we will install chicken-proof fences in a couple of days and that will solve the problem. But what I will share is a comment this neighbor made about her two Bard Rock roosters:
“They used to wander,” she said, “but I spanked them on their little butts and they never did that again.”
Because, as we all know, non-human animals are equivalent to human children in the minds of most people. And of course it’s cute to smack children around.
I informed her that we don’t strike any of the rescued animals at our sanctuary, so hey, wow, I got the words right. But that started me down one of my more common rumination trails: the roots of anti-animal oppression that lurk inside all of us. Was there anything inside of me that thought, even for a moment, that this was any kind of cute comment? There actually wasn’t, but that’s not to say that something similar wouldn’t happen in the future.
After 12+ years of doing this work, I still monitor myself, my actions, and yes, my language. Just the other night I was outside with Madeline, one of the dogs we live with, while she ate up practically all the grass on the lawn. She’d eaten god knows what that day and was sick to her stomach. After about 20 minutes of standing out there with her, I began to be really annoyed. But then I had to think: would I be this annoyed with Aram if I sat with him for 20 minutes while he drank a glass of chamomile tea to soothe an upset stomach? Possibly! HAHAHA But more seriously, probably not.
Granted, I wouldn’t have to stand outside with him on a chilly April night while he took care of himself — but is it Madeline’s fault that we drive dangerous cars all over the damn place? In the end, my annoyance didn’t affect her so it was irrelevant — but I couldn’t have come to that conclusion unless I thought about it.
And that’s what I’m talking about. We need to always think about what we are doing, saying, and believing, given that we’ve inherited thousands of years of horrific, ingrained beliefs about animals. When someone complains that the “neighbor’s dog” is barking, where does your mind go first? Do you empathize with the person because he has to listen to that all day? Or do you think hey, who the fuck is hurting that dog? Be honest: Regardless of the proper words that come out of your mouth, where does your mind go first?
This is the challenge. The golden question I ask myself is this: would I have the same reaction if this situation involved a human instead of a non-human? My goal is to have the same reaction (barring obvious exceptions). Over time, the situations in which I’d react differently become fewer; but I believe that this is only because I monitor and watch and continue to work on myself to uproot and destroy any vestiges of speciesism that exist inside of me. And believe me — they won’t ever be gone completely: not from me, and not from any of us. That’s what we have to believe if we want to live ethical lives.
No matter how many times we rant, in proper language, about those who eat the flesh and products of non-human animals; no matter how many ALF tracts we read; and no matter how many words like “beef” we replace with “cow flesh” — we can never assume we are free from the insidious sickness that is speciesism. Given how near to impossible it is for most white folks to truly root out the racism that lurks inside of us after only a few hundred years of race-based oppression, how much harder will it be to root out specieism, which is arguably the oldest oppression of them all, going back many thousands of years?
The Edith Bunkers of the animal rights world are extremely rare. I sure as hell know I’m not one of them — and I don’t mean to insult myself by saying so. I was raised to view animals (and “nature” itself) as dirty, suspect, and existing for human needs, and I was thirty something before I got a clue. Of course I’ll have to spend the rest of my life working on myself. I’ve got the language down, for the most part; I’ll remain vigilant about everything else. I hope we all do — the struggle exists inside of us as well as everywhere else.