Joan Dunayer. Animal Equality. Language and Liberation.
Derwood, MD: Ryce Publishing, 2001
Barbara Smuts , University of Michigan
I recently saw a documentary about a man who rescued an orphaned
male mallard. They went everywhere together on land, and the man
longed to fly with his duck companion. So he acquired a glider
and one day launched into the air after the duck. At first the
man wondered whether the duck would recognize him, “but then,”
he said, “the bird veered toward the glider and flew along
beside me so close I could talk to it.” Describing this moment
as “one of the most moving experiences of my life,” the man
nevertheless refers to his friend as an inanimate “it,” a
disturbing reminder that even people who care deeply for animals
other than humans sometimes fail to speak of them as equals.
Dunayer, a writer specializing in animal rights issues, delves
deeply into how the English language is used intentionally or
inadvertently to demean other animals and to trivialize the harm
we cause them. Although most of Dunayer’s examples derive from
contexts harmful to nonhuman animals, by including critical
analyses of language used by people like the duckling rescuer
the author shows that all of us could use some linguistic
After two introductory chapters demonstrating how we use words
to separate humans from other sentient beings, the author
analyzes language in several domains including hunting, zoos,
vivisection, and the use of other animals as food. She then
discusses pronouns used to refer to other animals, the
metaphorical use of nonhuman animals, and nonhuman legal rights.
The book concludes with detailed stylistic guidelines aimed at
providing non-speciesist linguistic alternatives.
Although the book is not a scholarly treatise, Dunayer supports
her argument with abundant endnotes. In a lively and accessible
style, she demonstrates through sheer force of example how
speciesist language pervades all aspects of society, from
everyday speech to scientific journals, from newspaper reports
to the beef industry’s double speak. In addition to giving
common and obvious examples of speciesist language such as
referring to other animals as “subhuman” Dunayer uncovers
multiple, not-so-obvious examples and shows how, in many
instances, their use is institutionalized. She condemns
conservation biology for employing terms such as “wildlife
management,” “cull,” and “harvest” instead of the more honest
“kill” (or even “murder”). She criticizes zoo apologists for
using terms like “residents,” “exhibit,” and “wildlife habitat”
to mask the fact that zoo animals are prisoners condemned to a
lifetime of incarceration under woefully inadequate conditions.
She quotes zoo directors who argue that captive animals are
“lucky” because they are “safe.” But, asks Dunayer, what
justifies the assumption that nonhumans, any more than humans,
would voluntarily trade freedom for safety?
Throughout the book, Dunayer skillfully interweaves linguistic
analysis and detailed information about animal abuse. The grim
realities of hunting, fishing, animal agriculture, and
vivisection are conveyed in ways that change minds. She
convinced me, someone relatively ignorant about sport fishing,
that its supposedly “humane” methods more appropriately are
labeled “torture.” Because of the inclusion of so many well-
documented examples of animal abuse, the book can function as a
compelling introduction to animal rights issues.
Several important themes recur throughout the book. One I
especially appreciated is how language is used to deny nonhuman
individuality. From the use of impersonal pronouns such as
“which” rather than “who,” to the tendency to refer to all
members of a nonhuman species as a single animal (“the
chimpanzee is endangered”), to special terms such as “livestock”
that reduce other animals to economic commodities, we ignore the
unique selves of other animals in myriad ways.
Another important theme is how those with a vested interest in
the status quo intentionally downplay human-inflicted animal
suffering. As in human politics, the politics of human-animal
interaction is rife with carefully crafted spin. Dunayer
documents how one biomedical journal devised an editorial policy
explicitly designed to disguise the degree of pain inflicted on
nonhuman animals used in experiments. Similarly, vivisectors
have been known to urge their colleagues to refer to the animals
they use as “it” rather than “he” or “she” so that readers will
be less prone to consider them sentient beings.
A third theme is how other animals are demeaned through sentence
structure as well as words. Dunayer’s analyses of syntax are
original and provocative. She cleverly shows how we tend to make
humans the subjects of sentences, even when nonhumans are the
primary actors or victims of the narrative. Similarly,
linguistic conventions such as word order placing humans before
nonhumans reinforce the notion that humans are more important.
To correct such biases, we can make an effort to structure our
sentences differently (“The dog Safi and her human companion
Barb went for a walk”).
One downside of this book is its often polemical tone. “More a
religion than a science,” she writes, “vivisection consists of
ritual torture, animal sacrifice, and self-worship” (p. 112).
Another flaw is the author’s tendency to state as fact her
opinions about controversial issues. For example, she states
unequivocally that zoos provide no significant conservation
benefits, and writes, “applied to living beings, conservation
means killing” (p. 54). A more balanced analysis might have
acknowledged that many people involved in wildlife conservation
are allied with Dunayer in her efforts to honor and protect
members of other species.
Dunayer’s demands are radical. She wants us to make fundamental
changes in the way we use language, and some of her non-speciesist
alternatives will be hard to swallow. For example, she wants to
refer to those who train captive dolphins as “abusers” and to
“domestication” as “nonhuman enslavement.” Although some
domestic animals are treated like slaves, would Dunayer apply
this term to the cats with whom she lives? She also wants to
replace phrases like “animal in the laboratory” (favored by this
journal’s editors) with “vivisected animal,” ignoring the fact
that not all animals in laboratories are vivisected, even by the
broadest definition of the word. In other instances, Dunayer’s
alternatives seem very appropriate; I applaud, for example, her
desire to refer to bacon, ham, and pork as “pigflesh” to remind
people of what they are really eating.
Whether or not we support particular suggestions, it is hard to
disagree when Dunayer writes that how we speak about other
animals affects how we relate to them. Surely that is reason
enough to carefully consider making many of changes she proposes
in this book.
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