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Cruelty by any other name still stinks

By Jordan Sosnowski - posted Thursday, 25 July 2013

In his recent article, Allen Greer criticises the use of certain emotive words by the animal welfare movement and argues that attempting to redefine words leads to the corruption of the English language.

As a student of Law, Philosophy and English Literature, I find Greer's argument offensive (to qualify: unpleasant or disagreeable to the sense: ie an offensive odour).

While I agree with Greer that language can, and has in the past been adopted to corrupt (some would argue that 'persuade' is a better word, however that could just be the lawyer in me speaking) - it is precisely its ability to shape and bend, be wrought and wrung - that makes language such a wonderful tool. It is not for one person to say which words should be used for what purpose - this habit is more Orwellian than Greer would care to admit.


When any movement, be it animal welfare or not, adopts certain words to further their campaign, they are in a sense, redefining. However, the beauty of language is that it can be used to express ideas; it is flexible and malleable to our purpose. There is not only one possible definition or situational context for each word, there are myriad and it is not 'a debasement of language' to utilise words to their full capacity. Indeed, this is precisely what the great literary minds of our time have strived for and achieved.

Greer argues that words such as 'empathy', 'affection', 'loyalty' and 'grief' should not be attributed to animals without qualification, because naive people will think that these words 'mean the same thing for animals as they do for humans'. While it is difficult to know the precise mental state of animals, there have been numerous scientific studies that indicate that all mammals have a vast range of emotion - they 'experience not just physical pain, but also mental suffering, including fear, foreboding, shock, trauma, stress, distress, anticipation, and terror – all states previously regarded as exclusive to human beings'.

While the usual anecdotes such as elephants that cry when they are sad and dogs that risk their lives for others are well known, one recent study shows that human-like behaviour is not only reserved for mammals. Two ducks rescued from a foie gras factory spent four years together in a sanctuary before one of them grew ill and had to be euthanised. The duck left behind displayed signs of listlessness for weeks afterwards and withdrew from other animals and humans. What other word, if not 'grief', could be used to describe the duck's reaction to the loss?

Similarly, while some words such as 'mother' may have an existential meaning to humans, there is no reason why it should be 'unique' to humans and not used in an animal welfare context. One experiment from the 1970's by the American comparative psychologist Harry Harlow, tested the effects of isolation on rhesus monkeys, by separating young monkeys from their mothers for periods ranging from ten weeks to a year. Those kept isolated for more than 30 days never fully recovered normal behaviour patterns. Harlow also dedicated many experiments to understanding the maternal bond between young monkeys and their mothers. Harlow would rear newborn monkeys with 'surrogate' mothers - ranging from towel covered cones to a machine that assaulted the baby monkeys with metal spikes and cold air. Unsurprisingly, later in life the isolated monkeys would not mate and artificial insemination was yet to be invented. Therefore, Harlow invented what he called a 'rape rack', in order for the female monkeys to reproduce.

Greer states:

If the animal welfare movement has different, more restricted, meanings for these important words and concepts when it used them for animals, it should explain those differences and not let the misconceptions run.


However, while the animal welfare movement does adopt important words and concepts, they do not have a restricted or different meaning to animals than they do to humans. One would be hard pressed to argue that it is 'an effacement of the differences between beings' as Greer states, when the word 'sexual abuse' is used to describe the treatment of the female monkeys outlined above. Indeed, it is precisely the genetic and mental similarities animals share with humans that is often used by scientists to justify continued animal testing. Therefore, why shouldn't like words be used to describe like circumstances?

Finally, Greer argues that the animal welfare movement adopts positive words but 'studiously avoids' those with a negative connotation to describe animals. However, it is not the animal welfare movement that sees fit to bestow bravery medals upon animals, it is typically the police force, fire service and military that does so. Similarly, the word 'spouse' to describe partnered magpies is not one that was created by the animal welfare movement for covert political purposes, but stems from superstition and folklore.

Many highly educated people in Australia such as the great jurist Michael Kirby do not 'acquiesce' in the debasement of language when they adopt certain words to help their cause: writers understand exactly why they are using the words they do and more often that not, it is to provoke readers to think more deeply about their place in the world and their relationship with the beings in it.

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About the Author

Jordan Sosnowski is an Associate Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. She graduated from Monash University with a Master of Laws, Juris Doctor and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Queensland, majoring in Philosophy and English Literature. Jordan is the recipient of a Summer Research Grant from Michigan State University and is currently working in the field of legal research for the Animal Legal & Historical Web Center.

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