Language and our choice of words is something I’ve blogged about before, and I’ve slowly been trying to eradicate certain phrases from my vocabulary like filthy pig or stupid cow…phrases that I’ve used to complain about someone while also affixing those unflattering attributes to animals (don’t worry: “dumb jag” and “stupid wanker“ are still very much in my daily lexicon).
While a cow or pig doesn’t know I’m insulting them, that’s not the point. By using these phrases, I perpetuate a language – and hence a stereotype – that certain animals are stupid, silly, dirty, etc., and it’s one of those subtleties that has seeped into our culture, shaping our view of animals probably more than we realize. Some may view this as political correctness gone too far but I see it as reclaiming our language to include all. Take gender roles for example: the word firefighter includes all genders whereas the word firemen only includes males. The word stewardess only implies women in the role but now flight attendant is much more inclusive to all who are in that profession. It may seem small and insignificant or eye-rollingly petty to some, but change has to begin somewhere and language seems as good a place to start as any; I see no reason why animals cannot be included in the conversation around damaging and inaccurate assumptions and using different language to represent them properly.
As I was thinking about words again recently, I was struck by another term we use to describe “food” animals. There’s a seafood joint in our neighbourhood that I used to frequent a lot before I went vegan. As I was walking by it a couple of weeks ago, I saw the familiar sign they had out front advertising live lobster. That word – live – suddenly struck me as odd. Why not say “alive” lobster? Why refer to the lobster as though they were a headliner in a band or making a personal appearance? (“Join us tonight at 8:00 p.m. for live Lobster, who’ll be signing copies of his book, My Life As A Crustacean: How I Clawed My Way Out of Captivity.” Okay, now I wish that really was happening.).
By the removal of just that first letter from the word, a distance is created. The word “live” downplays an animal’s actual conscious state. “Live” puts the onus on them to be breathing. “Alive” puts the onus on us to be killing. When applied to lobsters or fish or markets and stockyards that exist across Ontario where whole farm animals can be bought and sold, referring to them as “live” glosses over the fact that these animals are, actually, still alive and breathing.
On the one hand, I would actually prefer “live” markets over slaughterhouses because at least the animals and the conditions in which they’re kept are out in the open. And even though most people don’t generally consider fish and sea creatures when they think of animal suffering, I think one of the reasons is because the word “live” is often attached to them when they’re being sold. The word “live” is yet another term that has inculcated us to see animals not as they are on their own but rather as they are in terms of what they mean to us. That word – live – implies “fresh” or “local” or “choose your own” and we may even feel that it is the more conscientious choice to buy animals when they still have a pulse. But I can’t help but wonder if animals like lobsters and fish and pigs and goats and chickens that are sold in this manner would give us any pause for thought if they were advertised as alive instead. Because before they are caught, boiled, gutted, skinned and slaughtered, that is precisely what they are.