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The Power of Words
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The Power of Words

It's easy to take language for granted, as something that we learn as toddlers, or later from textbooks, and don't think to challenge. We might think of words as tools, with which we communicate, or as fixed entities, without thinking to question why a chair has come to be called a chair.

Yet language is more powerful than this. It is through language that we create our own imbalances of power, by defining what each society perceives as normal, and cleverly ingraining this into the minds of child and adult language learners alike. For example, in the community where I first attended school, a male bus driver was simply a bus driver, whereas a female colleague of his was a, 'lady bus driver.' The combination of the sex and the job were thus, horribly if you ask me, defined through everyday language as not being normal.

It's the same with speciesism. In all of the four languages which I speak, the dominance of humankind is emphasised, to the extent that it has become normalised, in the words and phrases that people use. Take cheese. If I say I want to have some cheese on my pizza, the majority of the non-vegan population would assume that I meant dairy cheese, and I'd have to add an adjective such as vegan, soy, or dairy-free, in order to guarantee I received the product that I wanted. However, there is no justified reason why dairy cheese has claimed the spot as the default meaning, and why such cruelty is assumed to be the norm; it is simply because our ancestors assigned the words, which we can change. For language can adapt and evolve, and we can challenge linguistic constructions, so that dairy-free cheese, milk and ice-cream, tofu steaks, and vegetable sausages might be the default meaning in one hundred years.

Unfortunately, with the exception of in vegan restaurants, shops and communities, I do not think we are yet at a point where vegan clarifying adjectives can be completely abandoned; the non-vegan norms are still too ingrained. What we can do though, is start to discuss this with omnivorous acquaintances, and try to (politely) plant the seeds of questioning and critical thinking.

There's also another way in which we can reject the linguistic normalisation of inter-species violence, and that's through abstinence from certain colloquial phrases. Despite being vegan or vegetarian over half my life, I still occasionally slip up and use sayings that I picked up as a child, like, 'Kill two birds with one stone.' Of course, I don't want to kill any birds, and am trying to kick the habit of saying this, along with anything about 'headless chickens,' 'bulls in china shops,' and unfavourable comparisons of female mammals. Giving up verbal insults to non-human animals might seem like a drop in the ocean, but if it gives at least one person pause for thought, or stops one child from growing up thinking human dominance is normal, then it can only be seen as a step in the right direction.

Photograph courtesy of Hiroaki Maeda, used under the terms of the Creative Commons license.

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    This is such a powerful post, Amelia! Thank you for sharing.
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