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Mere words March 26, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
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Today’s post is more philosophical than usual. I’m not going to talk about the little piggy who went to market or the greenhouse gases his poop emitted. Instead, I’m going to talk about how I choose to talk about these things.

Specifically, I try to talk about the little piggy “who” went to market, not the little piggy “that” went to market. When I describe a lame hen or cow, I say “she” was limping around, and when I wonder what will happen to this male dairy calf, I ask about “his” future. That is, I make a point of using animate personal pronouns – the ones we use to describe people – as opposed to inanimate pronouns. I want to drive home the truth that animals are animate. They are alive and (unlike plants, which are also alive) they have genders. As ethically convenient as it would be for us if they were things, they are not.

It fascinates me that most people don’t follow the same custom, and find it more natural to use some form of “it” to describe animals. (Because that usage is much more common, even to my ears it sounds weird to use animate pronouns – but again, I’m making a conscious decision to do so.) Obviously, a pig is a “he” or a “she,” so why in the world do we feel more natural calling him or her “it”?

You might think that it’s because often, when we’re talking about animals, especially animals we don’t know personally (i.e., not our pets) we don’t know their genders. Rather than inaccurately label a female pig “he” or a male one “she,” we say “it.” But that doesn’t square with our linguistic practice when we don’t know the gender of a person. If we don’t know the gender of Germany’s chancellor, we don’t say “It met with Sarkozy to talk about the future of the Euro,” we say “They met with Sarkozy…” That is, we choose to bastardize grammar by using a plural pronoun to represent a singular person rather than by using an inanimate pronoun to represent an animate person. Why do we do the opposite for animals?

I honestly don’t know. I could advance a bunch of conspiracy theories but I have no evidence for any of them. What do you think?

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