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LINGUA FRANCA: If we care about animal rights, we must reimagine language to create a world that is truly just

Unlike its human rights counterparts who fight for DIGNITY and EQUALITY, animal rights is built around words like CONSERVATION, PROTECTION and RESCUE, fighting for the most basic of all rights: SURVIVAL.

SHREYA RAY: Everywhere, names are being changed, narratives reframed, historical wrongs reversed, marginalised groups are being empowered using language… Climate activist Greta Thunberg has been calling for Climate Change to be renamed to Climate Emergency… Animal rights are not one of them…

Nowhere in history, has such mass extermination of multiple species taken place with so much social sanction aided with one of our greatest allies, language. It would be foolish to limit this discussion to food alone. The abuse and mass killing of animals – which extends to all aspects of human existence from food, clothing, cosmetics, to entertainment in direct and indirect ways – would be right to be termed as “genocide”, “annihilation” or “mass murder”, classified as a crime, not its tepid cousin “cruelty”.

Instead, language has systematically been eroded to hide this heinousness and stripped animals of any personhood or voice. The social justice movement – and its allies in the media and the arts – has only inherited and recycled the language of the oppressor, whilst reversing these forms of language elsewhere…

Sanitising the truth is key to this exercise. The meat and dairy industry, for instance, is built on a successive series of half-truths and silences. From foreign names for several types of meat to the whitewashing of fish-eating as vegetarianism in some cultures… From food to articles such as ivory, silk and pashmina, no name comes close to denoting the roots of its violent origins. Such is the failure of language in the cause of animal rights, many of these have come to represent aspirational and luxurious living.

Sanitising also happens in the things we do not say. To use a phrase from the Covid era: the under-reporting. It omits the suffering, orphaning, heartbreak and cries, as a deliberate cause of human consumption. The fur is simply not the coat of dead animals killed in a split second, it is baby seals clubbed to death because a gunshot will damage their fur… All of this is held together by the meta-narrative of speciesism – the idea that animals are inferior to humans. The corollaries follow: they exist purely for human consumption, they feel no pain and their pain is not pain…

But the biggest betrayal to the cause comes from the social justice movement itself – in the way it denies animal rights a seat at the table. Treating it with eye-rolling condescension, as an afterthought that can only be (if at all) addressed after the entire edifice of human rights has been solved, progressives have made it look like the idea of justice is entirely conditional to human convenience. At best, it gets a tokenistic insert into the larger subset of the environment, an already under-reported subject.

The list of the United Nations agencies and the International Criminal Court’s categories of crimes should tell us how the international justice community has thus far prioritised animals: it has not. In the hierarchy of the development universe, where issues higher up the ladder operate within a rights-based framework, animal rights are at the very bottom, operating on the welfare/charity model, a subset of pity…

This is not surprising. Where development discourse the world now prefers a “participatory” community-led model, animal rights must rely on the language of human beings. Unlike its human rights counterparts who lobby along the lines of “dignity” and “equality”, animal rights – built around words like “conservation” “protection” and “rescue” – is scraping the bottom of barrel, fighting for the most basic of all rights: survival…

If we stop lying to ourselves for a second, we will admit that animal rights are foremost about justice: an all-encompassing justice, that is not conditional, convenient, or built on lies. With our bodies, our economies so heavily predicated on animal abuse, it might take decades to reform if not reverse this equation. It can only start though, the day we change our language around it. SOURCE…

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