A Quick Defense of PETA's Language Policing
PETA's tin ear for public sentiment is sometimes quite amazing to behold. Recently, the animal rights organization tweeted a much-ridiculed list of alternative idioms to replace those considered anti-animal. PETA tweeted,
"Words matter, and as our understanding of social justice evolves, our language evolves along with it. Here’s how to remove speciesism from your daily conversations." - PETA
The internet being the internet, first came the ridicule as Twitter erupted with howls of laughter. Then followed the internet pile on, with people trying to outdo themselves with witty replies using other animal idioms. After a while, one could say they were 'feeding a fed horse,' but whatever. I'll admit, I rolled my eyes just like everyone else and laughed at some of the funny responses. Perhaps under the theory that any publicity is good publicity, PETA doubled down the next day by tweeting, "Just as it became unacceptable to use racist, homophobic, or ableist language, phrases that trivialize cruelty to animals will vanish as more people begin to appreciate animals for who they are and start 'bringing home the bagels' instead of the bacon." - Peta Then, right on cue, came the spittle spraying outrage that went something like this: how dare PETA equates animal suffering with racism and homophobia! PETA didn't actually do that, not really, but righteous indignation is par for the course these days. People love to be offended. Monique Judge's article on theroot.com was in full rant mode at the implied correlation between racism and animal ethics. Look, let me say this upfront: I believe PETA is its own worst enemy sometimes. The cause is just, yes, but the methods alienate the very people they should be working to convince. This is one of those cases. When the public comes to expect shockingly provocative activism geared at getting attention and not necessarily winning converts, the risk becomes not so much raised awareness as ridicule and contempt. When that happens, it does not matter how just your cause is because no one takes you seriously.
Put another way, a lousy messenger taints a noble message. As I'll discuss below, I'm not against loud activism to advance a social justice issue, but there should be a method to the madness and not just attention-grabbing headlines. These days, PETA gets dismissed as at best provocateurs, and at worst clowns. But what about all the good things PETA does? I don't know, because we're talking about this.
But Does PETA Have a Point?
In any case, and knowing full well that this is a suicide mission, I'm going to try and defend PETA. Leave aside the goofy list of alternative idioms for now. The overall point PETA made in the two tweets is not really all that controversial. Language does change, and the racist, sexist, homophobic words and phrases that were okay to use in casual conversation in the past are no longer considered appropriate. PETA was comparing a linguistic phenomenon, not social justice issues. Unfortunately, the cringe-inducing list that accompanied the tweet buried this valid point in a hot, steaming pile of mockery. Take homophobia, for example. We've heard of the Red Scare in the 1950s when Joseph McCarthy went after suspected commies working in the federal government. However, most people don't know about the so-called Lavender Scare, which went after suspected homosexuals. In the fevered imaginations of Joseph McCarthy and his ilk, homosexuality and communism were seen to go hand in hand.
For example, a Senate subcommittee issued a report concluding that,
"It is the opinion of this subcommittee that those who engage in acts of homosexuality and other perverted sex activities are unsuitable for employment in the Federal Government. This conclusion is based upon the fact that persons who indulge in such degraded activity are committing not only illegal and immoral acts, but they also constitute security risks in positions of public trust." PBS.org
Indeed, at that time homosexuality was considered a mental illness and perversion. Published in 1968, the DSM II (American catalog of psychological disorders) listed homosexuality as a mental illness. When I joined the Army in the early 90s, times were changing, but homophobic slurs in the ranks were still common. No one seemed offended, or if they were, they understood that social survival meant keeping their mouths shut.
Today? Well, the opposite is the case. Those against gays in the military know to keep those opinions to themselves, or else, since those views are now the minority. Language evolved, our moral umbrella expanded, and so did our perspectives. Don't believe me? Try calling someone a faggot at work and then tell me how that went when you come back from HR to clean out your desk. The point here is simple: language is not static; it changes along with a society's values, and what was acceptable to one generation becomes taboo in another. Homosexuals went from perverts, fags, homos, deviants, and mentally ill, to friends, colleagues, and fellow citizens deserving of respect.
Little changed but our values and the identities we use to label others. That these paradigm shifts in language happen so gradually that we only notice them in retrospect shouldn't downplay just how much language defines how we relate to the world.
That's the ham-fisted point PETA is trying to make here about the way we view animal ethics, even if in attempting to force the issue with these silly suggestions they only ended up eliciting a backlash. My instinct is to argue with the efficacy of PETA's tactics here, that you can't change language with cheesy recommendations like 'grab the rose by the thorns.' Why force the issue? Language changes on its own organically as the values a culture esteems also change. But that's not entirely true and gets to another point in PETA's favor. When it came to racism, homophobia, sexism, even anti-semitism, it was in-your-face, loud, uncomfortable activism that forced changes in values, and by extension language, not the quiet acceptance of the status quo that most people practice every day of their lives.
Go along to get along.
Don't rock the boat.
All in all, just another brick in the wall.
To repeat PETA's much-maligned words, "Words matter, and as our understanding of social justice evolves, our language evolves along with it."
Hate the messenger all you want, but that's a true statement, banal even.
Let me hammer home that point with another example, this time about race. What follows is an excerpt from four-time Alabama governor and presidential candidate, George Wallace, during his 1963 gubernatorial inauguration speech. Pay attention to the language. While Wallace doesn't use any of the obviously derogatory racial epitaphs we now expect from bigots, our 2018 brains are nevertheless tuned in to pick up on his racially-tinged speech. "And so it was meant in our racial lives...each race, within its own framework has the freedom to teach, to instruct, to develop, to ask for and receive deserved help from others of separate racial stations. This is the great freedom of our American founding fathers...but if we amalgamate into the one unit as advocated by the communist philosophers...then the enrichment of our lives...the freedom for our development is gone forever. We become, therefore, a mongrel unit of one under a single all powerful government...and we stand for everything...and for nothing." That was 1963. And note the rhetorical jujitsu of arguing for racial segregation as an antidote to the collective poison of communism. Wallace really was feeding two birds with one scone, arguing for segregation and against communism. However, clever or not, the modern reader winces reading this today. Back in the early 1960s, though, Wallace's "soaring" racial rhetoric resonated with millions of Americans.
All that sophistry collapses into what it really was: racist. We see it for what it was. Modern mainstream language does not permit this kind of talk about 'separate racial stations' and 'racial lives.' The language we use to discuss race progressed along with our perspectives. The loud activism of the past that so offended the sensibilities of our parents and grandparents when it came to race and sexuality is now so common sense that it's part of our status quo. Culture in an open society is an ongoing dialogue, with language shifting as perspectives do. Those who drive that dialogue are the ones who shape the outcomes.
The social justice warriors of the past helped define the ways we use language today by redefining how we relate to each other. They too were mocked and ridiculed by contemporaries. Even so, just about everyone else, that great shambling mass of reacting conformists, ended up living in the mental worlds and speaking the language they created for us. Every generation looks back at its predecessors and gasps in horror at some of their ethical blind spots. PETA (and me) is betting that the way we treat animals today will be the one big thing our posterity condemns us for. PETA is therefore quite willing to push the envelope to advocate for change, just as previous activists for other causes were, even if what they do sometimes backfires hilariously.
I will not lie, any kind of vegan future seems very far off. If that future arrives where we aren't killing eleven billion animals in factory farms every year to feed our fat asses and scorch our dying planet, then you can bet that the language will have changed as well to reflect such a major shift in our perspectives.
If that happens, PETA will be proved correct.