I’m continually fascinated by the words we use, and by the layers of meaning that hide behind what is said and what remains unsaid. I was never so critically aware of the impact of our words before I became vegan….
Recently, a phrase that caught my attention and triggered a line of thought was ‘it’s as if….’, a phrase frequently used to indicate some behaviour being enacted by a member of a different species. It’s used about actions, sounds, body language that we clearly recognise and categorise as human and/or human-like. Examples – which I’m sure we’ve all heard – include things like;
- ‘It’s as if they knew’
- ‘It’s as if they could speak’
- ‘It’s as if they were distressed’
- ‘It’s as if they understood’
‘It’s as if’. It’s betrayal at its most subtle. How patronising can we be?
The meaning implicit in the phrase is that it’s obvious that the subject could not possibly be conveying what we, as humans, would be conveying were our positions reversed. Nevertheless, because we don’t want others to think us completely lacking in empathy, we are impelled to mention that we’ve noted it. However, ‘it’s as if’ confirms we’re dismissing the action as coincidental; not indicative of an informed or emotional response; it can’t be; it’s therefore something we can safely disregard with an indulgent and patronising smile.
Inconsistency – it’s so convenient
One of the aspects of the phrase that focused my attention, is the complete lack of consistency demonstrated by humans towards our communication – or lack of – with members of other species. Here in the UK, reference is sometimes made to us as a ‘nation of animal lovers’. Although in the past I detected no irony in this, now, as a vegan, I might find such a ludicrously inaccurate description amusing if it were not so desperately tragic and the UK is no different from any other nation on the planet.
So how do we use ‘it’s as if’ as justification for our indulgence towards our companions? When it is suggested that ‘it’s as if’ pets communicate etc., almost any ‘pet owner’ (and what a telling term that is) will strongly refute any suggestion that their nonhuman companion is not communicating with them. Many will vehemently assert that their beloved ‘pets’ understand their every word. If our ‘pet’ is a cat or a dog, a rabbit, guinea pig, mouse, rat, hamster, gerbil, horse, fish, or other species generally regarded as a ‘pet’ in our culture, we will have no difficulty at all in finding many other humans who are equally confident that they and their ‘pets’ communicate on the basis that we share an emotional range.
Pets and ‘ownership’
Before I continue, I’m going to have to drop the word ‘pet’ here, despite the fact that, to my eternal shame, I used the word uncritically for at least five decades. Please consider this.
pet: noun – a domestic or tamed animal or bird kept for companionship or pleasure.
Anyone who follows my writing will no doubt instantly spot the words that give me problems with this (what I would consider fairly accurate) definition. Which words? ‘Kept for…. pleasure’.
I would never dispute that it gives us pleasure to share our homes, our time, our lives with others, both of our own species and also of other species. But any such pleasure is surely incidental rather than the main event? When we talk of ‘pets’ and ‘owning’ pets, we are talking about other sentient individuals and their lives. These are the only lives they have, precious lives, lives they experience through their senses and emotions, through their interactions with others and through their environment. Their lives have a meaning and a purpose, as does the life of each of us.
As humans, most of us would claim we exist for no one’s ‘pleasure’, no one’s indulgence, not as a superficial and frivolous addition to the life of any other individual. We have our own purpose in the world. Individuals of other species in no way differ from us. We share our lives with members of other species as our companions and ‘companions’ is the term I prefer and will use from now on.
Our relationships with companions
So, to return to my ramblings, I have virtually no experience of relationships with species other than cats and dogs (apart from brief and pathetically ignorant childhood relationships with hamsters and mice). Whether they know or knew my every word or not is not the issue. I certainly would never claim they share my fascination for the spoken word.
Nevertheless I do communicate with them – and they with me – by sound, by tone, by gestures and body language. They tell me when they are hungry or thirsty, when they are happy or playful, when they are tired or want solitude. They let me know when they need company or affection, when they’re jealous or annoyed, when they feel ill or anxious. There is no mistaking the rare occasions when they are afraid or in pain. They are crystal clear about their preferences, what they like, what they don’t like and what they will tolerate, albeit grudgingly. Even my deaf feline friend communicates with absolute ease. Each one of my friends is completely different from all the others; each one is a unique individual.
‘It’s as if’ they communicate?? No. They actually communicate and they do so very clearly. And I listen and respond appropriately, as I would with any family member.
I’m not alone
As I mentioned previously, many – if not most – humans will empathise with my perception of, and my relationships with, my companions. On a public bus only yesterday, I was unfortunate enough to sit close to two people bickering. One was extolling the virtues of their feline companion and becoming increasingly stressed and upset with the other who was – hopefully – ‘teasing’ by suggesting that the feline companion would be an excellent, if meagre, meal. Sadly neither experienced any light bulb moment and I would be unsurprised to discover that their argument continued amicably over tea as they crunched and digested the desecrated corpse of an individual of another species who unfortunately had had no champion to defend them.
To summarise, when the phrase ‘it’s as if’ is used to refer to our companions, we instantly spot the belittling, the mocking and the trivialising of interspecies relationships that we not only recognise, but value. Recognising and understanding this, we jump to refute the suggestions and defend our friends and our connections with them.
But let’s switch species
So far, so good. Isn’t it remarkable that the reactions of the majority of humans are completely different when the species changes to one that we do not normally consider as a companion? Pigs, cows, chickens, turkeys, sheep and goats are some of these.
There are also many species that occupy a grey area in our perception; species such as mice, rats, rabbits that many consider to be companions, but the majority of whom see no inconsistency about the fact that these are amongst the species most commonly subjected to the vile and disgusting practices of vivisection and testing of drugs, toiletries and chemicals. So how does the phrase ‘it’s as if’ affect our view of these non-companions like pigs, cows, chickens, turkeys and goats or sometime-companions like mice, rats and rabbits?
What evidence did I find?
While looking for online examples to include in this essay of our patronising behaviour towards our victims, I was astonished. Searching for examples of articles that related nonhuman behaviour to human behaviour ‘as if’ they share the same emotions, there was an amazing dearth of examples. The vast majority of results on Google confirmed that, yes, nonhumans do experience emotions, do have feelings, do relate to each other and to members of other species in very much the same way as humans do.
I came across a ludicrous article that I recalled from some time ago where the police, having received a number of complaints about the noise being made by cows on a local dairy farm, were quoted as saying, ‘We’ve been informed that the cows are not in distress and that the noises are a normal part of farming practices.’
However it appears that there is an absolute wealth of information out there that clearly confirms that every species of nonhuman shares a vast emotional range with us. This result made me even more perplexed. Even the quality of sentience was agreed by a group of eminent scientists in 2012 in a landmark declaration.
Although I have lost count of the times I have seen or heard people remarking on the behaviour of nonhuman companions ‘as if’ they were aware or ‘as if’ they had feelings, I didn’t even need to find evidence to support my assertion that they actually do – it’s all there already, we’re just ignoring it. Which makes our determination to patronise them, even more despicable.
‘It’s as if’ is such a standard remark and if challenged, is responded to by quoting standard justifications. ‘They were ‘bred for’ eating, they were ‘bred for’ eggs, they were ‘bred for’ milk, they were ‘bred for’ wool.’ They were ‘bred for’. It’s the ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ phrase when we’re called out on speciesism and found to be in error in the ‘it’s as if’ gambit. I’ll possibly write on ‘bred for’ in a future post.
When we say we care but are not vegan, ‘it’s as if’ other individuals matter to us. If they actually do matter, if justice, decency and respect are actually important to us, then we become vegan. There really is no alternative.
Links for further info (ongoing):