One of my favorite essays of all time is George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (full version here). It’s one of just a handful of essays that I’ve ever voluntarily read more than once. It’s been very influential to me as someone who writes (I’m reluctant to call myself a writer since I don’t make any money directly by doing it). I read it every year or two just to see what I still like about it (and what I don’t) and every time I read it, I read it a little differently, because my opinions about such things change over time. Despite my ever-changing feelings about it, one thing that always sticks with me is the importance of word choice. There are so many ways to say essentially the same thing, but word choice does have a profound effect on how a reader or listener receives your message.
In sociolinguistics there is a phenomenon called accommodation in which speakers “seek to emphasize or minimize the social differences between themselves and their interlocutors,” which is just a fancy linguistics nerdspeak way to say that people tend to change the way that they talk depending on who they’re talking to. In theory, this accommodation makes the speakers feel like they are more similar, and therefore, mutual trust is built. And if they like the person (and want that person to like them), they usually start to speak more like that person, often in pretty subtle ways, often without even realizing that they’re doing it.
Since we vegans have a lifestyle and views that can be pretty different from non-vegans, I think we can not afford to be lackadaisical about our word choices when it comes to talking about animals and food. Countless bottles of virtual ink have been spilled on such topics as why saying “kill two birds with one stone” or “more than one way to skin a cat” is not vegan. I find some of these essays pretty absurd and some of them pretty insightful and useful. But my goal here is not to tread old ground. We’ve probably all read similar essays before. My point here, at least in some ways, may run counter to what these essays are saying. Many vegans feel that we should avoid sayings that cast animals in a negative light. Fair enough, I say. I think I make at least a modest attempt to avoid some of these phrases, but I don’t really think it’s all that important.
No, what this post is about is pretty much the opposite: phrases and words that vegans use that are designed to make non-vegans uncomfortable.
Do you want some udder secretions on your carcass?
Many vegans feel that we have a duty to point out, at any given chance, that what people are eating was once alive or inside something that was alive. Therefore, a hamburger is made of ground up carcass and a steak is a corpse. Milk is a secretion or udder secretion (and you get extra vegan street cred if you can mention pus somehow). The logic here is that, through language, we can get people to see that what they’re eating is, well, something that was once alive or inside something that was alive. But is this the actual effect that it has? Is anyone above the age of eight not aware that a chicken McSchnugget was once a chicken? Or that cheese comes from a cow’s udders? Are we really providing Jack with new info when we say “Hey, Jack, do you like udder secretions on your carcass?”
It is my feeling that what we are actually doing is creating divergence between us and our interlocutors (there I go with my nerdspeak again). We are “othering” them. We’re making them feel less like us, not more like us. Consciousness-raising has its time, no doubt, but do we really want to try to start off a conversation with an act of aggression and condescension? And I do think most non-vegans find these words and phrases to be condescending. You’re telling them something that they already know (and they know that you know that they know), but you’re doing it in a way that implies that you feel you’re giving them new information. When people do that to me, I find it condescending. It doesn’t make me like that person more or want to listen to what they have to say. It makes me feel defensive.
When vegans speak like this, it can also give the impression that our thoughts are really no deeper than the little soundbites that we use to convey them. When I heard people chanting “drill, baby, drill!” back in 2008, it made me think that anyone who would say it is a moron. So what do non-vegans think when veg*ans say things like “how does that carcass taste?” They must think that our reasons for being vegan can be summed up in little sayings. It must make them think of veganism as a quasi-religion where we communicate in mantras like “Meat Is Murder” and “eggs are just chicken periods.”
Now let me just clarify what I’m NOT saying. I’m not saying that we need to obscure truth to protect the ignorance that many non-vegans have (and want to keep) about the food they eat. If it’s relevant to something being discussed, I think it’s valid and important to tell people things they may not know about food production, such as the fact that dairy cows are repeatedly forcibly impregnated so that they will produce milk (a lot of omnivores think that cows just “naturally” produce milk – wouldn’t that be convenient?). I am also NOT saying that what vegans are saying is not a fair, accurate description of the thing it denotes. Yes, a hamburger does come from a carcass. It’s true. But that doesn’t mean that it’s the best way to phrase what you’re saying. If we want people to listen to us, we need to make them feel at ease and make them feel that we’re listening to them, not just talking at them. We need to accommodate them and converge with them.
I am going to do a post in the near future that attempts to give a fairly comprehensive list of things that many vegans say that I think fit what I’m discussing here.
But for now, I’m going to go enjoy the world at large. I’ll see you all back in “The Vegan Bubble” later.
– – thanks for reading – –