"Generic" Individuals: The Ultimate in Speciesist Doublespeak

July 21st, 2009 1:00 pm by Kelly Garbato

Last week, I was watching an episode of The People’s Court I’d recorded back in May (DON’T JUDGE ME!!), and I happened to catch a “teaser” for that night’s news broadcast. NBC Action News in Kansas City, dog bless ’em, was doing an exposé of local area restaurants. Their crime? Trying to pass off “generic” fish(es) as red snapper fish(es).

It’s not very high-tech, but here’s a photo I took of the commercial’s fish graphics:

2009-07-08 - Fish Switch - 0002

So what’s wrong with this picture?

Well, there’s no such thing as “generic” fish. In fact, to refer to a group of sentient individuals (spanning one or more species) as “generic” is the ultimate in speciesist doublespeak.

Admittedly, I’m no expert on “fishing” or “seafood”; I’ve never been “fishing,” and was never an enthusiastic consumer of “seafood,” even in my omni days. Thinking at first that “generic fish” might be an industry or “fishing” term, I hit the Google. A search for the term “generic fish” didn’t turn up any such slang, just websites promoting “generic” fish clip art or selling “generic” fish oil capsules. Wiki wasn’t much help, either; most of the hits for “generic fish” are in the context of “this is the generic term for x species of fish.” As far as I can tell, KSHB pulled the term out of its keister.

(Granted, I could certainly be mistaken, in which case I welcome a correction! I’m not sure widespread use of the term would make it any less problematic, however.)

No doubt, what KSHB actually meant was “less expensive fish(es),” or “more common fish species,” etc. As in, the customer is paying for an expensive, “exotic” species of fish and receiving a cheap substitute, thus being cheated out of their hard-earned money. (Nevermind the many fishes who were cheated out of their very lives.)

Interestingly, the news reports on KSHB’s website do not refer to “generic” fish, though they do contain equally speciesist terms (for example, referring to the “cheaper” fishes as “counterfeit” foodstuffs).

Also note how I refer to fishes plural, rather than fish singular. The latter, more common usage implies that fish(es) are a single, indistinguishable lump of food, an inseparable mass of stuff – kind of like wine or crushed tomatoes.

Of this human tendency to reduce individual non-human animals to a collection of edible flesh, Joan Dunayer writes,

Fishers share hunters’ penchant for regarding nonhuman beings as insentient things. […]

As in hunting, the victims are “specimens” with no individual identities. One fisher attributes unique “personality” to each fish species, not each individual fish. Instead of catching individuals, fishers hook, boat, hold and photograph “species” and “strains.” Captured fishes blur into the “string” or “catch.” Fishers catch “little or nothing” instead of few or none. They release “a portion of their catch” instead of some fishes among those caught. Avoiding noticeably plural references to basses, trouts, and other fishes, they kill “bass,” “trout,” and other “fish,” even multiple “marlin” and “shark.” Such language conveys the same speciesist message: Individual fishes don’t matter; they either exist for human pleasure and use or have no right to exist at all.

Elsewhere in Animal Equality, she notes how obviously prejudiced this wordplay is when applied to marginalized groups of human animals:

Just as racists have spoken of blacks as “the Negro” and Jews as “the Jew,” people speak of all members of a nonhuman group as if they were a single animal, implying that they’re all the same: they refer to cheetahs as “the cheetah” and bees as “the bee.” Popular usage merges nonhuman individuals into a single substance.

In similar ways, language enforces and reinforces “isms,” whether directed at human or non-human animals. All the more reason for each of us to take a closer look at our vocabularies and banish discriminatory terms and phrases from our lips.

Words matter.

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2 Responses to “"Generic" Individuals: The Ultimate in Speciesist Doublespeak”

  1. kristin Says:

    hola! while i totally agree that it is speciest doublespeak, i also know as an ex-journalist that the media is so freakin’ desperate for ratings that they come up with the most insane, asinine stories to get people to tune in. i think this is just a great example of how ingrained consuming “the finest” of dead animals is in our culture (and others worldwide, undoubtedly)… anyway! great blog, i just stumbled across it, especially the section on animals & women.

  2. Kelly G. Says:

    Hi Kristin – Yup, I totally agree with you re: the media’s love affair with sensational non-stories. There’s another NBC Action News teaser I’ve been meaning to blog about (just as soon as the husband figures out how to make a video from a DVR recording). The report had something to do with cosmetic surgery, and the teaser was nothing but shots of women’s cleavage. I’m talking really gratuitous – like a late-night adult line commercial. In the 2 PM hour!

    Not that I mean to pick on NBC, they just run a ton of ads for their 6 PM broadcast during The People’s Court. (The segments of which happen to be the perfect length for scarfing down lunch.)

    Thanks for stopping by!

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