On amazing animals and androcentric language.

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

Sarah Palin - Turkeys Die...

This C. David Coats quote (from the preface to his 1991 book, Old MacDonald’s Factory Farm) has been floating around the animal rights blogspherz for a few weeks now. While I think Coats is dead-on in his analysis, his choice of phrasing strikes me as a little…curious, shall we say.

Take a look:

Isn’t man an amazing animal? He kills wildlife – birds, kangaroos, deer, all kinds of cats, coyotes, beavers, groundhogs, mice, foxes, and dingoes – by the millions in order to protect his domestic animals and their feed. Then he kills domestic animals by the billions and eats them. This in turn kills man by the millions, because eating all those animals leads to degenerative – and fatal – health conditions like heart disease, kidney disease, and cancer. So then man tortures and kills millions more animals to look for cures for these diseases. Elsewhere, millions of other human beings are being killed by hunger and malnutrition because food they could eat is being used to fatten domestic animals. Meanwhile, some people are dying of sad laughter at the absurdity of man, who kills so easily and so violently, and once a year sends out a card praying for “Peace on Earth.”

In the course of his patriarchy blaming, Coats assumes the language of the very patriarchy he’s indicting. Specifically, he continually employs variants of the term mankind when he’s actually referring to humankind: man is an amazing animal; he slaughters wildlife so that he can raise and eat “food” animals; man suffers from dietary-induced health conditions, which leads man to torture millions of “lab” animals in search of cures for these self-inflicted illnesses, and so on.

In fact, Coats only switches from androcentric to gender-neutral terms near the end of the paragraph – when he transitions from describing the actions of the oppressor (man) to the consequences of these actions on other human animals. To wit: “millions of other human beings are being killed by hunger and malnutrition”; “[m]eanwhile, some people are dying of sad laughter” (“at the absurdity of man,” natch).

Possibly, this is an unintentional example of casual sexism – i.e., Coats accidentally employed largely androcentric verbiage when writing this preface. Since this isn’t primarily a feminist blog, allow me to explain why Coats’s choice of terminology is problematic. By using language which explicitly refers to men – necessarily, at the exclusion of women – we erase women from the public sphere, from our written and oral histories, from our cultural narratives. These seemingly innocuous, male-specific terms have very real, very harmful practical consequences. Language shapes the way we think; words matter. In eliminating women from our discourse, so too do we eliminate them from our consciousness – shoving them from the public (political) to the private (domestic) sphere. “Man,” “mankind” and the like simply are not inclusive, universal terms for “men and women.” Nor is “convenience” an excuse – it’s not very hard to use “humankind” in place of “man” or “mankind,” “people” in place of “men,” etc.

(More below the fold…)

Lovely & Amazing

Monday, May 21st, 2007

“Isn’t man an amazing animal? He kills wildlife by the millions to protect his domestic animals and their feed. Then he kills domestic animals by the billions and eats them. This in turn kills man by the millions, because eating all those animals leads to degenerative – and fatal – health conditions like heart disease, kidney disease, and cancer. So then man tortures and kills millions more animals to look for cures for these diseases. Elsewhere, millions of other human beings are being killed by hunger and malnutrition because food they could eat is being used to fatten domestic animals. Meanwhile, some people are dying of sad laughter at the absurdity of man, who kills so easily and so violently, and once a year sends out cards praying for ‘Peace on Earth.'”

— C. David Coates

(Quote via; photo via.)

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