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On the origin of language: A feminist analysis of ableism and speciesism as they relate to dominant feminist discourses

 

Language is so central, so fundamental to social interaction, to our becoming who we are that no one interested in influencing and inflecting their society can ignore it.

—Margaret Gibbon, Feminist Perspectives on Language

Language is such an intrinsic part of our everyday lives, ingrained even into the muscle structures of our faces and tongues, that we often take for granted how deeply reflexive our dialects are of the values we hold and the places from which we come. Speaking as a white, middle-class, American woman, my accent is often considered by other white Euro-Americans as no accent at all. From this perspective, does it then follow that the words I speak are value-neutral? By invisibilizing the specific American context from which my accent stems, are my words now somehow less of a token representation of my place within social hierarchies? If actions supposedly speak louder than words, why be so concerned with the words we choose to employ, anyway? The beginning of the answer to these questions is the often-ignored truth by dominant sociopolitical groups, including my own, that words have the power to shape the world in which we live through our ways of interacting with one another. This essay specifically hopes to tackle the links between ableist and speciesist language by investigating specific instances of their deadly weaponization against the most vulnerable, marginalized bodies under an ableist, settler-colonial, capitalist, white supremacist heteropatriarchy. Using these links as an ideological springboard, this essay will perform a deeply intersectional analysis of violence in our globalized world to expose critical, unquestioned assumptions in mainstream (white) feminist discourse. 

The first step in connecting the devastating effects of language on different communities is to analyze the work the language, and its metaphoric phrases in particular, do specifically when employed by non-members of the minoritized group. Sami Schalk performs such an analysis in her article “Metaphorically Speaking: Ableist Metaphors in Feminist Writing” as she critiques the use of extended disability metaphors in feminist works by bell hooks and Tania Modleski (Schalk 2013). One particular metaphor, created by hooks, labels patriarchy’s effect on men as “the single most life-threatening social dis-ease assaulting the male body and spirit in our nation”: hooks names the men negatively affected by patriarchy in this way as “emotional cripples” (hooks 2004 qtd. in Schalk 2013). By classifying emotionally repressed men as “cripples,” hooks inadvertently places feminism and disability justice at opposite ends of the justice spectrum; when hooks assumes this universal understanding of being crippled as negative, she furthers ableist notions of disability as something to be avoided. Schalk exposes this (likely unintended) hypocrisy in hooks’ work not to ‘cancel’ her or invalidate her claims on the devastating effects of patriarchy, but rather to argue that:

feminist scholars should recognize that these negative metaphorical uses of disability variously impact, limit, and contradict the aims of their arguments, in addition to compromising their professed political goals, regardless of whether or not everyone in a targeted disabled group is offended by any given disability metaphor. (Schalk 2013)

The significance of Schalk’s argument extends also to phrases uttered by many of us in our everyday lives, of which we need to be more critical if we purport to practice feminist ideology. Terms like “lame,” “crazy,” or “insane” in the contemporary English lexicon have relatively distanced themselves from their original purpose as clinical disability diagnoses (Schalk 2013); however, their general connotations remain tied to the stigmatized negativity that characterized their use as disability descriptors. “Crazy” especially seems so common a term that how could we possibly remove it from our personal vocabulary?! Does this mean we can’t listen to Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” anymore?! No, it doesn’t, but to follow the lead of disability activists in creating more mindful discourses, perhaps consider “uncool” next time you want to say “lame,” and “ridiculous” or “awesome” (depending on context) the next time you find yourself reaching for “crazy” or “insane.” I would think that most of us reading this essay would agree that we no longer use “gay” to describe things that we find uncool or bad (if in fact we ever used the term that way): critiquing and removing our ableist vocabulary is no different. 

To further introduce discussion on common linguistic habits, the weaponization of speciesist language is also crucial to the continuation of this analysis. For those who may be unfamiliar, speciesism is the notion that non-human animals are by nature of their being subordinate to humans. Speciesist philosophy builds a hierarchy therein of animals valued by humans over animals not valued by humans, which in total are all considered superior to plants, land, water, and the environment. While it is arguably common within feminist and anti-racist spaces to see dehumanization analyzed as a key misogynistic and racist agent of the white heteropatriarchy, these discussions rarely challenge the usage of animals themselves as indicators of lower hierarchical (power) status. In the words of Carol Adams in The Sexual Politics of Meat, “feminists among others, appropriate the metaphor of butchering without acknowledging the originating oppression of animals that generates the power of the metaphor [. . .] Thus, when women are victims of violence, the treatment of animals is recalled” (Adams 68). In the Euro-American context, there is a very specific history of using animal imagery to dehumanize marginalized groups to justify the subsequent, abhorrent treatment of those groups as a whole. This is perhaps no more apparent than in the treatment of Black people during and after centuries of enslavement. Equating Black (and indigenous) bodies with dogs, monkeys, apes, pigs, etc. was and is a tactical tool of racism that carries a tangible history of the atrocities enacted upon their bodies by us white people. Any time there is a mass push within dominant groups to isolate, or ‘Other,’ a minoritized population, an association with animals is quick to follow. What this paper argues is that the unquestioned acceptance of the speciesist hierarchy in mainstream anti-racist and feminist ideology is a missed opportunity to reframe our ways of thinking about justice. Most—if not all—successful resistance movements stem from grassroots organizations that build their collectives from the ground, up; an ‘ecofeminist,’ or ‘animal rights,’ intersectional way of thinking would then ask that we take ‘ground, up’ seriously and incorporate the environment and its non-human animals into our feminist philosophy as we fight against the specific systems of oppression that pointedly use speciesist language as a weapon against women and people of color.

The reason I stress these disability and speciesist metaphors is not to highlight individual moments of ‘rudeness’ or to suggest that ‘political-correctness’ is the solution to systemic inequality; my reason for doing so is to emphasize that unchecked uses of oppressive language imply an acceptance of the greater structures of oppression at work, a situation with which I hope self-identified feminists take issue. In her book Dying from Improvement: Inquests and Inquiries into Indigenous Deaths in Custody, Sherene Razack addresses one such case of this accepted enactment of structural violence that I hope will materialize the arguments that have been made by this essay thus far. The second chapter from Razack’s book, also titled “Dying from Improvement,” details the process of a state-run Canadian inquiry whereby—nine years after the incident occurred (Razack 57)—the death of Frank Paul, an indigenous man, at the hands of the Canadian police force was investigated. Paul, who was taken into custody on a December night while intoxicated, was later released and carelessly dropped into an alley by two of the police officers at the station. The final verdict from the commissioner of the inquiry, again, nine years later, was that “no one was to blame for what happened to Frank Paul” (Razack 58); the inquiry concluded with the statement that “If Canadian society is guilty of anything . . . it is guilty of not knowing how to care. It is not guilty of having failed to care” (Razack 58). This ‘non/failure to care’ narrative is openly critiqued by Razack, who continues her chapter with an exploration of how the inquiry constituted what she notably calls a “metaphorical genocide” (Razack 59). The inquiry performs a very specific kind of dehumanization under settler-colonial capitalism, which reduces Paul not only to a metaphorical representation of alcohol addiction, which is commonly considered a mental disability, but also to the ‘baser’ creature of a crab (Razack 64). It is no coincidence that Paul is specifically described in this way of “moving like a crab” (as a side effect of alcoholism) by the pathologist at the inquiry, especially as this description arises in the defense of one of the officers who ultimately murdered Frank Paul (Razack 64). By relegating Paul’s humanity to a lost state of animalized addiction, the violence that he faces becomes excusable and even understandable under the narrative of ableist, anti-indigenous racism.

My reason for including Razack’s chapter and Frank Paul’s death here is to underline how quickly and how clearly these manners of oppression and violence—that are often analyzed as distinct within dominant feminist discourses—are combined and weaponized for not only ‘metaphorical’ but also material, cultural genocides. Before physical and psychological wars are waged on marginalized groups who are ‘in the way’ of white male prosperity under capitalism, language is always used to justify the exploitation of ‘Othered’ bodies so as to keep members of the dominant group(s) in support of the violence that inevitably follows. To return to Razack momentarily, she notes this phenomenon with respect to indigenous bodies as she writes,

Indigenous intransigence (the refusal to be improved) prompted a crisis among Europeans; perhaps humans were not in fact different from animals. The nineteenth century turn to innatism, a new paradigm of innate and irredeemable human difference, could be seen as a response to these anxieties. (60)

Without perhaps purposefully meaning to, Razack thus outlines the long-standing disregard for non-human life that is critiqued within anti-speciesist circles by showing within her piece the dominant panic that ensues upon the potential idea that we (humans) might be closer to animals than we think. Specifically in the case of indigenous peoples, the issue in the dominant mindset has materially less to do with ‘improvement’ to a ‘human’ standard than it does assimilation to the white, European standard of living. Under racist ideology, nature and the non-human exist at the same exploitable levels as the bodies of Black, indigenous, people of color. Once again, we see nature and those considered closer to it within dominant hierarchies debased because of our widespread acceptance of our superiority over animals, plants, and land. Speciesism thus stands as perhaps one of the oldest and longest-lasting hierarchies of oppression, used and exacerbated to justify dispossession and maltreatment of any and all minoritized groups. 

To now return to and address the quote at the beginning of this essay, these words on language from Margaret Gibbon are the same as used by Sami Schalk at the beginning of her previously discussed essay. I wanted to include Gibbon’s quote as an homage to Schalk, for her writing on disability metaphor fundamentally changed the way I view the functioning of language; however, as we reach the end of this essay, I also want to further emphasize that while metaphor is a powerful representational and analytical tool, a connection to material manifestations of violence is always necessary to build effective arguments that can act as building blocks for collective solidarity. I by no means want to essentialize metaphor as the only indicator of disability/race/speciesist oppression or to assume that transforming our metaphors to an exclusively positive outlook on disability, for example, is the be-all-end-all. As Nirmala Erevelles reminds us in her groundbreaking piece “The Color of Violence: Reflecting on Gender, Race, and Disability in Wartime,” contextualizing the experience of disability within its “actual historical, social, and economic conditions that influence (disabled) people’s lives,” is intrinsic to practicing what she terms a transnational feminist disability studies perspective (Erevelles 119, 129). Relying on this materiality carries over into all anti-oppression studies, or at least it should.

Within contemporary American settings, we have unfortunately seen how the historical “[images] that put men on a level with rats carrying epidemic plagues [are] part of the ideological escort [into the present] of anti-Jewish and anti-Chinese racism” (Hund and Mills 2016). The hate crimes enacted against Asian-Americans upon the rise of the novel coronavirus and the rhetoric espoused by the president at the time show just how violent enforcements of hateful metaphors can be, in addition to the example already discussed above concerning Frank Paul. For the sake of this essay, it is also important to note that our devaluation of land and animals (outside of feminist circles, but also within) is just as dangerous as our maltreatment of each other. Animal agriculture has become “the second largest contributor to human-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions after fossil fuels and is a leading cause of deforestation, water and air pollution and biodiversity loss” (Climate Nexus 2019). Animal-borne diseases that stem from overcrowding and lack of care are another factor of agricultural pollution and animal consumption that eventually make their way into human lives, with ebola and COVID-19 being just two deadly examples. My hope is that this essay shows how quickly our violence against the land and its animals spirals into human manifestations of violence. They are innately inseparable, and must be critiqued within dominant feminist discourses.

To quote Schalk one last time, “Language is never neutral” (2013). When we espouse the belief that our words have no lasting power, we engender these perpetuations of systemic violence and leave their hierarchies of power unchallenged. For activists working in and around feminist studies, we must strive to do better. 

 

References

Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010.

“Animal Agriculture's Impact on Climate Change.” Climate Nexus, 13 Nov. 2019, climatenexus.org/climate-issues/food/animal-agricultures-impact-on-climate-change/. 

Erevelles, Nirmala. “The Color of Violence: Reflecting on Gender, Race, and Disability in Wartime.” Feminist Disability Studies, by Kim Q. Hall, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 2011, pp. 117–132. 

Gibbon, Margaret. Feminist Perspectives on Language. Routledge, 1999. 

hooks, bell. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. Atria Books, 2004. 

Hund, Wulf D., and Charles W. Mills. “Comparing Black People to Monkeys Has a Long, Dark Simian History.” The Conversation, 28 Feb. 2016, https://theconversation.com/comparing-black-people-to-monkeys-has-a-long...

Razack, Sherene. “Dying from Improvement.” Dying from Improvement: Inquests and Inquiries into Indigenous Deaths in Custody, Langara College, Vancouver, B.C., 2017, pp. 57–81. 

Schalk, Sami. “Metaphorically Speaking: Ableist Metaphors in Feminist Writing.” Disability Studies Quarterly, 2013, dsq-sds.org/article/view/3874/3410.

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