What’s wrong with these sentences?
1. Sturgeon are larger than freshwater fish.
2. The eagle was flying higher than the birds.
It’s not a difficult question to answer; the error is immediately obvious to anyone possessing even a passing acquaintance with biology and with the English language. Sturgeon are freshwater fish, and eagles are birds. To be correct, the sentences should read
Sturgeon are larger than other freshwater fish.
The eagle was flying higher than the other birds.
Yet we very frequently see no error when we read sentences such as the following:
3. Throughout our history, our understanding of animals and of our relationship to them has been debated.
4. The way we view animals determines how we treat them.
To be correct, such sentences as these should also include the word other:
Throughout our history, our understanding of other animals and of our relationship to them has been debated.
The way we view other animals determines how we treat them.
Is this just to carp over a trivial distinction? No more so than it is to suggest there is a problem with sentences such as “Slaves should never sleep in the same quarters as people,” or “The gestation period of man is nine months.” As researchers long ago discovered, the way we use language both reflects and helps to shape our thinking. Though there are still some who resist, most of us accept that it makes a difference whether or not we use language that implies that certain classes of people are not people at all. In the same way, it must make a difference (in shaping as well as in reflecting our attitudes) if we use language implying that humans are not animals. If we treated all non-human animals well, it would arguably be a trivial distinction indeed. But the fact is that we don’t; throughout the world non-human animals are horrifically mistreated; here in North America, over 99% of the meat and dairy products we consume come from animals who spend their lives in conditions of extreme hardship in factory farms. The more we are in the habit of speaking of (and thinking of) those fellow animals as creatures entirely different from ourselves, the better able we are to rationalize the cruelty that we condone—and that our behavior as consumers actively supports.
Ironically enough, examples 3 and 4 above are taken (slightly modified) from an excellent book called The Inner World of Farm Animals, which presents a wealth of research demonstrating that farm animals are far closer to humans in their intellectual and emotional capabilities than has commonly been assumed. Even those who are working to challenge the old stereotypes, in other words, sometimes use language that helps to reinforce them. It took us a long time to learn the importance of being careful about how we use man; no doubt the same will be true of animals. But it is surely time to start learning.