Language and the meat industry

IVU Online News | Arran Stibbe, PhD | 05/29/10

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Language's Role in Promoting Vegetarianism

arranArran Stibbe, PhD, is a senior lecturer in English Language at University of Gloucestershire, UK. He kindly agreed to be interviewed for IVU Online News - for the full June 2010 issue see:

1. Hi Arran. You are founder of the Language & Ecology Research Forum - What do you see as the link between language and meat production?

I've spent many joyless hours reading and analysing the language of the animal product industries, for example, instruction manuals on how to raise pigs from birth to slaughter. At a surface level instruction manuals like this help to spread cruel and environmentally destructive methods of intensive farming around the world simply because farmers read them and put their recommendations into practice. But more importantly, the kind of language used encodes a particular way of seeing animals that justifies treating them inhumanely. My research has shown that industry materials portray animals as objects, machines, and resources for the exclusive use of humans rather than beings in their own right living their lives for the own purposes, justifying and underpinning a system of exploitation.

2. Can you give an example of the kind of language used?

Well, here‟s an example of how the Pork Industry Handbook redefines the concept of the health of pigs in a way that detracts attention away from caring about their individual wellbeing "Health is the condition of an animal with regard to the performance of its vital functions. The vital functions of the pig are reproduction and growth. They are vital because they are major contributors to the economic sustainability of the pork production enterprise" (Pork Industry Handbook 2002:140).

3. How do you reply to people who maintain that what we say and write amounts to nothing but words?

The declaration of war is just words, but leads to very real consequences in the world. Laws which prevent animal cruelty are also just words, but have very real consequences. And instruction manuals which specify the minimum space required so that a pig remains alive without being able to move equally have consequences in the world. At a deeper level, the language used when talking and writing about animals influences how we perceive relationships between humans and other animals.

4. What about positive examples of language people can use to change attitudes and behaviours?

I think it would be fair to say that the vegetarian movement has had limited success. The number of people who are actually vegetarian remains small while global meat consumption has sky rocketed. My own feeling is that this is because of the all-or-nothing nature of the argument that vegetarians often put forward, which is open to a kind of denial by counterexample. I think it's important to get the arguments about animal cruelty and the ecological destructiveness of intensive farming methods out there without the simplistic moral injunction that the only solution is for people to cleanse themselves morally by becoming entirely vegetarian.

5. Do you have advice for vegetarian activists about how we can try to change the language people use?

I think it's important to avoid accusations of political correctness. If vegetarians go around saying to people "oh you shouldn't say animal, you should say non-human person", or "don't say cow, say bovine victim of cattle enslavers" then you are likely to make far more enemies than friends. I'm exaggerating but there are strong defences in our society against political correctness along the lines of 'who do they think they are to tell me how to think'.

6. So what could we do instead?

Instead, it's possible to inspire people to think positively about animals through lyrical writing which represents animals as they are, i.e., as beings with mental lives and emotional lives who live and enjoy their own lives for their own purposes just as humans do. The marine biologist Rachel Carson, who played a significant role in starting the environmental movement, is a great example of someone whose writing encourages respect for animals without overtly telling people what they are allowed to say or using clumsy politically correct formulations. For example, Carson writes in Silent Spring, "For thousands upon thousands of years the salmon have known and followed these threads of fresh water that lead them back to the rivers (p.122)."

To learn more, read Arran's article at Stibbe, Arran. (2006). As charming as a pig: The discursive construction of the relationship between pigs and humans. Society & Animals 11:4, 375-392.

Poem on Language about Other Animals

This is an excerpt from a poem by Shen Shi'an, of Singapore, reprinted with permission.

Call Us By Our True Names

The last time you ordered me for dinner,
you forgot my true name.
I am not some wonton.
Please call me by my true name -
I am "Pig".
I wish you saw how lovable I was.
You might have given me a personal name too.
Please remember I was killed unhappily,
even as you eat me happily.
For I loved my life, just as you love yours.

I am not some nugget.
Please call me by my true name -
I am "Chicken".
I wish you saw how lovable I was.
You might have given me a personal name too.
Please remember I was killed unhappily,
even as you eat me happily.
For I loved my life, just as you love yours.

The entire poem is at

IVU Online News is published monthly by the International Vegetarian Union - available by email or on the web at




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