The landscape moves as I walk. This is a straightforward fact; I regularly observe it first hand. It’s not an inference derived from an elaborate argument relying on abstruse or otherwise questionable premises. It is a baseline starting point and not a conclusion.
Trees that are indistinguishable from a distance step apart from one another and become individuals. Mountains alternate between hiding and asserting themselves. The ground under foot rises up and can boost me into the sky. Water sometimes rushes and sometimes meanders; it can travel a direct course or a more devious one. The wind can hold me back or push me forward.
It takes more effort , circumlocution, and sophistry to deny this easily observed fact than to accept it and yet denial is currently the norm. The evidence of one’s eyes is treated with great suspicion if not altogether discarded. I can see mountains move—I suspect we all can—but to say it out loud is almost a heresy and makes one vulnerable to the ridicule that has always been the lot of truth-tellers.
The preferred discourse is that mountains are stationary and that as we walk our view of them changes; we are active and mountains are passive. For the moment at least, I do not wish to deny the truth of this claim but rather highlight the fact that it’s a style of speaking that is quite miserly with respect to agency; needlessly miserly. It is a style of speaking that doesn’t foster respect for others but rather deadens the landscape and alienates people from their own bodies asking them to pluck out their eyes.
Two radically different styles of speaking may have equal claims to being true and yet have significantly different consequences; when this occurs we need to seek out additional criteria for how to proceed. We can opt for a style of speaking that highlights the moral significance of others, that has such reminders built into its very structure and vocabulary or one that lulls us into indifference or hostility undercutting out empathy. The language can make certain questions more or less difficult to ask.
A straightforward example would be how we refer to individual animals. Referring to animals with words such as “he”, “she”, or “who” sends a different message than using the deadening language of “it”. The practice reminds us that animals are individuals. Animal experimenters and their apologists often refer to “specimens” or “animal models” which serve to undercut the fact that they are doing great harm to others. The former practice might suggest we learn about other animals through close but respectful observation whereas the later style of speaking sharpens knives and prepares cages.
We need language that unapologetically breathes life into the world.
Acknowledgement: this post was inspired by the the trees who live on the mile long stretch of land between my parents’ house and Lake Ontario.