Flipping Metaphors

Animal liberation activists appropriately scoff at hearing nonhuman animals referred to as “it” rather than “he”, “she”, “they”, or “them”. The shift to pronouns is a small thing to alter one’s language in such a way so as to recognize the fact that animals are subjects rather than objects; that they are different, in morally significant ways, from tables and chairs. It is a significant gesture with real consequences. Using language in this way effectively reminds people that animals are individuals. I say “reminds” because most people know this on some level even if it doesn’t always sufficiently influence their interactions with other animals.

It should be noted that the Associated Press’ Stylebook advises against referring to animals in this way unless the animal in question already has a (human-given) name. A dog named Ringo can be referred to as “he” whereas a no-name deer who dies on the road, perhaps struck by a car, is to be referred to with terms such as “it”, “that”, or “which” (the same way one would refer to the car that struck the deer).

Insofar as animals are like us in having names they can be referred to in ways like we refer to ourselves—with appropriate pronouns.

Similar to using pronouns for animals, I would recommend deliberately crafting our sentences in such a way so as to recognize (or tacitly assert?) the agency of nonhuman actors including, but not limited, to animals. For example, we may say:

The full moon commanded my attention.

The mountain moved into view.

The sunlight raced to meet the water.

The sky was angry.

In this way, the natural world is thrust into the foreground rather than merely serving as background for an exclusively human drama. It is another way to build reminders into our language; reminders that humans are not alone in the world but share it with others.

It may be objected that such a poetic way of framing things is not always appropriate or desirable. And yet, to dismiss this way of speaking as simply poetic flourish is to miss the point. It is not poetic license that allows us to treat animals as moral subjects. It need not be poetic to attribute agency to nonhuman actors or entities.

In their 2002 book Tree Cultures, Owain Jones and Paul Cloke write:

“once we release ourselves from trying to squeeze all notions of agency through the very human grid of language and thought, the capacity for agency can be redistributed throughout a heterogenous set of actors, including non-human actors.” (p. 7)

We can deliberately define terms in a miserly way so as to highlight our differences from others or we may define terms in ways that highlight our continuities. Either choice can be made in an intellectually defensible way and so pragmatic factors must often guide our choice.

In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram points out that “[w]e regularly talk of howling winds, and of chattering brooks. Yet these are more than mere metaphors…this language “belongs” to the animate landscape as much as it “belongs” to ourselves.” (p. 82)

And in Becoming Animal, Abram suggests that “our manner of understanding and conceptualizing our various ‘interior’ moods” may have been “originally borrowed from the moody, capricious earth itself.” Meaning that “our image of anger, and livid rage” may be derived from “our ancestral, animal experience of thunderstorms, and the violence of sudden lightening.” “Our sense of emotional release,” may have “been fed not only by the flow of tears but also by our experience of rainfall…our concept of mental clarity…nourished by the visual transparence of the air and the open blue of the sky” (p. 153).

So if metaphors serve to explain something, namely, to explain the unfamiliar in the terms of the familiar, and if we are immediately and intimately familiar with the physical world, our application of certain terms may be most directly and most appropriately applicable to the physical world. And only derivatively (or metaphorically?) applicable to what we may call our “interior” states. The order of explanation has been reversed; the metaphor effectively flipped.

Which is to say that there is a very real sense in which the sky may really be angry and not simply metaphorically so. It may be the case that when I say “I am angry” it is more metaphor than when I say “the sky is angry”. So while I am suggesting this alteration to our way of speaking as something of a stylistic suggestion and as a pragmatic means of spreading certain values, it is not without intellectual justification. We may proceed in good faith.



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