Thingifying animals is a thing (Sure! I'll be your guinea pig!)—and words matter. Here are tips for kinder and more mindful, animal-inclusive speech from the world’s wisdom traditions.
“Sure! I’ll be your guinea pig.” I exclaim, before immediately regretting it and adding, “Sorry, I didn’t mean that. I don’t want to be confined in a lab and cruelty tested on without my consent. I meant I’d be happy to help with your new idea.”
While my confession may seem pedantic to some, acknowledging that words have power is essential to the spiritual practice of Right Speech. As taught by the Buddha, four guiding principles of sammā-vācā urge us to tell the truth, avoid idle chatter, eliminate gossip, and abstain from speaking harshly or cruelly.
Be Kind to Other Beings
In addition to not offering to be a guinea pig, I’ve stopped “taking the bull by the horns” or criticizing people for being “pig-headed.” I no longer declare, “I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but …” or suggest that there is “more than one way to skin a cat.” Indeed, I no longer “bring home the bacon.”
I’ve also stopped thingifying animals (“I had the juiciest chicken for lunch!” or “I just love leather!”). Because, underneath that product, there is a being. Further, I’ve found these statements can create deep anguish for people in our spiritual communities who have taken a Bodhisattva vow, practice ahimsa (nonviolence) as part of their yoga practice, or are ethical vegans.
Make Your Words Matter
“An individual speaks an average of 16,000 words each day,” explains Terre Short in The Words We Choose: Your Guide to How and Why Words Matter. “Each of us owns the accuracy of the information we share. As challenging as it can be, it is necessary to sift through the information bombardment to find the truth and facts. Before you choose your words, choose your source of knowledge wisely.”
The good news is many of us are learning how to more skillfully respond to everyday bigotry, to describe gender more accurately, and to avoid ableist language. Yet, humans continue to speak about nonhuman beings―symbolically and metaphorically―in ways that suggest violence. And we don’t always realize when we are doing it.
Adopt Inclusive Language
Just as we’re detoxing our language to avoid sexism, racism, and ableism, our inclusive language should avoid speciesism. “When we consign other animals to the category thing, we obscure their sentience, individuality, and right to autonomy,” advises Joan Dunayer, author of Speciesism. “Every sentient being is a someone, not a something. By concealing this truth, speciesist language sanctions cruelty.”
Here are a few easy-to-use alternatives:
Think From Multiple Perspectives
The Jain practice of syādvāda recognizes that, on any topic, there will always be many viewpoints. Often referred to as many-sidedness, this concept can promote tolerance and inclusivity. Aidan Rankin, in The Jain Path: Ancient Wisdom for the West, explains, “Each mind is different and is therefore inclined to see things differently, according to its own perspective. So, one should tolerate and even honor a diversity of points of view on any subject. There is no need to promote any belief, ideology, or philosophy as the only truth, the final truth, or the last word for all of humanity.”
Plan With Inclusiveness in Mind
Creating inclusive communities requires us to challenge our traditional ways of doing things—no matter how well-intentioned they may be. For example, while we may be fond of saying “Mother Earth” (paradoxically after eschewing a male God), what does applying gender to the planet mean? When creating rituals with movement, can we offer an alternative for people who cannot move easily? How might using wine or certain foods in our houses of worship be problematic? Whose voice is missing in our liturgy, prayer, or guided meditations? How might we promote kind speech in our community?
As animal lovers, asking these questions helps us avoid awkward “faux paws” and unintended cruelty toward not only the beings in our homes but also those with whom we share this planet.
Read more about speciesism in “#MeToo: Why We Should Rethink Drinking Cow's Milk.”
More Wisdom From the World’s Spiritual Traditions
- Say what you mean. In his popular book The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, Don Miguel Ruiz counsels, “Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.”
- Speak from the highest purpose. Consider these words of the Dalai Lama: “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”
- Choose wisely. The Baal Shem Tov, a well-known Jewish mystical rabbi, suggested we reflect on this idea: You were born with a fixed number of words, and once you use them up, you die. It’s not a story meant to scare or shame us. It’s a Jewish koan, asking us to ponder: How would you feel if the sentence you just uttered was, in fact, your last? Endeavor to make all the words you speak ones you would be okay with if they were.