Some people (and I include myself) sometimes describe bad behavior as animal-like, even though many of us treat our pets as members of the family. Commenters are quick to point out that this comparison is often a slander on non-human animals because much of the depraved behavior that humans can indulge in are not found among them. So how did this tendency arise? David Egan writes that the way we use non-human animals as slurs in our language reveals quite a lot about us, and what it reveals is zoophobia, defined as fear or antipathy towards non-human animals.
Calling a person an animal is usually a comment on their unrestrained appetites, especially for food (‘like a hungry animal’), for sex (‘they went at it like animals’), and for violence (‘they’re like wild animals’). We also have purpose-made insults comparing people to specific kinds of animal: pig, chicken, rat, cow, slug, snake, cockroach, bitch, etc.
The mode of thinking that associates animals with unrestrained appetite is at least as ancient as Plato. What separates humans from the other animals, on this line of thinking, is our rationality. Plato conceives of the human soul as composed of three parts: the reasoning part, which loves the truth and seeks to learn it; the spirited part, which loves honour and is prone to anger; and the appetitive part, which attends to bodily desires.
In the Republic, Plato pictures the tripartite soul as three different creatures enclosed within our human frame: a rational human, an honour-loving lion, and a terrifying multi-headed beast, like one of the monsters from Greek mythology. Some of the heads of this beast are of gentler animals and some are of wilder animals, and they shrink and grow depending on how they’re fed. A just person submits to the rule of the best part. But when the ‘beast within’ runs free, all hell breaks loose.
Egan says that Plato’s vision of non-rational wild beasts has played a significant role in creating xenophobic and misogynistic rhetoric and supporting colonialist thinking.
Three kinds of human denigration – the unruly outsiders who have to be subdued or kept out, the subordinate insiders who have to be kept in their place, and the unwelcome guests who have to be expelled or eradicated – matched with three kinds of animal – wild predators, domesticated chattel, and vermin.
When we invoke animals to demean our fellow humans, we also thereby reinforce an underlying conception of animals as contemptible. In most areas of dense human settlement, wild predators have been hunted to extinction. Most livestock live out a short existence in conditions so hellish that agricultural lobbies have pushed for so-called ‘ag-gag’ laws that criminalise their documentation. Rodents and many other liminal animals are exterminated remorselessly.
In ways both obvious and subtle, our language desensitises us to this cruelty. Consider this familiar protest against inhumane treatment: ‘They were treated like animals.’ If being treated ‘like animals’ means being treated with cruelty or neglect, we shouldn’t treat animals ‘like animals’ either. Amending our language so that ‘animal’ ceases to be a byword for contempt won’t in itself transform human behaviour. But it might be a start.
Egan quotes Mary Midgley who pointed out that the the idea that we have ‘a beast within us’ enables us to escape responsibility for our bad actions by saying we lost control of our animal impulses, thus scapegoating non-human animals for what are acts of human wickedness.