Using non-human animals as slurs

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.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    We liberals are fast running out of terms we can use to call people we don’t like.

  2. JM says

    There is probably a bit of truth in that but it’s over stating the case. Until recently humans mostly lived in close association with animals and drawing an analogy between human behavior and animal behavior was very natural. Once most humans didn’t live that close to animals* it became a matter of language retention. Insults often linger long after the rest of language evaporates and reason for that language is long gone.

    * excluding insects. Insects have their own issues.

  3. Chris J says


    Maybe the basic impulse to demean someone with a term unrelated (or only loosely related) to the behavior you don’t like is a bad one.

  4. Deepak Shetty says

    there will always be new insulting terms to replace these like “Republican”

  5. says

    I agree.

    I’ve got one I need to think about though. I have referred to some kinds of posting as “political pissing on fences” when it’s substanceless. I have on occasion added “political dog” in there but had mostly dropped it already.

    It’s animal adjacent, but behavior focused since we do mark territory.

  6. says

    When I saw the title, I was expecting discussion of “pig” for cops. The 1985 film “Runaway Train” addressed this:

    A potentially touchy subject is eating habits, how some people’s table manners are described as “eating like pigs” or “having their face in the trough”. Animals don’t know any better, while humans do. The sounds animals make when eating may not upset some people, but humans making the same eating noises would.

    Something not discussed in the item is how animals are sometimes elevated, and comparing people to them is a compliment. “Catlike” and “clever as a fox” are two of many examples. In Taiwan and China, the pig is a symbol of prosperity, and even the character for “house” or “accomodation” as a host (“家”) is two parts, “roof” and “pig”.

  7. consciousness razor says

    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.

    In Phaedrus, it was a charioteer driving a chariot with a pair of (winged) horses. One horse is mortal and contemptible, the other is immortal and noble, each trying to pull in different ways according to its motivations/inclinations. He actually dwells on the analogy for quite a while, perhaps too long … but anyway, that’s the gist of it.

    Also, there is the Freudian version made of id, ego, and super-ego. I don’t know if Freud ever cited Plato explicitly, but I don’t think it was just a coincidence.

  8. consciousness razor says

    Alright, well, this is a pretty telling Freud quote from the wiki page on Id, ego and super-ego:

    The functional importance of the ego is manifested in the fact that, normally, control over the approaches to motility devolves upon it. Thus, in its relation to the id, [the ego] is like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse; with this difference, that the rider tries to do so with his own strength, while the ego uses borrowed forces. The analogy may be carried a little further. Often, a rider, if he is not to be parted from his horse, is obliged to guide [the horse] where it wants to go; so, in the same way, the ego is in the habit of transforming the id’s will into action, as if it were its own.

    There, he’s only talking about the one horse (the dark, bad one = id), but there’s also the super-ego horse which is more or less some kind of idealized conscience. Obviously, the rider is identified with the ego.

    I still don’t know if he told anyone he was borrowing ideas from Plato (which could be a little embarrassing for what’s supposed to be a modern/novel scientific theory) or if he just expected us to recognize that (and be okay with it).

  9. Matt G says

    When I make an animal comparison, I usually add an apology to the species, which I invariably respect more. I sometimes catch myself about to call poorly behaved children “savages,” which is, of course, inherently racist.

  10. Mano Singham says

    Holms @#10,

    The sentiments and examples of slurs were well expressed but the delivery was, as you say, cringe-inducing.

  11. Sam N says

    Are some animals contemptible? Maybe.

    In some ways we admire and respect Orcas for their intelligence but they appear to be conscious and intentionally brutal to me in many respects. My only comparison of such conscious brutality would be humans.

    Is that an insult? To call another human a killer whale? Killer whales really do seem to me to be uncaring, awful predators. Though also, largely a product of what they are taught.

    Is comparing someone’s intelligence to that of a deer really so disrespectful to the deer? They do some things wells, but many others, such as forethought or planning on the scales of weeks, not so much. Well beyond food gathering, and I’m not sure how much of that is present state driven compared to thinking things through. Deer just don’t seem very smart to me. And while I don’t believe we should start attempting to factory farm them, I also don’t believe comparing other humans to them would so thoroughly remove other valuation of not torturing another living creature as best we can.

    Moreover, the life cycles of some animals are so truly brutal, I honestly believe, despite lack of intention, they ‘should’ be disrespected. Calling other humans parasites (or ring worms, to be specific) seems fair to me.

    In some ways I feel like this entire topic is being overblown. Sometimes what descriptions reveal are related to real understandings of other animal’s reactive behaviors. Of course it relies upon generalization. Not, in of itself, a bad approach (especially in this case, where I really need to be convinced of the harm).

    Some of the most common insults are the least interesting to me. Calling people dogs or bitches. Dogs are really interesting cases of domestication (probably construction of somewhat permanent ‘babies’ in a sense) and have little to do with animals, in general. I don’t believe I tend to call others dogs or bitches much at all, but I can’t be certain as I don’t keep a log.

    Maybe I’m missing the point here? Generally using animals as insults for humans does not seem to be problematic at all. And I struggle to find the connection to abuses like factory farming, ecological destruction, or awful fishing practices without a little more nuance…

    And while I’m truly not trying to be an asshole here. How does this compare to the documented use of the OP to the use of terms like ‘Karen’ which I find as a useful shorthand, but I’m also not claiming that it is problematic to be using animals as names for certain types of human behaviors. I think they both can be understood rather well in context.

    I’m sympathetic that humans are often abusive to animals. I just don’t see this phenomenon, so generally, as a problem. At all. (A few specific cases, probably).

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