Language is important in the vegan community. And naturally we need to speak passionately about protecting the lives and freedom of those victims most important to us. But sometimes it’s equally important to choose the words we use to articulate our messages tactfully. Here is a list of ten words or phrases that can halt a conversation and some thoughtful replacements we can use instead. Not all these words are inappropriate or automatically problematic. But if we can minimize conflict by engaging audiences respectfully and with sensitivity, we can diffuse their arguments before they have a chance to derail our conversations:
- Rape This is a potentially triggering word for women and victims of sexual abuse or assault. Instead, try forcible impregnation to describe the horrible abuse we level against nonhuman animals to commodify their reproductive rights.
- Slavery This can be received as anti-black or appropriative of the trans-Atlantic slavery that still affects millions of black Americans in modern society. Saying animal exploitation still accurately describes the same system, and it is less incendiary to black ears.
- Abolition Similarly to the word slavery, this is potentially received as co-opting slave abolition from an historical legacy of slavery in the pre-Civil War United States. For the record, I personally use abolition regularly. But since someone else brought it to my attention, I’m aware of how it might be prudent to apply it judiciously depending on who is listening. Instead, I try total eradication (e.g., total eradication of animal exploitation).
- Murder Not necessarily problematic, but opportunistic nonvegans sometimes capitalize on semantic arguments to derail useful discussions (which is also incidentally a very privileged thing to do because it is indicative of academic or intellectual elitism). Since murder is a legal construct usually applied solely to humans, we can use unnecessary killing/violence as an alternative.
- Carnist This narrows the focus of animal exploitation too heavily upon meat consumption. And it’s rumored that Melanie Joy herself dislikes current trends of vegans throwing around the term she popularized as a pejorative. Nonvegan is a simple replacement that is inclusive of all nonhuman exploitation.
- Moral Schizophrenia Who hasn’t heard this obviously ableist phrase which leaves mental health communities out of the discussion on veganism? Try moral inconsistency/morally inconsistent.
- Cognitive Dissonance This phrase refers to the mental stress or discomfort experienced by people who hold contradictory beliefs. It’s a meaningful phrase that we shouldn’t exclude at all. But we should be aware of how we use it. A great number of people don’t experience discomfort over animal exploitation at all! And frankly, many of us are not talking about their mental discomfort when we use the phrase anyway, making it somewhat inaccurate. Instead, talk about attitude polarization (the persistence of discredited beliefs) or the backfire effect (the act of digging in your heels when presented with conflicting evidence against those beliefs).
- Animal(s) Using humans and ‘animals’ sets up a dichotomy that can unconsciously ‘otherize’ them in an undesirable way. Depending on the instance, it may be more savvy to use humans and nonhumans to describe ourselves and the other species with whom we share the planet.
- Holocaust Before this word falls out of your mouth, ask yourself this: are you Jewish? Are you a Holocaust survivor? Are you the direct descendant of someone who is a Holocaust survivor? Depending on your answer to these questions, you might want to rethink your application of this word in your dialogue. Does animal exploitation fit the definition of a holocaust? For certain. Have we incorporated the word into other expressions that aren’t problematic? Of course (e.g., nuclear holocaust and others)! Is it worth the derailment of your point by incorporating that usage in your conversation? Probably not. So try wholesale slaughter, bloodshed, or annihilation as alternatives.
- Meat addicted/addicted to meat Does consumption of certain foods provide stimulation to dopamine receptors? Certainly. But I have never seen an actual clinical study to indicate animal flesh itself possesses addictive qualities. And few people check into the local methodone clinic to get off the hot dogs. Not only can this trivialize people who live with the reality of addiction every day, we also unwittingly let meat eaters off the hook by suggesting their violent ideology is a disordered behavior outside of their control. Let’s change our language to say habit forming or habitual meat eating and challenge their human exceptionalism instead. [Note: food addiction itself is indeed real, and this discussion should not take anything away from that.]
Authors note: Just to reiterate, this piece is not intended to tell people what language they should use. This is merely an opportunity to reflect on how some of our chosen word choice will land with potential listeners. And having a reactionary audience capitalize on incendiary words is an unintended consequence that can take valuable time away from vegan education. So I share this list because I have learned to pick my tools!