People are not sheep
Cops are not pigs
Generals are not hawks
They are all humans
The English language contains hundreds of idioms that mention animals: ants in your pants, bull in a china shop, clam up, fish out of water, free as a bird, the lion’s den, like a moth to a flame, playing possum, quick as a bunny, squirrel away, stir up the hornet nest, strong as an ox, and many many more.
These examples are innocuous, but many evocations of animals are not, and that’s my focus here.
Talking politics often includes unfavorable characterizations of one’s adversaries and using animals to insult humans is very common in this context, both online and IRL. But this is neither fair nor accurate, and I often find myself tacking on a comment to that effect, such as: “Describing Republicans as rats is insulting to rats” or “Calling cops pigs slanders pigs.”
Rats are communal creatures who help take care of each other. Pigs are highly intelligent, with some scientists ranking them fourth smartest in the world, close behind dolphins and apes, and before cats and dogs. They are also clean and highly social. Neither one acts with the malevolent intent of either politicians or policemen. Instead of dragging these animals into the discussion, people should cut to the chase and say: corrupt, cruel, dirty-dealing, forceful, greedy, maniacal, rapacious, two-faced, vicious and unethical.
I extend my defense to the so-called “lower” animals as well.
For example, when Trump’s election emboldened some racists to express themselves more openly in public, many commentators compared this to turning over a rock and revealing the creepy-crawly things underneath. In response to one instance, I wrote:
I protest that simile; the creepy-crawly things who live under rocks are simply some of nature’s creatures, living their own lives, and are neither malicious nor self-hating like human bigots. The comparison insults the poor, innocent Arthropods and Annelids.
Another time, I even came to the defense of pond scum:
I agree with your train of thought here. But calling them “scum” runs the risk of insulting photosynthetic eukaryotic organisms that live on the surface of ponds and who are entirely innocent of the crimes you describe.
Writer Upton Sinclair famously declared that “the two political parties are two wings of the same bird of prey.” While this image is useful for illustrating the reality of partisan life in the USA, it denigrates hawks, falcons, eagles, owls and shrikes, among others. None of those birds are like the Republican and Democratic leadership, which is to say: deceitful, dishonest, fraudulent, guileful, perfidious, shifty, swindling, thieving and unscrupulous. “Two sides of the same coin” is more accurate.
We must ask: are predators in nature villains in the same way that politicians are in society? I would say not. In nature, predator and prey are both simply roles that are played by different creatures at various times and they are neither good nor bad; these are just the facts of life. In society, by contrast, the treatment of the poor by the rich, for example, is oppression, and is definitely unjust. A hawk catching mice is neither a good guy or bad a guy, but the general ordering the bombing of a village is evil. Calling the general a “hawk” is not only inaccurate, but it cuts slack for the military man, implying that he is somehow acting in accordance with nature. He is not. His is the behavior of civilized humanity, and we’ve all got to acknowledge that.
The unspoken assumption behind most animal insults is that animals are inferior to humans. So, treating someone “like an animal” is cruel and calling them “an animal” is disrespectful. But that’s just anthropocentrism, which is some bullshit cultural baggage, not the actual state of the world.
“Human supremacy” is a term we should use more often, as it describes a real thing with myriad consequences. In his book, “The Myth of Human Supremacy,” author Derrick Jensen dismantles the concept quite effectively, revealing it for the set of irrational prejudices that it is.
As Jensen and others have pointed out, this is not merely a philosophical issue. Our elevation of ourselves above all other creatures has resulted in material consequences: animal and plant extinctions, decimated ecosystems, pollution of the atmosphere and oceans, all of it on a massive scale. We are threatening to render the planet uninhabitable to ourselves, perhaps abruptly. But even if we survive, it is already too late for many species and places.
A lot of people think it’s scientific to consider animals “lower” on some theoretical ladder than ourselves, but that’s actually a religious concept left over from the Bronze Age that we’ve never shaken. The book of Genesis—which spawned Judaism, Christianity and Islam—declares that humans have “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth.” But like we use to say in the ’90s: “That’s some whack shit.” Furthermore, the contemporary social demographic that describes itself as “skeptical” is, pathetically, often no more than Victorianism with a 21st Century gloss; i.e., anthropocentrism ornamented with post-modernism. Which is to say, still dishing out the same crap.
The dogmas of the Genesis-following religions are products of our agricultural heritage. That “revolution” was indeed a turning point in human history—a wrong one—where we abandoned sustainability, equality and health for rapacity, hierarchy and debility. Where once we lived in small, anarchic groups, free upon the land, as participants in the beautiful web of life, we turned away from that—it’s still a mystery why—for a sedentary existence cursed with slavery, violence and domination. Though Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution kicked our destruction of the earth into high gear, the trouble started with farming, at least eight millennia earlier.
As an illustration, consider wolves. They’re the bad guys in fairy tales, threatening rosy-cheeked children in the woods and piggies in variously-constructed domiciles. Today, we talk about “keeping the wolves at bay” or “throwing someone to the wolves.” But the human relationship with wolves used to be different.
For example, according to Jayesh Bear, a man of Native American background and practice whom I interviewed in January 2018 for my book, “The Failures of Farming & the Necessity of Wildtending“:
For us, the Wolf was always a relative, an ally. He would signal us when Cougars were lurking around camp. They signaled people when big herds were nearby. There’s something going on there where we were communicating with Wolves, working together… It’s two different worldviews. One that is in fear of the natural world and one that strives to understand it and respect it and live in symbiosis with it.
Also, we contemporary people must re-examine our ideas on the nature of predator-prey relationships. Jayesh again:
The Wolves would keep the Elk in check, keep them moving, keep their herds in healthy numbers, cull out the sick and the weak ones. So the herd is really strong and vigorous, always on their toes and moving, so they didn’t ever stay in one spot. You watch the Wolves and it was just like watching a cow dog moving the cattle. The Wolves herd those Elk and move them around and then take one or two. So the lack of predators was a big deal. It’s still a huge controversy. So many people hate the Wolves. They’re scared. Some of them have lost livestock or whatever, you know, but it’s a tough subject. Without an ecosystem, your kids aren’t going to be able to raise in any cattle.
As a cause of death, the percentage of cattle lost to wolves annually is only 0.2%. That’s nothing, but the ranchers insist on waging their war. As noted by the Animal Wellness Foundation:
Since 1900 humans have shot, poisoned and trapped more than 100,000 wolves. Since 1900 there has not been a single documented case of an attack on a human by a healthy, wild wolf. Not one. Ever. In 2012 Congress removed protection for wolves in the Northern Rockies region. Since then trophy hunters have killed 3,000 wolves. Only 5,000 wolves remain today.
This is a tragedy but it is only one of a countless number we are committing on the planet today. Here we witness our separation from nature, the rift that is the source of our troubles and unhappiness. We are not better than anyone or anything else on this planet. We are “higher” animals only in our minds. We’ve got to stop insulting each other for being “bird-brained,” “catty,” “slothful,” “sluggish,” “vulturous” or–this one is the most insidious—”bitchy.” Our enemies are not snakes, sharks, worms, insects, vultures or hyenas. Our acquiescence to them does not make us “sheep”—it marks us as compliant, docile, meek, passive, spineless, submissive, timid, weak and yielding.
This is not a PC thing.
This is about owning our humanity.
We must admit responsibility for our actions and our culture. We are not acting like “animals.” We are being ourselves, as we are, in this time and place, as humans.
We desperately need to transform our relationship with the planet. We need to reintegrate ourselves into the fabric of life. We can not go on this way, believing we are above anything at all.
While we keep talking this way—saying that people are sheep, cops are pigs, and generals are hawks–that’s not going to happen. People, cops and generals are all Homo sapiens. We can’t be anything else. We must acknowledge that reality, with humility and respect, and get to the work of cleaning up our mess.