Monday, 16 January 2017

Talking with meat: Some Thoughts on Animals and Communication

We cannot talk with animals. We cannot truly communicate; we can read body language and sounds, but we cannot converse, exchanging knowledge and stories. We believe we can, though.
            Communication worldwide is poor. Humans do not know what other humans are really trying to say or what they really mean; between mind and mouth the message struggles to be released. With animals, it is obviously a whole lot worse, but humans have built up a series of communicative myths to enable them to live consciously at peace with the world of nature. This can be seen in the ‘wild’ animal, whom we respect for having a language and endlessly attempt to communicate with or ensnare in some way; the ‘domestic’ animal, whom we talk to, chatter with, but are talking really to ourselves; and the ‘incommunicable.’ Here I will focus on animals that we exploit for meat as the ‘incommunicable,’ but I suppose it could be used to regard all manner of uncharismatic life; insects, fish, plants, pest animals.
            For the ‘wild’ animal, the best example I can think of when it comes to communications are cetaceans. Whales and dolphins have long been celebrated in myth and popular culture for their ability to converse and communicate orally through a series of sounds we have come to call ‘whales song.’ Some believe that, should certain cetacean species have the ability to tell stories, or share knowledge, they may have retained a culture dating back to their inception as a species over two million years ago. The whale song has become revered as mystical and magical; I remember reading a letter someone wrote in protest of the Faroese Grindadrap, where many pilot whales are slaughtered, claiming that whale song was ‘holding the ozone layer together.’ We cannot converse and query with the cetaceans however, or truly domesticate them like we have cats and dogs. For this reason, we mystify and mythologize the wild animal, for the over-powerful language we believe they have, and that we cannot use with them.
            We believe that we have deep understandings and communications with our domesticated animals. When I use ‘domesticated’ here, I refer to those we do not milk, eat, or use for other labours. Whereas with ‘wild’ animals, we give them animal and superhuman traits, we afford out domestic animals human sensibilities. We provide them with a name, a house, food that is not all dissimilar to our own in its process. We talk to them as if they really are going to converse or understand us. They may grow to understand certain signifiers of tone or plosives and other ear-catching sounds our languages make, and perhaps even their own name, but this is all in due course to what these sounds come to mean; food, sleep, pain, affection. The human talking to it’s pet is not talking to the pet, to the personality of the pet so much as to themselves; the human veneers the pet with their human interpretation and understanding of the animal, and talks to it, maybe even reading response in their illusory dressing of the pet.
            Finally, there are the other domesticated animals; the meat. To be able to eat these animals, we must believe that they cannot communicate meaningfully with each other, and especially not to us. Thus we render these animals ‘stupid’ and ‘dumb,’ using these sorts of terms for all animals we eat from bovines to tuna. One of the more powerful tools an animal welfare movement may have is to show that these animals can communicate. How do meat-eaters feel about cows knowing that they build meaningful and emotional connections with each other? It may sound silly now, but this sort of discourse is what turned the globe against whaling.

            Eating meat and treating certain animals as pests is often justified in human discourse as these animals are uncharismatic and stupid, often mystifying their communication as gibberish. Perhaps this will change in time, and we will stop eating certain animals in place of others, or all animals, or none at all.

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