If there was an anti-defamation league for animals, humanity would be tied up in civil legislation for all eternity.
After all, how many times do animals — from "lying, cheating" rats to "filthy" pigs to "thieving" raccoons — get blamed for misdoings that are entirely human?
Earlier this year, for example, at a sheriff's conference in California, President Donald Trump referred to members of a Los Angeles-based gang as "animals." As if goldfish and hamsters carve out violent drug and human trafficking empires.
The president's words were rightly decried as dehumanizing. People reacted strongly; some might even say they had a cow. But no one seemed to take notice of how casually animals have been dragged into politics and the news in the worst possible sense.
Trump continues this practice to this day — and he isn't alone. Actor Robert De Niro earned a resounding amen when he called the president a pig and a dog.
But wait a minute. Don't we love dogs?
Not, it seems, when it's time to call a human a bad name. And our language has no shortage of ready-made insults that come at the expense of animals.
If you do something dumb, you're a "bird brain" — never mind that birds own an astoundingly sophisticated intellect.
Rats? They're blamed for everything from the black plague (erroneously, it turns out) to being the ultimate snitches.
Cows may demonstrate a remarkable emotional intelligence — and even grieve the loss of friends and family — so why are the slow-witted dullards among us called "stupid cows"?
If you're doing something frivolous and unproductive, you're monkeying around. We've never seen a monkey playing Jewel Quest on a smartphone, but we have seen one give his last scrap of food to a stranger in need. No one calls that powerful and innate sense of charity a bad name.
It's even worse for pigs. If you happen to take more than your fair share of blankets, you're "hogging" the bed. And of course, if you overdo it at the buffet, you're "pigging out."
If you lack conviction, or happen to be afraid, you're "chicken."
They don't look scared to me. (Photo: Counse/Flickr)
And then there's that term some people use to denigrate women. It doesn't bear repeating here, but, let's face it, the word doesn't exactly celebrate the miracle of dog pregnancy.
Always looking for someone to blame
The thing is, humans do all of these things — and, in most cases, only humans.
And yet we unthinkingly equate the worst qualities in humans with animals. Along the way, those perfectly innocent beings are tarred with crimes and characteristics that are neither accurate nor earned. And, along the way, we may also freely exploit and visit violence upon them.
Why do we do it?
Maybe because we've found the most obligingly un-objecting scapegoat.
Did we just say scapegoat? Even at our nimblest, it's nigh impossible to avoid a negative animal reference in a language that's drenched in them.
So maybe that's where we begin: with language.
There's little doubt language shapes our reality — and that those who have a voice have used it to perpetuate their authority over those without one.
Historically, minorities have been borne the brunt of that dynamic, and are all-too familiar with being described in animalistic terms.
But as we grow as a society and more voices demand to be heard, those slurs become increasingly objectionable. Words once deemed dubious have even been reclaimed with positive associations — or, failing that, banished outright.
So why not extend that campaign to animals?
Let's turn over a new leaf
Cats, being geniuses, have already quietly begun it for themselves. Notice how very few human insults involve cats? Only compliments.
If you're enjoying a brief, light sleep, for instance — the kind that's smartly taken at just the right time of day — you're taking a "cat nap."
Maybe we can help along rats and mice, too. At the next family get-together, tell your niece she sings as sweetly as a mouse.
Or try calling someone as loyal as an ant. Or as faithful as a cockatoo.
At first, these more accurate compliments may sound a little strange, but language is the most contagious thing on Earth. Give it time. It will catch on. And we'll be better for it.
Editor's note: MNN writers sometimes veer into the opinion sphere when it's an appropriate way to delve deeper into a topic. If you'd like to respond, reach out to the writer on twitter or send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and reference this specific story.