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Why are nonhuman animals victims of harm?
Why are nonhuman animals victims of harm?

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4 Sticks and stones? Power-knowledge, discourse and harm

In Section 1 you considered how language and imagery shapes perception of whether or not other animals are worthy of social scientific attention. This section picks up on the affective dimension from Section 3 and develops all these insights in relation to social philosopher Michel Foucault’s theories of power-knowledge and then discourse (1998). Foucault (1926–84) argues that power and knowledge are intimately inter-related.

As an approach to this, consider the phrase ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me’. Of course, words can actually be very hurtful. You may have experienced hurtful name-calling – or felt ashamed for joining in with name-calling – in the school playground. The ‘sticks and stones’ phrase is used to reassure and build resilience to being victimised by insulting language. But insults can be psychologically and emotionally damaging, and may accompany, or be a prelude to, physical assault. Insults can ‘put someone down’, as being less worthy of care and concern. So, insulting language can be intrinsically harmful, but it also shapes knowledge of victims and makes them more vulnerable to further harm. This makes harm itself harder to recognise, because the victim is rendered less worthy of concern. For example, in the context of a culture in which other animals are viewed as subordinate to humans, calling people ‘dogs’, or ‘pigs’ attempts to reduce their moral worth and make it seem acceptable to victimise them. At its most extreme, animal-based name-calling has been used to render the victims of genocide as deserving of violence. For example, Nazi propaganda compared Jews with lice or rats, while Tutsi victims of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 were described as ‘cockroaches’ in propaganda prior to the violence erupting (Nguyen, 2019).

Similarly, images can be used to make some groups of people seem less worthy of concern, to the extent of being legitimate targets of physical violence. Playground bullying therefore, shows how knowledge-claims (which translate into knowledge) about others are closely related to behaviour towards them, and vice versa: what is done to others is closely related to what is known about them. In a sense, this is obvious. For example, chickens are known as ‘food animals’ because they are killed to provide food for humans.

By the same token, chickens are killed to provide food for humans because they are known as ‘food animals’ (Cole and Stewart, 2014). Again, this results from imagery as well as language: chickens are commonly represented as ‘food animals’ in the logos of fast food restaurants that sell their body parts. These diverse examples, from playground bullying to the killing of chickens, can therefore be interpreted and analysed within a common theoretical framework: Foucault’s theory of power-knowledge.