The title of this entry is something my wife said to me once during an argument. She meant it as an insult, but I took it as a compliment. What’s wrong with being an animal? Better an animal than a robot (although, in the near future, it may well be a legitimate question to ask: What’s wrong with being a robot–or a clone? Then we’ll have a whole vast new set of prejudices to overcome).
The reason my wife hates animals so much, including me, is that she believes God, whom I don’t believe in, created us humans in His image, and that animals are second-rate creations. For a more humane Christian take on animals’ integrity and value to God, which ought to translate into their value to us, read Matthew Scully’s book Dominion. What if animals are gods too? Or what if God is an animal? Then He (or She) will really be pissed! (Meaning “pissed off,” for British or Irish readers, not drunk, although that could come into play too.)
The English language has not been kind in its colloquial treatment of animals. Consider how many idioms cast an unflattering light on any number of species; very few animal-related idioms or terms are positive. A few are neutral–to wait until the cows come home, for example. There are other fish in the sea–that’s positive, although not literally true anymore. She hugged me like an octopus. That’s a negative-sounding simile. “Like a boa constrictor” doesn’t sound any more cuddly.
In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Jack Nicholson’s Randall Patrick McMurphy describes himself to Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched as “gentle as a puppy dog.” Chalk up another one for the good guys. Most men consider Playboy “bunnies” desirable, not that they’re exactly afforded a great deal of respect and might be stereotyped as silicon-enhanced bimbos and big-haired airheads. A sex kitten certainly sounds enticing, although likewise condescending, as the male figure looms in for the kill (figuratively speaking, of course; this is meant to be a family-friendly blog, approved by one of God’s many voices, James Dobson of the Christian right’s Focus on the Family–okay, but which one?). Foxes have always been hot.
It’s curious that when someone really wants to praise another person, he or she might proclaim: “Oh! She’s an angel.” What could be a higher compliment than being personified as a winged, pallid, asexual sprite that doesn’t even exist? Thanks, but no thanks. It’s like being called “sweet” by a woman when you’re a guy. She might as well tell you that you have no dick. “I don’t? Holy shit, you’re right! What have you done to me? Get me to the nearest hospital before I bleed to death!” (Ah, brings back memories of junior high school; no wonder I had to start drinking so much for so long.)
And there’s a built-in ambivalence about our own morally-ambiguous species in the English language. Consider the phrase, “I’m only human.” Makes us sound like no great shakes, which is fair enough, since we ain’t. Or how about “You’re not human!” (I actually had a female French student say that to a fellow female, who was Japanese, referring conveniently and inaccurately to all Japanese people. Typical French thing to say–just kidding. Women–what can you do? See how pervasive all these “isms” are?) That denunciation goes hand-in-hand with “You’re an animal!” or “You beast!”
The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Yikes! How reptilian! “Creature” can also sound neutral or positive, depending on the context (i. e., “all creatures great and small”; “she’s a gentle creature”).
Despite humans being by far the most barbaric species on earth (collectively if not individually, or vice-versa in some cases), if someone does something exceptionally cruel, like gouge a baby’s eyeballs out and stuff them up his nose, we gasp in horror and say that he’s “inhumane.” (“Sick” might be a better word, as am I for coming up with the image.)
“Ah, humanity! Ah, Bartleby!” as Herman Melville would say in his classic and widely anthologized short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener.”
But let’s take a look at a few names of animals and consider their metaphorical connotations: pig, rat, chicken, weasel, sheep, cow, dog, insect, mouse, cockroach, bug, worm, skunk. All demeaning and disrespectful–not only to the person being addressed or referred to, but to all and any members of the species used as a libelous or slanderous slur.
In language as in real life, many predators come out ahead (or on top, so to speak): lion, eagle, tiger. Whoops–I thought the list would be longer. Haven’t had my morning coffee yet.
Not all predators, apparently, warrant our praise, however: swim with sharks, a snake in the grass, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Bears we regard with a certain degree of affection, as in “bear-hug,” or “lumber like a bear.” If a woman is a little overweight, a man might call her a “whale.” Or maybe she has “the face of a horse.” What does he know? He’s just a worker ant, busy as a bee or a tree-eating beaver.
Together I hope we can all overhaul this character assassination of our fellow earthlings, instead of acting like a bunch of goddamned monkeys and naked apes, chest-beating gorillas, cuckoos, laughing like hyenas, drinking like fish, and shedding crocodile tears over the stories we read in the news. Let’s come up with some more glowing associations to compensate for the bad rap we’ve given the rest of the biological menagerie in this big goofy zoo since the beginning if not of time, then at least of articulate human speech, ever since words replaced grunts as the main manner of self-expression and mass-communication.
But what do I know? I’m just a dinosaur–and a swine.
May you alight on the tree of love on the wings of a dove. (Careful not to trip on any pigeons, and don’t speak with a forked tongue or you might have to eat crow afterwards.)