Research News: We Need to Talk About Killing

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» Research News: We Need to Talk About Killing

Research from social psychology, linguistics and cognitive science strongly suggests that words influence our thoughts, and our thoughts influence our actions. Researcher Network member, Emma Franklin, discusses why, therefore, the way we talk about animals matters a great deal.

“I get that people go vegan,” a friend said to me, not long after I had done so myself. “And that's cool. But like, why do they have to be so serious about it?”

“Because it’s a matter of life and death,” I snapped, perfectly illustrating her point. An awkwardness settled over our nice summer picnic. “What could be more serious than that?”

Despite veganism’s associations with joy, vibrancy, vitality and peacefulness [insert stock image of woman laughing into her salad], it must be said that we vegans spend a lot of time talking about death. I’ve soured brunches and birthdays and Christmas dinners, all by discussing the departed. I’ve ruined work meals and nights out and holiday tapas by reciting statistics on death. And looking back, that was wrong of me. 

No, we shouldn’t be talking about death. We need to talk about killing. 

You might think I’m joking. Ha, ha! No, I’m serious. (I’m vegan.)

“They’re just words, tho”

The way we talk about animals has immeasurable effects on their lived realities. Someone once responded to me, on this subject, “What does it matter how I talk about animals? It’s not like they can hear me.” Does that mean we should be sexist when women aren’t around, and make homophobic remarks when gay people are out of earshot? What would that say about us, and about them, and about the kind of society that we are willing to accept? Underpinned by decades of research across social psychology, linguistics and cognitive science is the fact is that our words influence our thoughts, and our thoughts influence our actions. The way we talk about animals therefore matters a great deal. And unfortunately, the majority of human-nonhuman relations are characterised by humans killing other animals. The least we can do is to represent that fairly and truthfully in our language.

Over the course of my PhD research into verbs of animal-killing (and you thought you were a vegan killjoy…), I examined the ways language can both harm and help nonhumans. Lexical and grammatical choices are instrumental in ascribing agency and responsibility. All too often animals end up as things, as inanimate, unkillable objects, while their killers get off scot-free.  

There are a few ways this can happen and there are a number of problems that we, as advocates for nonhumans, could be more vigilant to. In this article I will focus on three main issues we can keep in mind. The take-home message is that we really, really need to talk about killing.

Here’s why.

It takes two

In chemistry, ‘valency’ refers to the number of atoms to which a chemical element can attach itself to form a complex molecule. In linguistics, the concept is a similar one, but with clause constituents instead of chemical elements. In the linguistic version of this model, the central element (let’s call it a ‘nucleus’) is a verb or verb phrase, and the outer elements (let’s say ‘electrons’) tend to be nouns or noun phrases. It’s important to remember that just like a chemical nucleus, verbs are at the centre of all statements we make.

Here are some examples.

If I say that Misha loves sleep, the verb loves in this example is the centre around which the other elements pivot. It has a linguistic valency of two, because connected to the verb loves are two noun phrases, or two ‘participants’, in this event: Misha and sleep. Misha and sleep go well together. (Misha is a cat.)

If I say that Misha gave me a look, we now have a valency of three. The verb is gave, and attached to the verb are three noun phrases: Misha, me, and a look. (Uh oh.)

Now, if I say that Misha snores, which she does most impressively, then I am reducing the valency to one. This is because we have a verb, snores, and just one participant attached to the verb: Misha

Alright, but what does this have to do with killing?

Well, killing takes two. Killing always requires a killer and a victim, and added to that mix is a violent or negligent act on the part of the killer which results in the victim’s death. In terms of clause constituents, this translates into a subject, a verb, and a direct object. (Cool, huh!)

When we talk about the billions of animals who die in slaughterhouses and laboratories every year, for example, we are not necessarily being inaccurate: it is true even in cases of premeditated killing to say that a victim has died. But in doing so we are not being as honest as we could be. We are reducing the valency – the number of participants – from two to just one, and as we know, killing takes two.

Here’s another example.

Do you know how many horses died?

Yes, I’m talking about the Grand National. Here we have our verb (died) and just one noun attached to it: horses. When we talk about someone dying, we are effectively excluding any other party (e.g. the one responsible). This is great news for someone who doesn’t want to be named as a killer. We achieve the same result when we say that farmed animals go to slaughter or die young. Worst of all, these constructions make animals the active subjects of their own dying.

This isn’t a case of dying; it’s a case of killing.

When it takes two, let’s name both parties. Instead of saying, pigs are slaughtered in their billions, we ought to say, slaughterers kill pigs in their billions. Does it sound strange to mention the killer? That’s because we rarely do, especially when the victims are animals.

So, ask yourself: who is being named here? Killing takes two. If only one party is being talked about, then we’re not talking about killing. And if we want to be clear about how animals are treated, we need to talk about killing.

Don't be passive

Three horses were killed at the Grand National last year (is the answer to the above question). Is this better than saying three horses died? I would argue yes, because at least we’re talking about killing. It’s a step in the right direction, if we’re looking to represent animals fairly in language.

But there’s another problem with this, and it’s not limited to animals.

Research on the reporting of interpersonal violence has consistently found passive constructions to negatively affect perceptions of the victim. That is, when we talk about an act of violence in the passive voice, e.g. she was killed (as opposed to the active he killed her), the victim is more likely to be seen as responsible for their own misfortune. So, while we might think that she was killed places an appropriate emphasis on the victim, rather than ‘giving airtime’ to the killer, it is really doing the victim a disservice.

The example I just gave is a truncated passive construction, which means that not only is it in the passive voice, but the agent of the verb (in this case, the killer) is omitted altogether. If we want to be fair to the victim, we should avoid this kind of construction at all costs.

If I extend the construction and say, she was killed by him, then we now know more about the event, but I am still using the passive voice and the victim is still the grammatical subject. What is the problem with this? While this may be accurate – and perhaps a socially acceptable way of talking about violence – it still serves to create distance between the perpetrator and their actions while presenting the victim as more culpable than they likely are. Is that fair? This distance is a problem, because it makes what should discomfort us much more palatable, or something we can bear. And should we really bear all this killing?

Based on the research, I would say: don’t be passive. It might be uncomfortable, but try to talk about the killing of animals for what it is. Name the perpetrator(s) and use the active voice wherever you can.

Be the hero

There’s a vegan meme with a picture of a pie chart; you know the one I mean. There are a few variations. It has a heading that goes something like, “What’s the hardest part of being vegan?” and there are responses like “getting enough protein”, “finding convenience foods” and “waking up at 5am to milk the almonds” (that is a tough one). Far and away the largest segment, however, is one labelled something like, “arguing with idiots” or “having to deal with non-vegans”. As with all jokes, I would say that there is a nugget of truth in this: not that non-vegans are idiots (!) but that vegans have a hard time discussing their veganism with them. We become vegan, and suddenly our conversations are fraught with tensions. How can I talk about this? Do I sound evangelical? Is it okay for me to use that word, or are they going to take it personally? I don’t eat animals, but you do, and that’s cool, except it’s not. Er…

The Dalai Lama famously said, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” To me, being kind means being fair. And being fair means telling the truth, especially about animals. It means neither softening the truth out of fear of inappropriacy, nor attacking our listener in our anger and righteousness. Sounds easy, right?

Let’s remember that talking about killing can trigger a response in others. Are they blaming me? Are they calling me a killer? Being accused of such things will switch anyone off. Does that mean that we should avoid talking about killing? Absolutely not! But let’s be mindful.

You might notice that social media posts to do with animal escapees – those who have leapt from moving trucks or broken free of their captivity – receive unanimously positive responses from all kinds of people, while posts that make readers feel like the villain (slaughterhouse videos with captions like you are responsible for this) are ignored or engaged with negatively. (I should know; I’ve done them all.)

This can be explained using the drama triangle. There are three ‘characters’ in this triangle: the hero, the victim, and the villain. All stories have these elements in them somewhere. Stories of blame can end up drawing the listener into the role of ‘villain’, and that is a sure way of losing their interest or support. But when we cheer on animals in their acts of resistance, we laud them as the heroes of their own stories. We may even feel aligned with them, and enjoy being part of the ‘hero’ experience. This is always possible.

Slaughterers in the UK kill farmed animals in their billions every year. (You can save them by switching to a plant-based diet.)

Horse racing jockeys have killed more than 2,000 horses in the UK since 2007. (You can stop that from happening.)

Fur traders kill minks by throwing them in gas chambers. (Thank you for buying synthetic lashes!)

When we talk about killing – and we should talk about killing – let’s be plain about who is the killer, and who is the victim. Non-vegans may certainly feel like victims (especially when they’re dealing with vegans…) but we can gently remind them that they are not the victim here. Nor are they the villain. In fact, why not be the hero?

All together now

So, let’s be fair to animals. Let’s remember that killing takes two. Let’s name killing for what it is without distancing the killer from their actions. And let’s remind ourselves and each other of who the killers and the victims are.

Vegans might be killjoys; that’s true. But don’t shoot the messenger. We just really need to talk about killing.


The views expressed by our Research News contributors are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.

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