The “animal”: On the Nastiness of Name Calling
There is a part in For The Bible Tells Me So where a mother, after her daughter had come out as a lesbian to her, says that all she could think about was her daughter having sex. This one simple confession turned what her daughter was as a person upside-down in her mind. All because of whom she had sex with. She could not abide this. But then, slowly but surely, she came to grips that, well, her daughter was still the same daughter. I mean—what changed really. She then says something very telling—she went on to say that initially when she thought of a lesbian or gay person she thought of a blatant stereotype, say butch, and could not see how this and her daughter were the same. Suddenly the stereotype collided with an actual person, and there was a tension, causing the harsh and cruel application of the stereotype to the daughter (“this is not the way you were born,” “uh uh, this has gotta change,” etc), but then, slowly, the stereotype itself was dismantled. It turned out the stereotype did not really exist wholly anywhere. She concludes saying something to the effect of, “you just don’t imagine real, everyday people.”
There is a word for this stereotype which her husband had no shame in saying earlier in the film: f*ggot. This horrible word (although certainly different and not comparable) bears a structural similarity to the “animal.” The concept of the “animal,” draws an image of something wild, untamed, illogical, unable to function in society, lustful, perverse, and shameless. The “animal” is not natural enough, ironically. In order to be “natural,” to fit the order of things, the “animal” must be tamed. This image of the “animal” is juxtaposed with the idea of the “human”—calm, tame, logical, able, modest, and reserved. Likewise, the f*ggot is subject to a similar binary—conceived of as not natural enough (by being “too wild,” “too passionate,” etc), perverse, lustful, and overbearingly upfront and without shame about hir orientation.
Just as the mother in the film says, this stereotype, rightly speaking, does not exist anywhere. It’s like the conception of the n*gger, the b*tch, the slut, the cripple, the “Jew.” Once a certain conceptual sketch of the other has been solidified in the public mind, say the undermining, anti-nationalist, greedy et al conception of the “Jew” in 1930s Germany, it can readily be seen in anyone. I recall reading somewhere (since I don’t remember, I give the caveat it could be apocryphal) Martin Heidegger saying to one of his colleagues, who was a Jew, that he appreciated him because he wasn’t really or all that Jewish (or something to that effect). Heidegger’s colleague embodied some of the negative traits of the so-called anti-nationalist Jew, but not enough to be a “Jew” to Heidegger. Just as the mother could not reconcile her daughter with “the f*ggot” (as her husband says), so too Heidegger could not reconcile his Jewish colleague with the “Jew.”
This is because this conception of an animal-other, an untamed other as opposed to us “normal,” tame people, is created essentially as a scapegoat. Thus the ridiculous violence suffered because of these categorizations. There is something about the “animal” that, if not willing to be tamed, must be sacrificed. This is encountered in extreme ways (the “slut” who is tragically characterized as deserving to be sexually assaulted, who had it coming, should’ve known better, etc) as well as more mild ones. A common one I have encountered, sadly, is the “b*tches be crazy” trope—a heterosexual male goes out with a female, in a presumably romantic /sexual context, something goes wrong, and then he gives that ultimate and bizarre closure, “well, b*tches be crazy.” This is scapegoating.
Let me breakdown the logic: let’s say I am interested in someone. Something interrupts this interest (and of course it can’t be myself!). Someone else must’ve interrupted it (the other, clearly!). Only a crazy, untamed, wild, non-functioning, illogical, animal would not like me (because I’m so tame, logical, and appealing! I’m SO human! really!). Therefore the other must be a crazy b*tch (f*ggot, n*gger, slut, “Jew,” et al). People shouldn’t hang out with b*tches (because they’re crazy!), which is why everything went wrong in the first place (notice how I’m totally blameless?). So I cut off the relationship, feel justified, further embed the b*tch stereotype, and tell all my (bro-)friends to not hang out with the b*tch.
This false binary should teach us two things—that no one fully bears any of these stereotypes, there is no absolute, transcendent b*tch, f*ggot, or “animal.” Secondly, it should teach us that none of us are beyond receiving the negative stereotype. This becomes most obvious with the conception of the “animal.” If I were to call someone an “animal” they would not think I meant my mother’s wonderfully bright, endearing, and cute dog, Missy. They would think I meant an untamed, ruthless, perverse beast and be offended. Simply put, with this common conception of the “animal,” Missy is not an animal. At all. She is a friend whom my mother and brother (and myself) happen to have a lot of love and care for. Likewise, I myself am not “beyond” being treated like an “animal.” It would be wrong, surely, but I have the capacity to fulfill the function (whether in meat-production, labor, et al) and appear as the “animal” just as much as any other species does.
This is not a post trying to equate types of oppression or suffering—in no way is this post a condoning of say PETAs attempts at conflating US racial slavery and meat-production. These are radically different sorts of suffering. Also I do not mean to conflate the suffering that has occurred under the terms the “animal,” the “f*ggot,” the “Jew,” et al as being in anyway comparable—I was merely wishing to point out a common structure and how all seem to be connected in some way to the notion of someone who is “untamed,” unfit for a certain cultural world. The concept of the “f*ggot” and the “animal” have both been used to justify terrifying violence and abuse to actual living, breathing creatures despite both not in any way fulfilling their respective fetishist, fantastical stereotypes. Further, the concept of the “animal” has been correlated, invoked, and explicitly used to justify the treatment of the“Jew,” the “n*gger,” the “b*tch,” et al. This is not a post about how these things are equal or worth equating. I really hope no one thinks this is what I am saying. Nor is this a call for everyone to be vegan (per se). It’s not even a post to get you to stop using the word “animal.” But it is a call to question what we mean when we use the term “animal,” and how we use it, what animality is, how historically the “animal” has been correlated with certain races, gender expressions and identities, orientations, and disabilities. Likewise, the ways in which we take for granted being “human” to the exclusion of others, perhaps call us to question who has been defining the “human” (what race? gender? orientation? religion? ), being human, what appropriate “human” conduct is, and what treating something “humanely” looks like.