It’s long past time to consider our dogs, and of course all other sentient creatures, as living beings. Not as “it”s.
A letter signed by dozens of animal rights and animal welfare luminaries was recently the subject of a radio op-ed by NPR’s Scott Simon. The letter asks the AP, the Associated Press, to change its style and use the correct gendered pronouns when referring to animals — and the nonbinary “they” in other instances. The current AP style for animals is “Do not apply a personal pronoun to an animal unless its sex has been established or the animal has a name.”
The letter states, “This is too limiting to writers as well as fellow nonhuman animals, most of whom are discussed abstractly and thus their sex is not established.We pay respect to humans whose sex is indeterminate or gender fluid by using he/she or the non-binary term they. That same courtesy should be extended to all animals, as they are gendered beings.”
As a writer and editor, I work for several organizations that use AP style. I work with it every day. I also read a lot of news media from outlets that use AP style.
Simon’s op-ed supports this change and calls attention to how much of life we share. Indeed. If the role of pets in getting us through the pandemic doesn’t show that, I don’t know what would.
I can think of numerous compelling arguments for recognizing nonhuman animals’ dignity and worth with pronouns that don’t objectify them. Starting with their obvious vitality, consciousness, intelligence, empathy … and other traits too numerous to mention that set dogs, cats, birds, and thousands of other species apart from toasters, shoes, or cardboard boxes. They are not “things.” They are beings.
It’s also more accurate. Accurately labeling living beings is low-hanging fruit in media organizations’ efforts to regain trust and build up their credibility.
Treating nonhumans as things and describing them that way makes it easier to justify mistreatment of them. We don’t have to acknowledge their suffering if they are seen as equivalent to inanimate objects.
Organizations like the Animal Legal Defense Fund, whose head signed the letter, have spent years fighting for legal rights for nonhuman animals, for giving legal weight to treating them differently from other property owned and used by humans. Cleaning up our language is an obvious place to start.
Language is powerful. Propagandists, politicians, and marketers have long known that. And language evolves. Simon describes how our use of pronouns has changed, from wide use of a supposedly generic “he” to more inclusive pronouns that fully recognize humans all along the gender spectrum. Marketers and advertisers increasingly (and gratingly) use “who” when talking about corporations. Using “who” rather than “that” for a living, breathing sentient being surely makes more sense than that!
Cali would like everyone to know that her pronouns are she, her, hers. She is not an it or a that. She’s also a huge fan of Scott Simon and NPR. And she really, really hopes that the dogs hold on to their title by winning pet wars on Montana Public Radio’s spring pledge drive next week.