Metaphors for non-humans

Some observations on how we talk about the non-human. I confess to having watched a number of National Geographic videos on youtube recently, and while I enjoy the visuals, the narration has been less appealing. One of the things I noticed repeatedly was an urge in the script writer(s) to apply human metaphors to pretty much everything. The stand out awful one was describing a flying fox as being like Dracula leaving his lair.

Dracula of course is powered by imagery drawn from the natural world and from the (bizarre to me) idea that bats are somehow creepy and sinister. The bats are not like Dracula. Dracula is like the bats. However, when we turn ideas on their heads like this, there are some uneasy consequences.

If you have to recast the non-human world in terms of human metaphors to present it, you are sending people a message that they are separate from what they are seeing. Other living beings can only be understood on human terms. They are like commuters. They are like ballet dancers, leaping gracefully from rock to rock. They are like gymnasts. As if we can only understand other beings by saying how they are similar to us. As though the behaviour of other beings cannot be described purely on its own terms. We can’t look at goat-like creatures jumping about on rocks and say that they are agile. How are we supposed to empathise with an agile mammal on a rock? Most of us know little or nothing about ballet, yet the idea of unfamiliar mammals as ballet dancers clearly worked for someone.

When we do this, we normalise human activity and make the activity of other beings seem other. If it is only by reference to human culture that we can hope to understand them, we make human culture the key point of reference. Most of the examples I’ve described – and I don’t think this is a coincidence – are about forms of entertainment, too. We are encouraged to look at autonomous living beings as human entertainers. We are to see their utility, their benefit to us and not their individual experience of their own lives.

Metaphors and similes are a great way of creating feelings of connection. Used well, they can increase empathy and understanding. Used badly, they assert human dominance and superiority. If we see the world in terms of being like us, we reduce it.


About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

6 responses to “Metaphors for non-humans

  • Ryan Cronin

    Well, poetic descriptions of nature are full of such metaphor as, of course, are so many old myths: the salmon is wise, the crow is tricky, the fox cunning etc. But you do have a point and it’s definitely worth considering when we use such metaphors; are we silencing the animals’ stories to tell our own?

  • tim waddington

    I think language fails us here. Words like empathy or understanding are constructs which enable us to compartmentalize the simple being of a goat, or if you like, the rock upon which it has leapt, in our human (or, to be more pedantic, anglo-saxon twenty-first century) way of looking at the world. Does the goat empathize with me? Or the rock? I imagine not, nevertheless, we have a relationship, and it is up to me to try to frame that relationship so that it feels (to me) positive. How the goat or the rock perceives this is absolutely beyond my understanding (which, as I said is a human construct and probably not too helpful in relating to non-human beings). Being grateful for this interaction seems to me a good start.
    Trying to explain this to other people who do not share this perception of the world is a great way to underline their perception of me as completely whacked out – showing by example has a better chance. As I said at the beginning, I do not believe that language is a useful tool in this context.

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