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.