Thanks for the ve­gan id­ioms, Peta, but there are big­ger fish to fry

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion / The Guardian View - Jes­sica Brown • Jes­sica Brown is a free­lance jour­nal­ist

In 1801, Vice Ad­mi­ral Nel­son is said to have de­lib­er­ately raised his tele­scope to his blind eye and in­sisted he couldn’t see a sign from his su­pe­rior telling him to with­draw from the Bat­tle of Copen­hagen. This is where the phrase “turn a blind eye” is said to have orig­i­nated. How­ever, fu­ture id­ioms may not have such a colour­ful story of ori­gin, thanks to those ar­gu­ing we should re­phrase those that men­tion meat and an­i­mals into an­o­dyne, plant-based phrases.

The an­i­mal rights group Peta says that many com­mon phrases in the English lan­guage per­pet­u­ate vi­o­lence to­ward an­i­mals. The or­gan­i­sa­tion caused a stir when it ar­gued on Twit­ter that phrases such as “bring home the ba­con” triv­i­alise cru­elty to an­i­mals, go­ing so far as to com­pare such phrases to us­ing racist, ho­mo­pho­bic or ableist lan­guage. Peta en­cour­ages us to swap our lin­guis­tic as­saults for phrases such as “bring home the bagels”, “take the flower by the thorn”, and “feed a fed horse” in­stead of “beat a dead horse” (which still sounds cruel to be hon­est). Peta isn’t the first to make this sug­ges­tion – a Red­dit thread go­ing back to 2015 of­fered sug­ges­tions for “ve­g­an­ised” id­ioms. But this time it co­in­cides with a tri­bunal that will de­cide if ve­g­an­ism is akin to a re­li­gion, and there­fore pro­po­nents can be dis­crim­i­nated against, af­ter a ve­gan worker was sacked for mis­con­duct.

Ve­g­an­ism has gone from fringe to fash­ion­able in a rel­a­tively short time. Ac­cord­ing to the lat­est count, around 3.5 mil­lion peo­ple in the UK, 7% of the pop­u­la­tion, are ve­gan. Long com­pared to card­board, meat-free burg­ers have taken on in­ter­na­tional cult sta­tus in the form of the Be­yond Burger brand, while su­per­mar­kets and res­tau­rants are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly ve­gan-friendly (that is, with ve­gan menus – there’s no data on staff es­chew­ing meaty id­ioms). It’s easy for ve­g­ans to get ex­cited by these re­cent shifts, but those who think ve­g­an­ism is so in­grained in the UK as to jus­tify chang­ing our lan­guage and law are in dan­ger of get­ting too big for their fake leather boots. The down­side of hav­ing sup­port­ive com­mu­ni­ties for ve­g­ans to go to for ad­vice and sup­port, both on­line and off­line, is that it can eas­ily cre­ate an echo cham­ber: we must re­mem­ber that around 93% of the pop­u­la­tion is still non-ve­gan.

These are pre­car­i­ous times for ve­g­an­ism. Some of the most ob­vi­ous changes have hap­pened across su­per­mar­kets and res­tau­rants, which have quickly re­sponded to a shift in eat­ing be­hav­iours. But while it’s in ev­ery­one’s in­ter­est for the pat­tern to con­tinue (I’m a veg­gie striv­ing to be a ve­gan), there is a chance that the pace could slow – or worse, go into re­v­erse. For a cause like this to have longevity, we need solid ar­gu­ments ef­fec­tively com­mu­ni­cated. Slow and steady change is for the best: there is a moun­tain of re­search ar­gu­ing we can’t scare or guilt peo­ple into mak­ing pos­i­tive change for the planet.

The chance that id­ioms such as “ket­tle of fish” may of­fend ve­g­ans is not an ar­gu­ment grounded in ev­i­dence or com­mon sense. It sug­gests peo­ple aren’t ca­pa­ble of dis­tin­guish­ing a neu­tral phrase em­bed­ded in the English lan­guage, used to com­mu­ni­cate a com­plex idea in a colour­ful and ef­fi­cient way, from some­thing gen­uinely of­fen­sive. And a com­par­i­son to racist lan­guage, and the struc­tural prob­lems that en­ables, is down­right of­fen­sive.

Sha­reena Hamzah, a re­searcher at Swansea Univer­sity, ar­gued in an ar­ti­cle for The Con­ver­sa­tion ear­lier this week that in­creased aware­ness in ve­g­an­ism will be re­flected in lan­guage, but that may take some time. It also points out that not all ve­g­ans would wel­come this change, given the rise of “bloody burg­ers”, which sug­gests the cul­tural as­so­ci­a­tions we have with meat may stick around long af­ter our di­ets have shifted.

Bri­tish English is lit­tered with non­sen­si­cal phrases in­spired from a va­ri­ety of places and eras. Each one of­fers a mini time cap­sule that re­flects how we used to live. To take just one ex­am­ple, to have one’s head in the clouds is sug­ges­tive of a time when avi­a­tion was un­fath­omable. Sug­gest­ing we can pur­pose­fully change our lan­guage not only seeks to erad­i­cate our om­niv­o­rous his­tory, it also hints at a chicken-and-egg/jack­fruit-and-scram­bled-tofu de­bate. On the whole, cul­ture pre­cedes lan­guage change, not the other way round.

When it comes to id­ioms, we can’t just go cold To­furky – they’re in­grained in our lan­guage, for bet­ter or for worse. At­tempt­ing to abruptly change them would do more harm than good. Even Hamzah’s rea­son­able ob­ser­va­tions re­ceived back­lash on­line, sug­gest­ing there is still a lot of rep­u­ta­tional dam­age that needs mend­ing, and a lot of work to be done un­tan­gling the nega­tive as­so­ci­a­tions linked with ve­g­an­ism – the stereo­types of be­ing moral­is­tic and mil­i­tant – which tar­nish the good­hu­moured ve­gan ma­jor­ity.

This cam­paign only serves to re­in­force those nega­tive im­pres­sions. While ve­g­an­ism is the most ef­fec­tive change we can make as in­di­vid­u­als to­wards re­duc­ing our car­bon foot­print, there are much big­ger fish to fry than ve­g­an­is­ing id­ioms.

Pho­to­graph: Alamy

‘Bri­tish English is lit­tered with non­sen­si­cal phrases in­spired from a va­ri­ety of places and eras. Each one of­fers a mini time cap­sule that re­flectshow we used to live and work.’

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