I spy… 2017: The year of the chicken?

In Geographical Magazine of the Royal Geographical Society, April 2017


We can feed more people with fewer resources by eating plant foods directly instead of harvesting crops and feeding them to farm animals. We can sustain ourselves and lighten our ecological footprint, while minimizing harm to wildlife, by eating plants instead of animals. -GENE BAUR, ARLINGTON, VA.

The legendary Gene Baur encapsulates my ecosophy – one that includes an ethical orientation to issues within the human world as well as a non speciesist and anti-human supremacist view, based on deep ecology which recognises the intrinsic worth of all living forms beyond direct, short-term use for humans. Within this ecosophy is my stance for complete (as much as possible*) non-use of animal products.

Constantly on the lookout for discourses that promotes a better relationship between humans, some of the questions that guide us as ecolinguists are: Do the linguistc features in a text (both spoken and written) encourage respect for animals as living beings with intrinsic value? Or do they use linguistic features in a way that erase chickens?

Arran Stibbe write extensively (and gave a fascinating lecture yesterday at Bath Spa University  – a separate post on that is forthcoming) about the erasure of animals from texts and our collective consciousness.  Erasure is ‘where stories in people’s minds treat something as unimportant, marginal, irrelevant or inconsequential.’ Erasure can be manifest on three levels:

Void – ‘something’ important is missing from the text

Trace – ‘something’ important is present in the text but is backgrounded

Mask – something is present but in distorted form.

The article in Geographical Magazine of the Royal Geographical Society Professor Hinchliffe described the recent changes in the agri-business resulting in a ‘high-volume, low-margin industry’ where ‘high throughput of densely housed and specifically bred birds increase turnover’. Hinchliffe relates his concern regarding the bird flu, evoking the high number of outbreaks (650 by middle of January), a concern that is limited to considering its impact on humans alone.

The chickens, victims of the industry who are slaughtered by the billions, are erased. There is extensive use of mass nouns, contributing to the erasure of the suffering of individual sentient beings: 94 billion tonnes of chicken meat (produced from:), 52 billion chickens, the world’s biomass.  The use of hypernyms, a superordinate or broad category e.g., birds, and bird flu further reduces the beings’ individuality.

Additionally to mass nouns, uncountable nouns such as chicken in the following quote from the article is used solely to designate chicken meat, further obscuring and linguistically distancing the reader from the animal:

Chicken has moved from being a rare food item.. to staple of protein-rich (and low fat) diets for a growing human population”

Nominalisation, a noun phrase generated from a verb, such as slaughter weight in: “chickens now reach market at almost twice their previous slaughter weight'”, presupposes that chickens’ body and weight is not their own and are bred to serve the purpose of the industry – meat.

It is particularly interesting to note the use of scare-quotes in this article. It is as though professor Hinchliffe experiences moments of clarity, and his understanding of using euphemisms shines through:

” An average poultry farm now houses several hundred thousand birds, arranged in sheds with 30,000 or so in each, all ‘growing’ in a tightly choreographed system to an established end, when they are ‘harvested’, transported and processed to reach supermarket shelves…”

This is where, I argue, Stibbe’s notion of trace can be exemplifies. In the short extract above scare quotes could also be put around processed, also in itself a euphemism for slaughter. In the instances where the author chose to use scare quotes traces of the gruesome reality are slightly visible.

Hinchliffe concludes the article by asserting that “modernising agriculture is clearly of benefit to the world that needs to eat, and eat safely.” There is a complete void in terms of the way animals experience their imprisonment and oppression. The chickens are not given a voice or agency and are spoken about throughout the article as a product. The author presupposes meat is a necessity for human survival and only stops to reconsider the practice where humans are endangered. However, meat-eating poses a threat to the environment, draining water and food that could be redistributed to nourish the starving world and avoid exploiting fellow earthlings.

Would you like to try to carry out your own text analysis? I am happy to report that a new FREE online course in Ecolinguistics will be available from May! I will share a link once it goes live! Please feel free to contact me for more details.

* By ‘as much as possible’ I mean that even veganism, a powerful social disobedience, is not without harm. For example, the fruit and vegetables sold in the UK have all been fertilized by a mixture containing animal blood and ground bones.

5 thoughts on “I spy… 2017: The year of the chicken?

  1. Thank you so much for the incisive information, Mira. I hadn’t yet encountered the term “erasure of animals.” It really is a mission statement that continues to work so well at controlling the narrative, no need to think about all those unnecessary details that consumers do not need to fathom — leave that to the marketing department.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Bill – it’s interesting you say this because I was walking to a professor at the University of Bath Spa who said that Nike, spending over $100 per minute on adverts, was pulling out their adverts because of pressure from social media.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Here’s to hoping that social media helps pull adverts all over the place, including enormous advertising by a local mega-giant corporation that is coddled and “pampered” (wink/nod hint) despite its egregious animal testing.
        By the bye, I stopped at Bath while hitchhiking in 1972 — before your time, perhaps 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for this! This is such a great point. And a sad one at that – it really cannot be stressed enough, that milk ‘production’ involves no less cruel practices than any other animal derived product.


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