When I go out walking with our dog we go past a sign out the front of a block of units saying ‘Pick up your dog shit you selfish pigs’. Someone has gone to some effort to make this sign permanent: it is stuck in the ground with two metal poles and the words are composed of those block letter stickers, which are stuck onto a plastic board that is held to the poles with black plastic bracelets. It’s an affront to read the sign every time we walk past but quite amusing when our dog does a poo right in front of it. The ‘shit’ is not so offensive as the ‘pigs’ and I wonder at why they’ve chosen the word ‘selfish’ to preface it, aside from the fact that ‘selfish pigs’ are two words that are often put together. This persistent linking of a negative human trait to a particular non-human animal makes me wonder: 1) are pigs really selfish? 2) why do we invoke pigs when we are really describing humans? 3) has anyone even seen a pig in the suburbs? 4) why is it so offensive to be called a pig?
At some point during the US election campaign Hillary Clinton described Trump as a pig. This was after the recording came out of him talking about how he can’t stop himself around beautiful women. We all had to reach deep into the recesses of our vocabularies to come up with an insult that could capture just how repugnant it was. ‘Pig’ was the word we all reached for, even Hillary, who otherwise was able to refrain from direct insults most of the time, though no doubt the temptation was ever present. ‘Pig’ seemed to capture the full misogyny of the man (remember when men used to be called ‘chauvinist pigs’?). It also seemed to convey how deeply unattractive Trump is – which is not to say that pigs are not attractive – and how dare such an ugly man think he can ‘just start kissing’ women he finds beautiful? (He also said something about when you’re famous and rich women find you irresistible – bleurgh.)
A few posters on the Women’s March took up the theme: Humans vs. Trump; Trump is an offense to human dignity; Dog whistle politics don’t speak to me; and the reminder that Women are people, as if Trump has relegated us to the status of non-people or, perhaps, non-humans. The intention behind the posters I think was to say it is not only women that oppose Trump’s sexism and racism, but the effect is to say that Trump is not human, that there is some kind of animality that envelops him which is repellent to the rest of humanity and which we dissociate ourselves from. But we are all animals (the human and the non-human). Here we are using the metaphor of the animal to say that humans are a special kind of animal, a superior type of animal, and if you don’t live up to the rest of humanity’s expectation you are dropped down into the cesspit that is animality.
But Trump is human, all too human. He is one of us and, as much as we try with our imaginative slurs to disown him from the human species, we cannot get away from the fact that everything he does and says are things that humans do and say. Do we really think male pigs go around saying, ‘I’m going to move on that sow like a bitch’? Trump himself uses animal metaphors to describe his disgusting behaviour, as if the part of himself that does and says those racist and sexist things isn’t actually him but an alter-animal self that he cannot keep at bay.
Last year during the days of activism highlighting violence against women, an Australian anti-DV campaigner was quoted as saying something to the effect of ‘men are not always animals’. The focus of her campaigning is that violent men need help to change their behaviour, that it is not something inherent in their characters, or that it is ‘natural’, to be violent. This is an incredibly important point. Yet, when we use animal terms to describe the worst of men’s behaviour, we are buying into the same misogynist ideology we are trying to call out. By calling men ‘animals’, we disown violence as something that humans are capable of and we say that only animals are capable of violence. This is because animals are supposedly driven by instinct and have no ‘culture’ or respect for their fellow animal beings. Whatever they do is ‘natural’. When we say a man is animal, we are saying that he has lost his ‘human’ culture and etiquette; he has devolved into his natural state. But this gives a rationale for the behaviour: I cannot help my nature. Tackling violence against women is all about changing violent behaviour. How can we hope to change behaviour when we call men animals and perpetuate the idea that violence is somehow natural?