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Animal metaphors as a way to make sense of the world

Animal metaphors as a way to make sense of the world

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CapeNature this week appealed to the public to report unusual rabbit deaths.

State veterinarians are struggling to monitor a highly contagious rabbit and hare disease that already saw close to 300 sick and dead animals reported for domestic areas and in the wild.

The reports include gruesome details – “Most animals have been found dead … but some have been seen collapsed … and bleeding from the anus before death”, the state veterinarian reported.

She warned that the widespread impact of the disease would be detrimental for endangered species and ecosystems and called on rabbit owners to practice strict biosecurity – keeping domestic and wild animals apart, and sanitising equipment and care areas regularly.

This animal report was, however, not the only one making headlines this week.

Social media this week was lit with fiery comment after a respected commentator likened the misconduct of students at a university campus to repulsive behaviour of dogs.

The comments followed the release of a report by the retired and respected Judge Sisi Khampepe regarding transformation and race at the University of Stellenbosch. of racial discrimination earlier in the year at a male campus residence, when a white student urinated on the property of a black student – an incident reminiscent of a similar one at the University of the Free State 15 years ago when white male students urinated in food served to black workers, the infamous Reitz-incident.

In the now notorious post, the conduct of the students then and the incident earlier this year are likened to how dogs urinate and defecate to mark their territory when threatened – images that have one cringing in disgust.

Although two very different reports, the cases of the deathly rabbit disease and the revolting racist pee elicit similar emotions of disgust in relation to a sense of threat.

In the case of CapeNature’s appeal, the disgust at the gruesome deaths of animals must lead readers to take action to safeguard a species and fight the threat to ecosystems.

In the case of the students, the commentator employs disgust at dogs urinating to have readers recognise the inhumaneness of their misconduct and make sense of the incidents as a racist response to a perceived threat.

However, whereas the veterinarian’s comments employ disgust to protect animals, the social media commentator draws specifically on derogatory animal metaphors to elicit disgust and frame the students’ conduct as subhuman – a social and cultural tool shared across and used by diverse cultural and language communities.

Disparaging animal metaphors have however played a major role in the most haunting human conflicts, such as the imagery of rats in the Holocaust, cockroaches in the Rwandan genocide, and of apes that mark histories of colonial violence.

Animal metaphors are a major part of public discourses and informal conversations because they offer shorthand definitions to describe others as much as ourselves.

Some metaphors assign positive definitions to individuals and groups – “brave as a lion” or “busy as a bee”, for instance.

Others aim to achieve the opposite – a “parrot” does not think for himself, and the “pig” is messy and dirty, for instance.

Animal metaphor however reproduces three hidden, but significant societal dynamics, irrespective of its flattering or offensive intent.

It confirms social hierarchies as a meaningful way to make sense of the world – humans are mindful and moral, while subhuman animals are mindless and have no moral consciousness.

By extension then, so also people may possibly not only behave, but enact and be named for the same hierarchy, some as human and others not.

* Rudi Buys is the executive dean at the non-profit higher education institution, Cornerstone Institute, and editor of the African Journal of Non-Profit Higher Education.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Cape Argus

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