An author recently asked for the rationale behind an edit I made to her article. The sentence originally referenced something that worked well “in dogs and people.” I changed the sentence to read “…in dogs and humans.” I explained that “Dogs are people, too!” – but I don’t blame her for her confusion. Language constantly evolves to reflect the knowledge and ethics of the day, and we’ve taken some steps at WDJ that she was unaware of – and some of my writers have taken steps that I’m still not quite ready to take.
In most dictionaries, the definition of “people” implicitly means “humans” – so perhaps my edit was not necessary. But even dictionaries have to be taken with a grain of historical salt! I saw one definition that I scoffed at: “People: Human beings, as distinguished from animals or other beings.” (First off, humans are animals! And what “other beings” was the dictionary referring to?)
But I have a hard time differentiating between “personhood” and “people” – and I agree with the modern behavior scientists and ethicists who think we should extend our definition of “personhood” to our animal companions. There’s a great quote from the famed primatologist Jane Goodall: “You cannot share your life with a dog, as I had done in Bournemouth, or a cat, and not know perfectly well that animals have personalities and minds and feelings.” Goodall started her career in an age when scientists were forbidden to attribute any sort of emotions or intentions to the non-human animals she was observing – this was termed “anthropomorphism” and was deprecated as indicating a lack of objectivity – and she found this limitation ridiculous.
Today, the idea that our animal companions should be referred to with the same terms as inanimate objects (“it”) is preposterous. This is one of the reasons we have always used gendered pronouns for dogs in the magazine (he, she, and if we don’t know the gender, they). And it’s clear to anyone who loves dogs that they also feel love, jealousy, rage, fear, anxiety, sorrow, joy, mischievousness, and more.
If we acknowledge that all dogs (and all animals) have a “personality” – a unique set of behavioral traits, expressions, reactions, and emotions – why can’t they be “people”?