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The Canine in Conversation
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illustration of boy looking at dog in mirror Dog as Self and Other

The Other as a Threat to the Self

The Other threatens the nature of the Self not because of its differences but because of its similarities.reference 11 The purpose of Othering is to exclude those individuals, groups, or behaviors which otherwise might appear to qualify as belonging to the category of persons and by extension the Self.  As the epigraph from Cambridge anthropologist Edmund Leach suggests, comparisons of human actions to the behaviors of kangaroos have little impact, while an allusion to canine conduct is opprobrious.reference 12 The “promiscuous” behavior of a “bitch” is one that requires censure, not for its “unnatural” qualities, but because its challenge to the established social order is within the range of human behavior.  In his germinal essay “Animal Categories and Verbal Abuse” Leach goes on to suggest that it is the familiarity and the categorical proximity of dogs to humans that gives terms associated with them linguistic potency.  His thesis (widely cited but unsupported by empirical study) is that their presence in the home rather than the farmyard or the wild and their perceived status (in the English speaking world) as not-food mark dogs’ status as self-like “companions” though not equals.reference 13 It is dogs’ social similarity to humans that grants this status.

11. Valentine, James. 1998. Naming the Other: Power, Politeness and the Inflation of Euphemism. Sociological Research Online 3 (4). Accessed Apr 18 2008 from http:// www. socresonline.org.uk/ 3/ 4/ 7.html.

12. Leach, Edmund. 1964. Anthropological Aspects of Language: Animal Categories and Verbal Abuse. In New Directions in the Study of Language, edited by E. H. Lennenberg. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. 29.

13. Ibid.

The fact that humans are perceived as capable of engaging in the familiar mating habits of dogs is essential in making particular nuanced distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable behavior, between the Self and the non-Self. There is no need to create an injunction against emulating the sexual behavior of kangaroos, which, even if these habits were well-known, we would not likely find especially compelling or even possible in some aspects. It is the perception that there is a very real possibility of emulation and the fear that it might even be experienced as preferable that make references to canine sexual habits potent.  

This particular reference illustrates the role language can play in promulgating the cultural narratives about dogs and humans.  The declarative statement that “he is acting like a dog” lacks any explicit reference to sexual behavior, calling on the listener to supply the concept of promiscuousness.  This process of what the linguist Norman Fairclough calls “gap filling” serves to actively reinforce the cultural model.reference 14

Symbolically, dogs’ status as human-like, yet always subordinate, makes them especially useful as stand-ins for low status persons or those whom the dominant society wishes to name as not human, not persons, and not self.  When a woman is called a “bitch,” it is not simply that her behavior is being compared to that of a dog, it is implicitly a process of casting women as Other, as not fully persons.  When a child is called a “whelp” or a “puppy,” it carries as assumption that the one so named has subordinate status.

14. Fairclough, Norman. 2001. Language and Power. 2nd ed. Harlow, Eng., New York: Longman. 18.

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Last updated: May 27, 2008
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