The words we use to describe things are very important. I’m not just talking about using kind and compassionate words, having a non-judgemental attitude, or justifying a statement with that most abused of caveats, “but”. Words are (somewhat) a product of the conscious mind that affect us on an unconscious level. I first learned about this concept in the TED talk Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are. After watching, I deemed her research to be somewhat simplistic. Could the participants who adopted the “powerful body pose” for two minutes before a mock interview really have been hired at a rate of 100%, while the ones who adopted an un-powerful pose were not at the same rate? I knew that body language conveyed a message, but I didn’t know it conveyed a message to the mind of the poser!
Then I learned about one rather hilarious study. The participants were brought into a room and asked to read one of two short prose. One had words like “fast”, “quick”, “hurry”, “go” and other uppity language; the other read more relaxed “slow”, “calm”, “easy”, “old’. Then the participants had to walk a distance to another room to complete the experiment. Little did they know, the walk itself was the experiment. The crafty researchers timed the speed at which the participants would arrive at the second location. The result? You guessed it: the readers of the “go” prose arrived faster than the their more “slow” counterparts 100% of the time. (Read over the beginning of this paragraph aloud and see how you respond to the lists of words.)
The lesson here is that you can “prime” not only the people around you, but yourself, at the deepest levels, using body postures and words. As Amy Cuddy says, fake it until you become it. The science of priming is a vast field and I don’t pretend to be well versed in it at all. If you’re interested in pursuing this further, I can recommend the work of Daniel Kahneman.
Now lets get back to elephants. There is a semantics debate over the word “domesticated” elephant. Those in the know say that an elephant that has been trained by a human is “captive”. The reason for this is that elephants are not a domesticated breed, and remain wild in their genetics and habits. You can argue that “tame” is also an incorrect term, as many captive elephants are incredibly dangerous, evidenced in that working with elephants is the most dangerous job in America, moreso than even a firefighter.
I don’t want to argue for changing the word “captive” to something more bland, such as “human-adjacent”, “normalised”, “habituated” or “hand-sourced-banana guzzler”; I think captive is useful word loaded with implications about the true nature of elephants that have been taken from the wild by humans and exist there today.
I do, however, want to become more aware of how we are affecting ourselves and others with the words we use. I believe it is technically correct to say that an animal that has been removed from the wild is “captive” and living in a “prison”, no matter how beautiful even a sanctuary is. To say an elephant is living in “freedom” anywhere other than without hands-on human contact in the wild is a fallacy.
But how useful are these words? Semantic and associative priming will cause our minds to most quickly jump to related words. So “prison” can most easily lead to assocaited words “cell”, “dank”, “judge”, “sentence”, “perpetrator”, “victim”. These sorts of words can promote a view of the elephant as a “victim”, implying there must be a “perpetrator” worthy of retribution. I once told a wise horsewoman that I had taken up horse massage therapy as a vehicle to help horses by changing the way their owners dealt with them. I adopted a “powerful pose” and swished my cape around a little to emphasize the point. She turned to me and said “Who are you to judge any horse as a victim? No horse is a victim. They are powerful beings capable of creating their own destiny.”
It has taken me a really long time to figure out what she was talking about. At first I took a basic view that horses indeed pull all sorts of tricks to remove themselves from a situation they don’t like, anything from feigning lameness to violent aggression. Most often they simply out-savvy their human and train that human to do their bidding, without the poor fool even realising what’s going on. Have you ever cohabited with a cat? Then you, my friend, have been trained. Then I look at the horses that seem to have given up and stand rail thin in dark and dank situations and can’t extend my understanding that far.
In development work we say “give them a hand up, not a hand out” for the same reason: that no person is a victim and has within themselves the power to rise up and change their situation. A hand out can often further cripple their chances of survival. I have seen refugee migrants come in from a backbreaking days labour in fields laced with poisonous chemicals, denied their most basic human rights, earning a pittance, separated from their families in a foreign country, forced to live in the most despicable of situations, tormented by constant hunger, fear and the trauma of what they have escaped from, and take up their pencils to study Thai literacy three nights a week with a smile on their faces. I cannot understand how they do this. But they can; they do.
I cannot understand how an animal who has been beaten senseless and appears to exist in a world of pure suffering can go on. But they can. I hope I never understand, because that would mean me going through an unimaginable torture, but I can have compassion. I can look inside and see past the “victim” and communicate only with the fire that still burns in the soul of every being. I once lost sight of my own fire in my life, and spent two years bereft of energy and overcome with physical pain. I was very nearly bereft of the will to go on. It still has implications in my life to this very day. Thankfully for me, there were a few people who were strong enough to stick around and keep talking directly to that fire in my soul. They primed me with their language and soon I learned to seek out the words and have the conversations necessary to inspire action to save myself.
I’m thankful not everyone saw me as a victim.
The conversations we have with each other shape us in ways we are not even aware of. Choosing our words consciously and deliberately is essential. When we talk about elephants we should not romanticize them nor make incapable bystanders out of them either. Words, no matter from where they arise, are expressed from your mouth consciously. To me, that means we all have a choice and a responsibility here. They say that the only true prison that exists is the one you create for yourself in your mind. I’m going to create for myself a gooey chocolate fudge cake with a key inside.