Animal Inventory Blog

Keeping track of animals in popular culture.

Associated Press mocks person in peril

Posted by lisagbrown on January 17, 2008

For writers, tone is a subtle but powerful tool that can be used to manipulate an audience. Slight shifts in language can indicate mockery or sympathy, humor or disdain. Careful word choice enables a writer to provide vital clues about how a piece should be read and how an issue should be viewed. Tone plays a particularly significant role in writings about animals, because animals are often portrayed in very limited ways: as sympathetic companions, humorous clowns, symbols of nature, villainous predators, or as food. The media rarely deviates from these five strict categories and the writer’s tone can immediately locate which caricature is being depicted.

Today, the msnbc.com science section led with a story entitled, “It’s official: In Austria, a chimp is not a person.” The story explains that Matthew Hiasl Pan, a 25-year old chimp in Austria, is about to lose his home because the sanctuary where he resides is going bankrupt. Advocates fear he could be sold into untenable circumstances, so they petitioned the Austrian courts for guardianship of the chimp. They argue that he is a person whose rights would be violated if he does not have a guardian to speak on his behalf. The advocates most likely cited laws about child guardianship and the custodial laws protecting the mentally disabled to make their case. As the article reports, Austria has denied Matthew’s claim of personhood, and therefore any right to guardianship.

But what is this article really saying about Matthew and the quest for ape rights? Beneath the veneer of journalistic impartiality, what does the Associated Press really think? Or, more accurately phrased, what does the AP want its audience to think?

The animal rights/animal welfare community has been waiting with baited breath for the Austrian courts to make their ruling on this case. Animal activists are intimately familiar with the idea of animals, apes in particular, being thought of as persons. Though this concept may appear revolutionary to the lay person (indeed, it is) animal activists have been discussing the theories, philosophies and implications of animal personhood for years. However, the fact remains that ape personhood is a new concept for the general public, one that is often met with confusion and disbelief. For me, reading the headline, “a chimp is not a person,” was a moment of extreme disappointment and sadness. By contrast, a general audience would read the headline as an oxymoronic play on words: of course a chimp is not a person … just as a human is not a fish! Here is where tone and word choice provide a glimpse into under-the-surface meanings. Already, the reader expects to be amused by the article that follows. The reader assumes that the title is phrased this way to indicate that the issue should not be taken seriously.

The body of the article primarily describes ‘personhood‘ as a vehicle by which the advocates seek guardianship of Matthew. This is problematic for a couple of reasons: the issue of personhood goes much deeper than a simple legal maneuver. Additionally, many people strongly associate the term ‘person’ with the word ‘human’ and may even use the words as synonyms when, in fact, they are not. ‘Human’ is a quasi-biological term that identifies a particular species. Person is a philosophical term that implies a state of mind; that is, individuality, personal identity and self awareness that are normally associated with humans but are not tied to any biological definition of humans. Without explicit clarifications of these distinctions, readers are set up to dismiss advocates as irrational extremists.

Certain humans have been considered nonpersons (women, slaves, children, the severely disabled, minorities) and were denied all the rights and privileges afforded to persons. Even if it is a stretch for people to agree that apes are persons, surely our own controversial American history should demonstrate the significant cultural influence on personhood. Clearly, malleable elements of social structure have a tremendous impact on the defining traits of personhood. At the very least, this indicates that personhood has tremendous potential flexibility.

The point is, there have been books, movies, articles and deeply complicated debates about the issue of personhood. In the span of a single sentence, the AP rendered the question irrelevant… even laughable. Matthew has been turned into a punchline — a fate that animals (particularly primates) often suffer. Without properly educating its readership about the dynamic and legitimate questions raised by Matthew’s advocates, the AP has ensured that animal personhood will continue to be misunderstood by the public. They perpetuate the stereotype that only humans can be persons. And they deny Matthew the outrage that is warranted on his behalf.

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