Beyond Objectification

Beyond Objectification

Recently, a guest on my podcast, “Women’s Media Center Live with Robin Morgan,” the author, botanist, and Native American Potawatomi educator Robin Wall Kimmerer and I discussed, among other things, the objectification of the natural world by most western culture, the objectifying reduction of everything not human to “it.” Then, as most good conversations do, that conversation got me thinking.

I was thinking about “it-ification”–a word I just made up, but “objectification” says it more clearly: the trivializing of an animate being into an inanimate it. That’s a dreadful act when you seriously consider it as such, and yet we do that all the time–but while Kimmerer is right in deploring that practice regarding supposedly inanimate things–among them, plants and animals and trees and lakes and so forth–I’d posit that in fact we even do it to ourselves and each other as human beings, very animate ones.

Think, for instance, of words like “migrants,” “Blacks,” “lesbians,” “the disabled,” “aliens,” “the poor,” and so many others that mask or blatantly dehumanize entire groups of human beings, just by dropping the noun. Because “a lesbian woman” is quite different from “a lesbian.” The latter usage distances, categorizes, objectifies, and can even depersonalize. That’s also true of the other above words, and truer still of words that objectify while stereotyping–a double whammy, like the hideous use of “wetbacks” or even “migrants,” for example. Far better to flat-out replace the word with more humane and accurate options–“undocumented persons” instead of “aliens”; “immigrants” or “refugees” instead of “migrants.” Even to say, instead, “a migrant child” or “a person with disabilities,” anchors the identity, specifies it, humanizes it–makes it recognizable.

Recognizability is doubtless why bigots live in fear of such changes.

I once wrote “hate generalizes, love specifies” — probably the best four words I ever penned.

But animating the “it” means, at least in English and in most gendered languages, settling for “she” or “he”–workable enough options when one is assuming gender in animals, but alternatives that feel bizarre when projecting gender onto brooks, plants, rain, etc. That’s reason enough, it seems to me, for needing more ingenious and creative pronouns, not simply posting lengthier lists of existing ones, as is the fashionable fad nowadays. I wonder what Indigenous peoples think about this.

The natural world, both engendered and beyond gender, definitely has it own ways of communicating. Those have been around forever, although we have only begun to learn about such real-life wonders in scientific terms, not woo-woo.

Trees share information about threats and pests, and about fruiting times.

The largest living entity on earth, a fungus, is a single organism found in Malheur National Forest in Oregon, belonging to a species called Armillaria ostoyae; it covers an area of 3.5 square miles or 9 square kilometers, and has been communicating with itself for 10,000 years as it’s grown.

Then too there are the great blue whales who sing to one another across miles of ocean, and who midwife one another, too–as do elephants, who also mourn their dead.

There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy . . .