Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Didn't Die Like a Dog
"Animalizing humans" to discredit and dehumanize them falsifies who animals are.
Posted Oct 28, 2019
This essay was written with Carol J. Adams, a renowned writer, feminist, and animal rights advocate.
In his October 27 description of the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s, the founder and head of ISIS, President Trump said, “He died like a dog. He died like a coward.” Trump is not alone in equating dying like a dog with cowardice, with a demeaning death. It’s one of several metaphors appealing to dog behavior that is both inaccurate yet revealing. Many of these false myths have become memes that don't serve dogs or humans well. (See "Dogs Live in the Present and Other Harmful Myths.") Dogs, Canis lupus familiaris, provide some surprising metaphors about humans and human relationships that actually have little to no relationship to how dogs actually live and die.
Merriam-Webster defines the phrase “a dog’s death” as "a miserable end... a dishonorable or shameful death." However, most dogs don’t die like the expression “die like a dog” suggests. Most dogs who live in homes either die in their sleep or are euthanized by a veterinarian. Any of us who have lived with dogs knows that. We surround a dog near death with love, care, compassion. In their last breaths, they are honored, not dishonored, by our attention to them. However, most dogs don’t live in homes. When people talk about the behavior of dogs they most often are talking about homed, Western dogs. There are approximately 800-900 million to one billion dogs in the world, and it's been estimated that around 75% to 80% of whom are partially or completely on their own. Homed, cared for dogs, have very different lives than free-ranging dogs.
A lot of these free-ranging dogs, too, may die in their sleep, or they may die from various diseases from which they pass away just like a human who lacks access to medical care does. But it is not a demeaning or shameful death, and they aren’t being cowardly. Yes, some dogs get beaten up and die, and some humans kill dogs in shameful ways. But that shame is ours, not the dogs’.
Similar to the idea that it’s a “dog eat dog” world, the phrase "die like a dog," has a strong violent message to it. The metaphor evoked to justify cruel, crafty, and unethical behavior—“it’s a dog eat dog world”—suggests carnivorous behavior to describe the social and political world we constructed. However, most carnivores do not cannibalize members of their own species. Most carnivores (and omnivores) eat herbivores. Some predators occasionally eat other carnivores, but not members of their own species. Carol points out that the phrase “dog eat dog world” arises from, and participates in, a patriarchal view of social relations, assuming life is about combat, ignoring the important role of care, empathy, and sympathy.
In his announcement, Trump once again turned to an animal metaphor to describe an opponent. Perhaps his reference was to the ways in which some dogs die during dogfighting. Regardless, he evokes the idea of a cowardly dog to dehumanize opponents. For Trump, this is nothing new. He often reaches for metaphors about his opponents that characterize them as animals. However, he especially uses this tactic of animalizing his opponents when referring to white women and people of color. (See T. M. Lemos' "American personhood in the era of Trump" and Leah Schade's "Mr. Trump, Here’s What’s Wrong with Calling People ‘Animals’.")
In their essays Dr. Lemos writes, "...he has referred to women who challenged him as 'pigs,' 'dogs,' and “animals.'” And Rev. Dr. Schade notes, "Our language animalizes people, thus dehumanizing them. We call women 'cows,' 'bitches,' 'cougars,' and 'pussies.'” Carol highlighted this problem in The Sexual Politics of Meat in 1990 and followed up with an analysis of Trump’s language in an essay in the book Through a Vegan Studies Lens: Textual Ethics and Lived Activism.
Abu Baur al-Baghdadi did not "die like a dog.” And it's not just Trump who uses these sorts of phrases. It's time to stop using them once and for all. Part of living in a human-centered world is that we can libel other animals freely. Using myths about dogs to dehumanize humans demeans and harms dogs, perpetuates false views about how they live and how they die, and misrepresents human relationships.
Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat. Bloomsbury Revelations, London and New York. 2015.
Bekoff, Marc. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2018.
_____. and Jessica Pierce. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. New World Library, Novato, California, 2019.
Donovan, Josephine and Carol J. Adams. (Editors) The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics: A Reader. Columbia University Press, New York. 2007.