A short, angry post on using the word “feral” in the context of rioting

Feral. From the Latin fera, meaning a wild beast. The media have been having a field day recently, bringing this normally rather recherché word into unusual prominence. We hear about “feral youth”, rioters described as “feral rats”, the “rioting feral underclass”. I could go on and on. Apart from wondering whether or not it might be possible for commentators to think of their own ways of expressing their thoughts, rather than simply copying each other with lazy ease, I think this language reveals something deeper than its casual users realise.

The word feral is one that applies literally only to animals (and plants, but most probably don’t realise that) and to apply it to human beings is to suggest that those people are merely animals, too. By using it we draw a sharp and sneering distinction between us as civilised and them as animals.

We will not move far towards dealing with the very real problems the recent unrest reveals if we think about those who’ve rioted as being sub-human, and on the same level as troublesome cats in Rome, or pigeons in Trafalgar Square. Words frame our thinking, and using this kind of word betrays us.


8 thoughts on “A short, angry post on using the word “feral” in the context of rioting

  1. Also, animals, birds and plants don’t riot, loot or set fire to things. They have only become “scavengers” because of the imbalances in the environment created by humans, and because we arrogantly believe that everything in nature belongs to us.

  2. Funny that my last use of the term feral was in reference to Prunus domestica! And, most usually (as with this example) it relates to domesticated species that have returned to the wild, which makes for a subtle distinction in meaning from ‘wild’ per se.

  3. Likening the ‘Other’, be it negro; female; or any specie of foreigner or social inferior to animals is a very old trick to avoid dialoguing with the other in question. If animal-like and devoid of reason, the contemptible yet problematic ‘other’ is not capable of being reasoned with, which allows the stigmatizer to sit back comfortably in its own sense of superiority and feel itself ‘unchallenged’ even by the most direct attacks of anybody less powerful in current hierarchies. The annoyingly lazy use of ‘feral’ in the press, which you have pinpointed, is part laziness (refusing to think through the implications of the word reflects the laziness to critically think through the riots’ logic and implications) and partly an active agenda to FORBID anyone ‘reasoning’ on the theme by forcefully screening matters with an age-old truism: you don’t reason with animals. It serves a political agenda that would see the powerful actively avoid meeting their victims on an equal plane (shared humanity), and thus drawing sharp boundaries between worlds that are truly interlinked effectively unweaving cause from effect…

    And it’s also taking a very prejudiced view of animals, which cannot be condoned in the first place…

  4. I’m not sure I agree with your characterisation of ‘feral’. It is basically just a sensationalist, tabloid-friendly way to describe someone as wild or uncivilized – which wouldn’t seem necessarily an unreasonable way to describe rioters.

    I think the use of “underclass” as a term is far more sinister. The term “work class” has all but been killed off. We are supposed to believe that all the working class are now either middle-class aspirants or lowly “dole scum”.

    Its a clever ideological form of divide and conquer, disempowering an awful lot of people still of modest means, and worse, effectively dehumanising those with the least.

    • That’s interesting. Perhaps I’m too literal-minded, but it seems to me that “underclass” is a frighteningly real description of what is happening in our society, and is the equivalent of Marx’s lumpenproletariat. On the other hand, with “feral” literally referring to wild beasts, it cannot be said to be a “fair comment” as it were. Of course in this context feral is meant metaphorically and not literally, but my point is that the metaphors we reach for are themselves both revealing, and in this case at least, distorting.

      Where we agree, which is probably more important, is that dismissive generalisations of the rioters, no matter which word is used to characterise them, are both crude and unhelpful.

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