Carnism: The Psychology of “Meat”-Eating 101
Recently, I had the pleasure of reviewing Melanie Joy’s Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism (2010) though the website Basil & Spice. As a former psychology major and vegan of five years (and vegetarian for eight years on top of that), Carnism is right up my alley. Dr. Joy, a social psychologist and animal advocate, deconstructs our “meat culture,” identifying a number of key defense mechanisms that shield Westerners from an uncomfortable reality: how can we claim to “love” and “care for” nonhuman animals, yet enslave, torture, slaughter, dismember, process and consume them to the tune of tens of billions* per year? The answer lies in our carnistic system.
Carnism, Joy posits, is the invisible belief system (or ideology) that underlies our unthinking consumption of “meat.” We have so internalized this behavior – “meat”-eating – that we do not even recognize it as a choice, but rather blindly accept it as a normal and necessary way of life; “meat” consumption is “just the way it is.” Carnism is the logical counterpart to vegetarianism: just as one can decide not to eat meat, so too is meat-eating a choice. And yet, while the terms “vegetarianism” and “veganism” are part of common parlance, we have no such word for “carnism.” Because the ideology that supports “meat” consumption remains unnamed, it’s seen as something natural, inevitable, existing outside of a belief system. Or it’s not seen at all – it’s invisible. We can avoid thinking about it because we lack the tools (words) with which to talk about it. In naming, there is power. Words matter.
This is, I think, is Carnism‘s greatest strength. With the introduction of one simple, short word, Joy gives us a tool with which to single out our “meat” culture for criticism and critique. “Carnism” unveils the choices behind the curtain – choices which are so incongruous with our innate sense of compassion, Joy argues, that we must go to great lengths to defend these choices from scrutiny. At a macro level, this is called psychic numbing: “we disconnect, mentally and emotionally, from our experience; we ‘numb’ ourselves. [...] Psychic numbing is adaptive, or beneficial, when it helps us to cope with violence. But it becomes maladaptive, or destructive, when it is used to enable violence.”
On both an individual and institutional level, we engage in a number of defense mechanisms that help us to achieve psychic numbing:
1. Denial: Also called “practical invisibility,” denial (as proposed by Joy) is the process by which the horrific realities of “meat” (and egg and dairy) production are literally kept invisible to us. For example, we “grow” billions of chickens, turkeys, pigs, cows, lambs, etc. for food every year; but where are they!? Few of us rarely, if ever, witness these animals grazing the land, rearing their offspring, sunning themselves in the grass or preening in the dirt. But they’re out there: crammed by the tens of thousands into massive, windowless buildings, located in large complexes on the outskirts of town. These animals are trucked to and from slaughter in unmarked vans; their only exposure to the outdoors comes when they await sale or death, on the auction block or at the slaughterhouse. Practically speaking, they remain invisible to us, as does their suffering. Because many of us enjoy eating “meat,” eggs and milk, this is how we like it.
2. Avoidance: The counterpart to denial, avoidance involves “symbolic invisibility”; it is “knowing without knowing.” The animal agriculture industry – with no small amount of help from the other major social institutions, such as the government and news media – feed us ridiculous, transparent lies about “meat” production, and we eagerly gobble them up. “Humane meat” is a joke; labels such as “organic,” “free range,” “grass fed,” etc. are rendered meaningless through industry lobbying and self-policing, and besides, no unnecessary death can ever be called “humane.” While the government has ostensibly established myriad rules regarding food safety, animal welfare, and environmental responsibility, again, these rules remain full of loopholes and usually go unenforced. For example, chickens aren’t considered “animals” under either the Animal Welfare Act or the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act. Polluting animal ag. monopolies may be ordered to clean up their fetid shitholes (read: manure-filled lagoons) – but it’s usually the public footing the bill through tax monies.
3. Justification: We use a series of myths in order to convince ourselves of the “justness” of carnism. These myths typically involve the 3 Ns, as Joy refers to them:
Normal – Carnism has become normalized, such that its tenets are social norms. Social norms are both descriptive (telling us how things are now) and prescriptive (dictating to us how things ought to be).
Natural – If something is “natural,” it’s assumed to be “justifiable”: “The way ‘natural’ translates to ‘justifiable’ is through the process of naturalization. [...] When an ideology is naturalized, its tenets are believed to be in accordance with the laws of nature.” “Natural” = “the way things are meant to be.”
Necessary – Closely tied to the supposed “naturalness” of carnism, “meat’s” perceived “necessity” makes it seem inevitable; not a choice. But clearly “meat” consumption is a choice – in industrialized nations, anyhow – as any vegan or vegetarian can attest.
4. Objectification: Via objectification, we reduce living, sentient beings to nothing more than objects; we objectify them. Clearly, a cow is nothing like a television set – but both are considered pieces of property in our “modern,” “civilized” society.
5. Deindividualization: Through deindividualization, we strip animals of their individual identities, viewing them as pieces of a group and nothing more. One individual in the group is thought of as indistinguishable from all the rest; thus, the singular sentient beings become unfamiliar abstractions. (This is why Americans recoil at the thought of eating dog meat; most of us have either lived with or known at least one dog on a personal level. Dogs are individuals, familiars, whereas cows, pigs, fishes and chickens are not.)
8. Dichotomization: Dichotomization involves grouping animals into two distinct, often diametrically opposed, categories: food/not food, cute/ugly, dirty/clean. These categories are usually arbitrary and based on our own prejudices and stereotypes rather than any semblance of reality. Along with objectification and deindividualization, dichotomization allows us to “distance” ourselves from “food” animals at will.
9. Rationalization: To rationalize a behavior is to attempt to provide a rational explanation for a behavior that is, at its core, irrational. Animal agriculture is wasteful, unsustainable, harmful to human health and the environment, and – above all else – inherently cruel to the billions of nonhuman animals who are enslaved and killed for nothing more than human “taste” and “convenience” and corporate profits. Yet, our culture is replete with rationalizations for this most irrational of business and ethical models (for a few dozen examples, see the Defensive Omnivore Bingo cards).
10. Dissociation: Described by Joy as “the heart of psychic numbing,” dissociation is “is psychologically and emotionally disconnecting from the truth of our experience; it is the feeling of not being fully ‘present’ or conscious.” Often times, dissociation is triggered by a traumatic experience, for example, experiencing or witnessing a physical assault. Given that “meat” production involves the assault and murder of tens of billions of sentient beings per year – and “meat”- eating is, literally, the consumption of a once-living, once-feeling individual – it makes sense that the same psychological defense mechanism that protects us from reliving our own distressful experience also shields us from the uncomfortable truth that, with every animal-based meal, we are directly participating in another being’s living (and dying) hell.
A Call to Action
In order to counter carnism, Joy says that we must “bear witness” – that is, make the invisible, visible. At its core, bearing witness involves naming, identifying, and challenging our “meat”-eating culture. This can be as simple as living vegan in a non-vegan world – indeed, for many, veganism is the moral baseline – thus acting as an example of an alternative way of being. Volunteering at or donating to an animal sanctuary, attending protests, writing, photography, art-as-activism, adopting a homeless animal in need, organizing a vegan bake sale, procuring vegan and animal rights books for your local library, raising a compassionate vegan child, engaging in open rescues, shooting undercover footage of a local animal exploitation business – all of these (and more!) are examples of bearing witness. Bearing witness begins – but does not end – on one’s plate.
Carnism: A Review
Since first beginning this review (it’s taken me way too long to finish, I tell you what!), I’ve compiled and posted a sort of “outline” of Carnism on Animal Rights & AntiOppression (see: Carnism: Meat, Deconstructed); the points and comments to which Dr. Joy has kindly responded, so be sure to check it out, if you haven’t already! Additionally, Brittany Shoot – aka, The Biotic Woman – recently interviewed Joy as part of her stint at the Bitch Media Blogs; you can read parts 1 and 2 of the conversation here and here. Many of the questions and criticisms I had after first reading the book are addressed in these two spaces, and the below “pros” and “cons” reflect this accordingly.
First and foremost, I love that Joy ties carnism to similar, human-directed “violent ideologies.” Throughout the text, she gives examples of how denial, avoidance, routinization, justification, objectification, deindividualization, dichotimization, rationalization and dissociation have been – are being – used to support sexist, misogynist, racist, anti-Semitic, nationalist, and colonialist systems of oppression. In my outline of Carnism, I urge the reader to think of additional examples, beyond those offered by Joy. Hopefully, Joy’s inclusion of intersectionality in Carnism will spur her audience to make these connections for themselves, in their everyday lives. Once you open your eyes and your mind to the idea that all oppressions are linked at a root or cellular level, these intersections become evident everywhere. Perhaps this can prove a useful route to veganism for unrepentant speciesists who insist on placing humans at the top of their hierarchy? (i.e., rather than persuade them to reorder their hierarchy, demonstrate why it’s in their own best interests to dismantle the system altogether.)
Similarly, the concept of the book itself – naming carnism – is both useful and timely. Admittedly, I approached Carnism with a touch of skepticism – what is carnism, how does it differ from speciesism (if at all), and why do we need two separate terms for what seem like the same/similar concepts? However, my doubt quickly turned to excitement; while carnism is obviously related to and informed by speciesism – carnism may best be described as a subset of speciesism – the two are distinct processes. In particular, Joy won me over with her likening of carnism to vegetarianism (and veganism); all are belief systems that form the basis for our dietary habits. “Carnivore” simply can’t be substituted in place of “carnism,” as the former describes one’s biological need for meat, while the latter does not. Or, as I summarized it in my outline,
Carnism is to vegetarianism as
carnivore is to herbivore as
meat-eater is to planter-eater.
‘Carnism’ and ‘vegetarianism’ describe philosophical or ethical systems that justify a specific diet;
‘carnivore’ and ‘herbivore’ describe one’s biological constitution; and
‘meat-eater’ and ‘plant-eater’ describe specific behaviors.
Carnism is related to speciesism – and many of the same psychological mechanisms are at play in each – but the two are clearly not the same. While this became plainly evident to me as I progressed through Carnism, those who are less familiar with veganism and animal advocacy issues may have more trouble making the connection. To this end, Joy doesn’t clearly situate carnism within the more global concept of speciesism in the book.
Of course, it’s worth noting that Carnism was obviously written with two audiences in mind: vegans and vegetarians who want to learn more about the psychological underpinnings of our “meat”-obsessed culture, and omnivores who are curious about or perhaps beginning to question their diet. Seeing as the latter group may not even know what the term “speciesism” means, possibly Joy deliberately avoided a more comprehensive discussion of “isms” in order to keep it simple – and unintimidating or inoffensive – for “meat” eaters. (For additional clarification, see this comment Dr. Joy made at Animal Rights & AntiOppression.)
From past conversations I’ve had with authors and publishers, I’ve come to understand that (oftentimes, and especially in this tight economy), it makes the most financial sense to cast as wide a net possible when writing and marketing a book. Many books simply wouldn’t make it to market otherwise; and two books, penned on the same topic, but for different audiences? Fuhgeddaboudit! So while I understand the need for…multitasking?….I’m still sometimes disappointed by the results.
The lack of discussion of speciesism mentioned above is one example of this. Another is the amount of time Joy spends explaining the basics of animal agriculture – cage size, feedlots, slaughter lines, etc. – of which many vegetarians and vegans are already aware. Much of the book involves descriptions of animal agriculture; while Joy provides quotations from her own doctoral research, she also draws heavily from several animal welfare staples, including Gail Eisnitz’s Slaughterhouse (1997), Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (2005), and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). Having read the first over a decade ago; been exposed to excerpts from the second here and there; and nothing but disdain for the third, I found myself skimming or even skipping past these passages. While I’ve no doubt that these discussions are both necessary and useful for convincing omnivores to eschew “meat,” for me personally, those pages would have been better spent delving further into the psychology (and even sociology) of carnism. It’s a trade-off for which I blame neither Joy nor her publisher; if Carnism had been written with a smaller, already-vegan audience in mind, the book might never have been published. **
Similarly, while Joy does mention eggs and dairy, most of the focus is on “meat” consumption. Over at Animal Rights & AntiOppression, she explains her choice of word usage:
In my book, I discuss the production and consumption of all animal products, including eggs, dairy, and sea “food.” Because I want the book to appeal to a meat-eating audience, for simplicity and clarity I refer to “meat” more often than “animal products” but only after having explained, in detail, the violence inherent in the production of all animal products.
Presumably, the same processes at play in carnism also work to prop up the consumption of other animal-based foodstuffs. However, because of her use of “meat” as a sort of catch-all term throughout the book, I found myself zeroing in on animal flesh to the exclusion of eggs and dairy. (It’s all about framing, yo!) Indeed, the term Joy chooses to describe the ideology of consuming animal flesh and by-products uses the Latin carne – meaning ‘flesh’ – as its root, thus suggesting that these processes only apply to “meat” consumption. Not that I have a better, more inclusive alternative in mind – carnism seems to be the best choice, particularly considering its correlates. But given the possibility for confusion, I think it might have been wise to name eggs and dairy alongside “meat,” even at the risk of alienating the omnivores in the audience. (Really, it’s only a few extra words: “meat, eggs and dairy.”)
Finally – and also owing to Joy’s diverse audience – I wasn’t especially impressed with the book’s “Resources” section. Not a few of the recommended organizations and books promote animal welfare (which is still a fundamentally speciesist ethical system) as opposed to animal rights; for example, Joy provides links to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the Humane Farming Association (HFA), and describes Matthew Scully’s Dominion as “a ‘conservative case’ for animals rights.” (It’s not; in the book’s final chapter, Scully argues in favor of animal welfare, even though he spends the previous few hundred pages laying out the case for animal rights.) Puzzlingly, Joy also gives PETA mention, which seems to me a no-no if the goal is to avoid alienating one’s audience; PETA is perhaps the most divisive animal advocacy group out there, hated by omnivores and vegans alike.
I hope it’s evident from my lengthy review that I quite enjoyed Carnism, even if the amateur psychologist in me might have preferred book more scientific in nature (and the vegan, more radical in scope). Psychological theories and research of speciesism, animal exploitation and “meat” (and eggs and dairy!) consumption can only help us in our vegan activism and outreach, no matter the form it takes. To this end, Carnism is a valuable addition to the anti-oppressive literature.
* In the United States, for example, ten billion land animals – the majority of whom are chickens, but also including no small number of cows, pigs, turkeys, lambs, etc. – are killed for food every year. Up to another half a billion land animals die at the hands of the animal agriculture before reaching the dinner table, and perhaps ten billion sea-dwelling animals are similarly farmed, killed and consumed every year. That’s 20.5 billion sentient creatures, killed strictly for the dietary wants of Americans, in the time it takes our fair planet to make just one trip around the sun!
** I had a similar issue with Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animals Rights (Bob Torres, 2007), which I read last winter. Torres discusses animal rights in relation to anarchism, but because the book seems geared towards both non-anarchist vegans and non-vegan anarchists, I didn’t feel as though he made a particularly compelling case for either. I came away intrigued by anarchism – and its potential to transform society for the better, particularly that of nonhuman animals – but not knowing a whole lot about anarchism as a social system. To this end, if anyone can recommend a decent introduction to anarchism, I’m all ears. Errr, eyes.
In promotion of Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism, Dr. Joy produced the following videos explaining the book and its concept. For those of you who prefer your book summaries in A/V form – enjoy!
“Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism” book trailer
Book trailer for “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism.” Video Produced and Directed by Beacon Street Films.
Melanie Joy, PhD Demo – Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows
Dr. Melanie Joy explains “Carnism,” the psychological phenomenon behind why we eat certain meat and reject others. The condition could be harmful if it is misunderstood. She fully describes Carnism and all its ramifications in her new book, “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows”.
Tagged: animals animal rights animal welfare psychology sociology books book review melanie joy carnism meat eggs dairy animal agriculture food defense mechanisms denial avoidance routinization justification objectification deindividualization dichotimization rationalization dissociation intersectionality intersections parallel oppression oppression violence racism sexism misogyny ism prejudice violent ideology videos