My Conversation With Melanie Joy on “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows”
By Mickey Z.
Planet Green: So many humans call themselves “animal lovers” and often exhibit incredible compassion toward certain species…while seemingly having no problem with eating/consuming other species. How do you address this paradox in your book?
Melanie Joy: I wrote my book to examine this very paradox and, perhaps more importantly, to explore why most people aren’t even aware of such a paradox. My book is based on my doctoral research on the psychology of eating meat; as a vegan who had spent most of my life eating animals, I wanted to understand how it had been possible for me — a person who loved my dog like a family member and who even considered myself an animal lover — to eat animals on a regular basis without any thought whatsoever of the profound inconsistency in my attitudes and behaviors toward animals. And, as you point out, my experience is far from unique; most people care about animals and don’t want them to suffer.
Most of the beef that people eat has been dead for months and in many cases for years. The meat is disguised with bleach and dyes in many cases to hide the decay and the fact that the flesh is putrid.
And yet most people eat animals, often multiple times a day, a behavior that enables the intensive, extensive, and unnecessary suffering of tens of billions of nonhuman beings every year. What I discovered is that the reason we love certain animals and eat others is because there is an invisible, widespread belief system, or ideology, that conditions us to harbor very different perceptions of and behaviors toward different animal species.
I call this belief system carnism. Carnism is essentially the opposite of veganism or vegetarianism. We tend to assume that only vegans and vegetarians have a belief system when it comes to eating (or not eating) animals, and that eating animals is a given, rather than a choice. But when eating animals isn’t a necessity for survival, as is the case in the majority of the world today, it is a choice—and choices always stem from beliefs. Most people don’t love dogs and eat pigs, for instance, because they don’t have a belief system when it comes to eating animals.
Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: Book Trailer
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PG: Can you explain more about the term “carnism?”
MJ: Carnism is a violent ideology that enables humane people to participate in inhumane practices without realizing what they’re doing. The tenets of carnism run counter to the core values of most people; most of us would not willingly support unnecessary violence toward other sentient beings. So carnism, like other violent ideologies, must employ a set of defense mechanisms which operate on both a social and psychological level to ensure the participation of the populace; without popular support, the system would collapse. The primary defense of the system is invisibility, and the primary way the system remains invisible is by remaining unnamed: if we don’t name it, we can’t see it, and if we can’t see it we can’t challenge or question it.
The system also defends itself by teaching us to justify eating animals, by promoting what I refer to as the Three Ns of Justification: eating animals is normal, natural, and necessary. (Not surprisingly, these same arguments have been used to justify other violent ideologies as well.) There are many other carnistic defenses, but all defenses serve the same purpose: to “numb” us, psychologically and emotionally, when it comes to eating (certain) animals. Carnism disconnects us from the truth of our experience, blocking our awareness and shutting down our empathy.
PG: Captain Paul Watson has said that meat-eating humans are actually “necrovores” because “Humans eat dead flesh and rarely eat the organs, preferring the muscle tissue. Most of the beef that people eat has been dead for months and in many cases for years. The meat is disguised with bleach and dyes in many cases to hide the decay and the fact that the flesh is putrid. We are closer in our eating habits to vultures and jackals than wolves and lions.” Do you feel this distinction is important in advancing a plant-based diet?
MJ: I feel that it’s important for people who eat meat to understand what it is they’re consuming, and in that sense yes, I do think that such a distinction is useful in advancing a plant-based diet. However, I don’t find the term “necrovore” to be quite accurate, since the suffix “vore” refers simply to eating, and not to the deeper belief system that informs the eating. In fact, I believe all of the terms we commonly use to describe those who are not vegetarian or vegan are inaccurate.
For instance, sometimes we refer to those who eat animals as “carnivores” or “omnivores.” But both of these terms describe one’s physiological disposition, not one’s ideological choice: an omnivore is an animal, human or nonhuman, that can ingest both plant and animal matter and a carnivore is an animal that needs to ingest flesh in order to survive. (“Carnivore” and “omnivore” also reinforce the assumption that eating animals is natural, one of the most compelling myths used to justify carnism.)
And we sometimes use the phrase “meat eater,” but this phrase suggests that eating meat is somehow divorced from a belief system, as though it’s only vegans and vegetarians who bring their beliefs to the dinner table. Consider how we don’t call vegans “plant eaters,” because we recognize that eating plants is a behavior that reflects an underlying ideology. For the reasons mentioned above, I use the term “carnist” to describe those who eat animals. Carnist is not meant to be pejorative; it is merely meant to be descriptive of one who acts in accordance with carnism — just as “capitalist,” “Buddhist,” or “raw foodist,” for example, describe those who act in accordance with a particular ideology.
PG: Vegans often ask for advice on how to reach meat eaters, or “carnists.” What do you suggest?
MJ: I think it’s essential that vegans and vegetarians fully understand carnism, so they can understand what I refer to as the “carnistic mentality” and therefore advocate more effectively. In fact, I wrote my book to reach out not only to carnists, but to help vegans and vegetarians better communicate with the carnists in their lives and to whom they advocate.
The system also defends itself by teaching us to justify eating animals, by promoting what I refer to as the Three Ns of Justification: eating animals is normal, natural, and necessary. (Not surprisingly, these same arguments have been used to justify other violent ideologies as well.)
There are many ways in which understanding carnism can help vegans and vegetarians reach carnists. I’ll give you just one example here. Understanding carnism can help vegans and vegetarians appreciate why, more often than not, the facts typically don’t sell the ideology: often, we assume that if only the carnist knew “the truth” about the production and consumption of animal products, they’d never eat animals again. But, as many vegans and vegetarians know, “the truth” doesn’t motivate most people to change. Such carnistic resistance, or defensiveness, can leave us feeling frustrated, exasperated, argumentative, and judgmental of the carnist—reactions which are understandable but which are also counterproductive, as they only make the carnist more defensive and thus less receptive to our message.
We need to appreciate that the carnistic mentality, like carnism, is organized around defenses, and that carnistic defensiveness is almost inevitable. If we understand carnism, we are better able to anticipate the resistance we encounter when we talk about veganism or vegetarianism, and not to become defensive ourselves. And we can also appreciate that asking someone to stop eating animals is not simply asking for a change in behavior, but for a shift of consciousness; it’s asking them to undo a lifetime of conditioning, shift their social identity, and fundamentally change the way they view and relate to themselves, other animals, and the planet. With an understanding of carnism, we are able to be more compassionate toward carnists and are much better positioned to reach out in a way that increases the likelihood that our message will be heard.
PG: I’m sure you’ve been interviewed many times in relation to your work. Is there a question you always wish you’d be asked but so far haven’t?
MJ: Thanks for asking this. I’d love to explain why I believe that understanding carnism is fundamental to the empowerment of not only carnists, but to vegans and vegetarians, as well as to our respective movements. Carnism impacts our lives every day, in profound ways. Carnists need and deserve to know the truth—not only about the consequences of eating animals, such as animal suffering and environmental degradation—but about carnism, the system that shapes their attitudes, values, preferences, and behaviors when it comes to eating animals. Carnists need to be aware of carnism so they can make their choices freely, because without awareness, there is no free choice.
Vegans and vegetarians need to understand carnism for so many reasons I can’t possibly list them all here, but I’ll mention just a few. First, the goal of the vegan and vegetarian movements isn’t simply the abolition of meat/egg/dairy production, but the transformation of carnism, the system that makes such production possible in the first place. If we don’t understand and focus on the system we’re working transform, we’re at a tremendous disadvantage. We also play right into the hands of carnism, leaving it unexamined and invisible.
And because outreach is fundamental to promoting veganism and vegetarianism, it’s essential that we understand those to whom we’re reaching out. Carnism shapes one’s psychology in specific and predictable ways; the carnistic mentality should not remain a mystery. And finally, when we understand carnism, we can appreciate that eating animals is not simply a matter of personal ethics, but the inevitable end result of a deeply entrenched belief system. This awareness can dramatically change how we, as vegans/vegetarians and as a society, think and talk about the issue.
PG: How can Planet Green readers connect with you, your work, your book, etc.?
MJ: They can visit my website. Also, we are in the process of launching CAAN, Carnism Awareness and Action Network, whose mission is to raise awareness of and work to transform carnism. CAAN aims to empower vegans, vegetarians, and carnists through education and activism. CAAN will be accessible soon at www.carnism.com.