Ever wondered why you jump at a turkey burger but not a swan sandwich? It's carnism. Psychologist Melanie Joy explains.
In an effort to deflect criticism from Mitt Romney's decision to once travel with his family dog atop his car, Romney's camp is fighting back by reminding people that President Obama has admitted to eating dog as a boy in Indonesia. It is, of course, ridiculous to condemn a man for having eaten the food he was told to eat as a boy. But it's even more ridiculous to condemn someone for eating a dog while you cook a steak. Dr. Melanie Joy explains why.
Joy is a social psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She also coined the term "carnism," an ideology she explains in her book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism.
Eventually, when I was 23, I wound up getting quite sick with campylobacter, the sister disease to salmonella. I was hospitalized with other people who had eaten meat at the same place I had patronized. You know how, when you get sick, you don't want to eat the food that made you feel that way? I became turned off by meat, which proved to be very helpful. Prior to that, if anyone had tried to expose me to the realities of animal agriculture, I'd say, "Don't tell me that, you'll ruin my meal." But after I got sick I suddenly lost my taste for meat, and I was then open enough to learn about animal agriculture. What I learned horrified me to the point that I felt compelled to share it with others and raise consciousness.
Having obtained my master's degree in education at Harvard, I decided I wanted to start teaching about vegetarianism, so I began conducting workshops around the Boston area. People would attend my workshops and actively participate, and many would leave fully agreeing with the principles of vegetarianism. (I've been speaking about these issues for 20 years and I've never once seen a person who does not cringe when faced with images of animal suffering.) Few, however, would actually become vegetarian or vegan. That really struck me; I couldn’t help but wonder why information alone wasn't enough.
From there I was motivated to study psychology. I wanted to understand the psychological mechanisms that allow us to carry out violence toward other beings, human and nonhuman, specifically as they pertained to meat eating. And what I discovered was that the very same psychological mechanisms that allow us to harm other humans enable us to harm nonhumans. Of course, people’s feelings about animals don't exist in a vacuum, so I started analyzing the broader social system of which we're all a part. That's what led me to identify what I call "carnism."
To help explain carnism, I often tell people this story: Imagine that you're a guest at a dinner party and you're eating a delicious beef stew. It's so delicious, in fact, that you ask your host for the recipe. Flattered, she replies, "The secret is in the meat: You need to start out with three pounds of well-marinated golden retriever." Your reaction to that story—the repulsion—is an example of carnism. Carnism is the invisible belief system that conditions us to eat certain animals. It's a dominant system that's institutionalized and structural in America and abroad. People tend to assume it's only vegans and vegetarians who bring their beliefs to the dinner table. But the fact is that most people in America, for example, eat pigs and not dogs exactly because they do have a belief system; it's just that their belief system has been invisible.
When you're born into this dominant, carnistic culture, you inevitably absorb the system’s logic as your own. In other words, we learn to see the world through the lens of carnism. Carnism conditions us to disconnect psychologically and emotionally from the truth of our experience when we eat meat (and other animal products). It allows us to disconnect the meat on our plate from the living being it once was. When people sit down to a plate of beef stew, they're not thinking about the cow that it came from. They're not saying, "I'm eating a dead animal." They're saying, "I'm eating food," and therefore they're feeling no disgust. However, if that same person were fed a guinea pig or swan, they would likely not be able to help but envision a living being, and feel repulsed eating that animal.
If you took a cross-section of Americans and you asked them if their value system supported intensive, extensive, and completely unnecessary violence toward other sentient beings, of course they would tell you no. And yet at the same time these very people—just like I had done when I was younger—enable such violence on a daily basis by eating meat. Not only that, but many of them get angry if you try to shed light on where their meat originates—just telling people you're vegan can sometimes inspire hostility. That’s because people know, on some level, that animal agriculture is horrific but support it anyway. By raising awareness of the reality of animal agriculture, you shed light on that moral discomfort that most people feel at the idea of eating animals.
I see this locavore movement—or "eco-carnism," as I call it—as a very good sign that the vegan and vegetarian movements are making strides. The first line of defense for carnism is its invisibility, and that invisibility has been weakened significantly. More people are becoming uncomfortable with where their meat comes from, and that's given rise to this whole "happy meat" movement, which never needed to exist before. So the next line of carnistic defenses has become more prominent, to make up for weakened invisibility: justification. And the same people who support local animal agriculture probably wouldn't be comfortable saying, "Well, that golden retriever had a nice six months, so I'm killing it because I like the way its thigh tastes on my pizza." Locavore or no, carnism is still at work. (I should make clear that I’m only concerned with carnism among people who really do have a choice as to whether or not they eat animals. Some people don't have that choice to make. Locavores do, and they still choose to kill animals.)
I was reading something recently that said, "When making ethical choices, the most important thing we can do is to think of the impact of our choices from the perspective of those impacted." It's not about whether animals are equal to humans. We know that all sentient beings, human and nonhuman, desire to live free from harm and have lives that matter to them In other words, we have the capacity to feel pleasure and pain, and we have an investment in staying alive. Considering that, it's not really about equality, which is a complex and loaded term. It's about making the best possible choices based on the impact those decisions are going to have on someone else, whether that someone is a pig or a person.