The term “carnism” was coined by Dr. Melanie Joy, Ph.D., Ed.M. The source of this text is predominately extracted from Joy’s lecture “Understanding the Psychology of Meat for Effective Vegan Advocacy” delivered in Sweden during 2014, which has been presented across the United States and internationally. Joy is an internationally-acclaimed speaker, award-winning author, a Harvard-educated psychologist, and professor of psychology and sociology at the University of Massachusetts. Joy is best known for her pioneering work on carnism, introduced in her book “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows.”
Have You Heard of ‘Carnism’ Before?
The world is full of ideologies—sets of opinions and beliefs that individuals or groups have which are characterised by a particular culture, and these beliefs influence the way individuals think, act, and view the world. Capitalism, communism, and socialism are all examples of well known ideologies, along with others such as anarchism, conservatism, and veganism.
If vegan is the term we use to describe those who follow the tenants of veganism, which involves eating only plant-based foods, then what do we call the people who don’t follow veganism and eat meat and other animal-based products? Omnivore seems like an obvious choice, but being omnivorous describes only someone’s biological or physiological predisposition. If humans are omnivorous, then vegans would be omnivores just as are people who eat animals. What about carnivore? Well, that describes someone who predominantly ingests flesh in order to survive, so that doesn’t really work either. Both omnivore and carnivore describe one’s biological requirements, not someone’s ideological choice, which is what we’re talking about here.
Meat eater, then, sounds like the next logical description. Though, the term meat eater really describes a behaviour more than anything as though it’s divorced from a belief system. The reason we don’t really refer to a vegan as a ‘plant eater’ is because we recognise that the behaviour of eating plants reflects a deeper ideology or belief. So, what do we call people who don’t follow veganism and eat animal-based products?
The Carnism Ideology
We tend to assume that it’s only vegans who bring their beliefs to the dinner table, but most people who eat pigs and not dogs, for example, do so because they also have a belief system when it comes to eating animals—they may just not be aware of it or the fact that it has a name.
Those who abstain from eating animals do prove that humans are able to live healthy lives on plant-based foods. When eating animals is not a necessity for survival, then it is a choice, and choices always stem from beliefs. Carnism is the belief system that conditions people to eat certain animals. It’s essentially the opposite of veganism. When we talk about ideologies and social norms, carnism is a dominating and largely unspoken ideology in human culture across the globe. Most people around the world eat animals and animal-based products and because of how entrenched it is, it has shaped beliefs, behaviours and laws across generations.
Carnism is also an ideology that is organised around physical violence. Meat cannot be procured without killing, and other animal products cannot be procured without causing some kind of harm to animals. When a dominate ideology is the norm in society, it usually goes unexamined and unrecognised because of its ubiquity. It’s like there’s vegans and vegetarians, and then there’s just everybody else.
When carnism remains unexamined, the vast majority of us don’t question why we perceive some animals as edible and other animals as inedible—it’s just how things are.
Beliefs and Perceptions
Our perceptions play a critical role in understanding why we are able to eat certain animals. A large majority of us experience a cognitive moral disconnect where we don’t make the connection between the meat on our plate and the living animal that it was once. When someone is eating beef, for example, they do not have the image in their mind of the living sentient cow who desired to live.
Because perceptions impact our emotions and our decisions, when we eat animals we do not tend to feel empathy or disgust before and during a meal. Instead, when we eat animals our perception creates a gap in our mind. Perceptions also don’t exist in a vacuum either, they come from somewhere. We are able to eat animals because we have a belief system that tells us that some animals are edible while others are inedible—this then creates a cognitive moral disconnect in our minds, which blocks our emotions and ultimately drives our behaviour.
Our perceptions are also then protected by a wall of defences that maintain our distorted perceptions. Dominate, violent ideologies like carnism need to use a set of social and psychological defined mechanisms that enable humane people to participate in inhumane practices without fully realising what they’re doing. In other words, this invisible ideology, that is carnism, it teaches us how not to think and ultimately, how not to feel.
At the end of the day, it is the belief system that drives our perceptions, emotions, and ultimately our behaviour.
The Three N’s of Justification
We don’t see eating meat as we do veganism—as a choice, based on a set of assumptions about animals, our world, and ourselves—rather, we see it as a given, the “normal, natural, and necessary” thing to do. The way things have always been and the way things will always be. We eat animals without thinking about what we are doing and critically why because of the belief system that is carnism, which underlies this behaviour, is largely invisible.
What we call ‘normal’ is quite plainly just the beliefs and behaviours of the dominate culture. It can be difficult to recognise because it is so entrenched in every day life and the majority of people go their entire lives without questioning it.
For example, in the western world, most of us would not condone or support the killing of a 6 month old golden retriever who is perfectly healthy, just because we like the way her thighs taste—even if she had a good life. Most people would say that’s totally unacceptable and wrong, and yet, many people today have no problem allowing the same thing to happen to someone of a different species. Carnism as a social norm blinds people to the fact that “humane” meat actually doesn’t exist. The myth marketing of “humane slaughter” was constructed by those in the business of violence to appeal to people who would ordinarily never support such violence.
Eating meat is natural, we’ve done this forever, humans are supposed to eat animals. But what we call natural is just the dominate culture’s version of history. It’s not looking at human history, it’s looking at carnist history. For example, we don’t refer to our fruit eating ancestors, we refer to their flesh eating decedents. In other words, we only look as far back as we need to, to justify the current carnist practices. Meanwhile, murder, rape, and infanticide killing infants are arguably as long standing and therefore as ‘natural’ as eating animals—and yet we don’t use the longevity of these practices as a justification for these practices.
Millions of people who don’t consume animal-based products around the globe are living proof that humans thrive on a plant-based diet. What we call necessary is simply what is necessary to maintain the dominate cultural norm. It’s what’s necessary to maintain the carnist status quo of consuming animal-based products, and that’s all.
The myths surrounding meat being necessary, and often how vegans are unable to obtain sufficient protein in their diets, prevail despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. These myths prevail largely because carnism is so entrenched, embraced, and maintained by all major social institutions, from the family to the state. It’s self perpetuating.
We all internalise carnism as we grow up and we all learn to look at the world through the lens of carnism. Carnism uses a set of defences that distorts our perceptions of meat and the animals we eat so that we can feel comfortable enough to consume them.
For example, carnism teaches us to see animals as objects so that we learn to refer to this turkey as something and not someone. Or we learn to call a baby lamb an it, a thing, rather than he or she. We end up seeing animals as abstractions, lacking in any personality or individuality of their own, and instead simply as abstract members of a group. And when animals are placed into rigid categories in our minds so that we can harbour very different feelings and carry out very different behaviours towards different species.
When we see the world through the lens of carnism, we fail to see the absurdities of the system. When we see images like these, where someone is mutilating their own body to be eaten or someone’s corpse is turned into a laughing joke, we learn to take no notice rather than take offence.
Carnism is one but of many atrocities and violent ideologies that are an unfortunate part of the human legacy. And although the experience of each set of victims will always be somewhat unique, the ideologies themselves are similar. It’s because the mentality that enables the violence is the same. It’s the mentality of domination and subjugation. Of privilege and oppression. It’s the mentality that causes us to turn someone into something. To reduce a life to a unit of production. To erase someone’s being. It’s the Might-Makes-Right mentality that makes us feel entitled to wield complete control over the lives and deaths of those with less power. Just because we can. And to feel justified in our actions because they’re only animals. It’s the mentality of meat.
Where to From Here?
It is critical to incorporate all oppressive systems in our awareness and analysis, and this includes carnism. Eating animals is not simply a matter of personal ethics; it’s the inevitable end result of a deeply entrenched oppressive system. Eating animals is actually a social justice issue.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’. A recognition of the interconnectedness of oppressions, indeed. But it’s also true that justice anywhere is a threat to injustice everywhere, and such justice can be practiced on our plates.