Carnism: Why we love dogs, eat pigs and wear cows

Psychologist Dr Melanie Joy has been vegan since 1989. She explains why you can't be an ethical meat eater according to her theory of carnism 

Kashmira Gander
Wednesday 06 September 2017 15:12 BST
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Carnism is the theory that we suspend our morals to eat meat
Carnism is the theory that we suspend our morals to eat meat (Getty Images / iStockphoto)

Have you ever wondered why you want to pet your cat, but the idea of grilling Tibbles and eating her in a brioche bun with a few lettuce leaves and relish turns your stomach? And why if Tibbles were a cow, she'd already be dead in your fridge and destined for your dinner plate?

The answer according to Dr Melanie Joy, a professor of psychology and sociology at the University of Massachusetts Boston, is carnism. She coined the term to describe a belief system that she believes has convinced many of us that it’s acceptable to eat some animals, and gut-wrenching to eat others - even if they are the pretty similar anatomically. Meat eaters and those who consume animal products including vegetarians use what she calls the Three Ns of Justification - normal, natural and necessary - to explain their hypocritical behaviour.

It's a system that's totally arbitrary, she says, and emphasised by the fact that that horses are eaten in France, dogs in some parts of South Korea and China, would never be seen on a menu in the UK.

To Dr Joy, there is no ethical way to eat meat or consume dairy products. And the ethical imbalance of carnism also feeds into the injustices in terms of race, gender and sexuality. If you can oppress living creatures, soon enough those feelings of superiority will be forced onto other humans.

We spoke to her about her own journey and why she believes most humans will eventually be vegan.

You've been vegan since 1989 when you got food poisoning from a burger. Tell us a little about your journey.

I turned vegetarian back in the '80s when there wasn't a lot of vegan awareness. People thought I was a crazy animal-loving hippie when I was just a vegetarian. A few years later I became a vegan. And like a lot of veggies I hadn’t made the connection between animal products and cruelty because it’s possible to hypothetically procure eggs and dairy products without harming animals. So I assumed that they weren’t causing harm, and I was addicted to dairy products.

But I realised that the egg and dairy industries are brutal and disgusting. I couldn’t continue to support that. But people looked at me like I had two heads. It’s more popular now, although we’re still stereotyped and there are a lot of misconceptions. My mother thought I wouldn’t live to see my 30th birthday. Now she’s 74 and has just become a vegan herself.

You’ve written about how carnism is linked to wider ideas of social justice, like feminism. Would you like to explain this?

They maintain themselves by doing two things: upholding a set of myths that keep the dominant system alive and create this mythology that legitimates itself. People use defence mechanisms that I call the Three Ns. They try to invalidate the counter system by shooting the messenger who is the vegan. My work looks into the psychology of oppression and how dominant belief systems are organised around oppression and concentring power in a group at the expense of others.

The way that is maintained is by continuing a wider narrative that validates it. These oppressive and dominant belief systems condition people to act against their core values of compassion and justice and to disconnect from their natural empathy. Carnism depends on maintaining a mythology about veganism and vegans and the central myth is that veganism is abnormal, unnatural and unnecessary. But vegan values are all of our values, and most people don't want animals to suffer so intensively and unnecessarily. Most people would be deeply offended if they were aware of animal agriculture and how carnism has shaped how we act against what we would normally be opposed to.

There was recently a KFC advert that caused an uproar because it showed a chicken strutting around a warehouse with the strapline 'the chicken, the whole chicken and nothing but the chicken'. Do you think this shows that people are offended by where their food comes from in general?

Absolutely. People recognising it as disgusting is a very good sign. It shows our consciousness is shifting. I live in Berlin and I’m from the US and when I’m in the UK and I say I’m vegan people say ‘that’s why you look so young and healthy’ or ‘that’s great but I could never do that but it’s good for you.’ Perceptions are changing. More and more people are recognising that it’s not necessary for people to eat animals and when we take away the justification for eating animals this choice takes on a new ethical dimension.

What do you say to people who believe that eating animals is wrong, but struggle with quitting?

In my writing I talk about something called vegan allies. The vegan message has always either been ‘you’re a problem or a solution’ which limits the ability of 99 per cent of people to support a cause that many people would like to. It’s important to see carnism and veganism on a spectrum.

Most people don’t go vegan overnight. Encouraging people to be a vegan ally means they support the cause but aren’t yet vegan themselves for whatever reason. Some of the people who have done most for the cause are journalists who interview me and get millions of views on their stories, or people who donate to continue our outreach work at Beyond Carnism. An ally is a person who uses their influence to help transform carnism.

I usually recommend that people who want to reduce their guilt move towards living as vegan as possible. What that means is different for everyone.

Do you think humans will ever stop eating meat entirely?

It seems clear to me as someone who has really studied social change and as a psychologist that veganism will replace carnism as the dominant ideology at some time. There is no reason to assume that trajectory will change. The question isn't whether but when.

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