Carnism - FAQ

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Carnism - FAQ

[Ed. Note: Please also read How one can know the truth about factory farming and still eat animals?]

From Carnism Awareness & Action Network
January 2011

Is carnism the opposite of vegetarianism?

Technically, carnism is the “opposite” of veganism (“carn” means “flesh” or “of the flesh”) but in many ways it is an opposing belief system to both vegetarianism and veganism.

Carnism reflects a particular way of thinking about and relating to ourselves, animals, and our food. When we are “meat eaters” we think of ourselves as part of the norm, the social majority. We are members of the dominant culture, a culture in which the ethics and legitimacy of eating animals are not questioned and meat consumption is imbued with positive meanings (e.g., meat makes a body strong; meat is a celebratory centerpiece, such as the Thanksgiving turkey, etc.).

(Ethical) vegetarians and vegans belong to subcultures that are defined entirely by the conscious choice not to consume animals or parts of animals. Both vegetarians and vegans have examined the ethics and legitimacy of eating animals and have redefined how they see themselves in relation to the rest of the animal world. Both also tend to identify as ideological minorities in the dominant, meat-eating culture. Although vegetarians continue to eat eggs and/or dairy, unlike those who eat meat, vegetarians do not define themselves by what they do eat, but by what they do not eat. The vegetarian subculture isn’t organized around eating eggs and dairy; it is organized around not eating meat, and practicing compassion toward animals. Thus, while there are some distinct differences between vegetarianism and veganism, there is a much greater difference between carnism and vegetarianism.

It is useful to think of these ideologies on a continuum, with carnism on one end and veganism on the other. Most people fall somewhere along the spectrum, utilizing varying degrees of carnistic defenses. Eating any animal products causes harm to animals and therefore likely requires the kinds of defenses and distortions that block our feelings of disgust; so, for instance, just as carnists may be disgusted by the idea of eating dogs, vegetarians may be disgusted by the idea of eating eggs from turtles or pigeons or drinking milk from a rat or gorilla. Thus, vegetarianism, though quite different from carnism, is not its “pure opposite.”

If I eat meat from animals that were humanely raised and killed, am I still supporting carnism?

One way to answer this question is to substitute a dog for a typical farmed animal: Would you be comfortable eating the meat from a golden retriever who had been raised and killed in the circumstances you describe - who had been given life for the sole purpose of being killed? Would you consider it humane to slaughter a perfectly healthy dog for no reason other than because someone likes the way he or she tastes?

Moreover, so-called humanely produced meat is a myth, a marketing strategy designed to offset consumers’ growing discomfort with eating animals as more of the truth about meat production reaches the public. We can consider the “humane myth” simply another carnistic justification, as it is virtually impossible to raise and kill an animal humanely, let alone multiple animals at a time; the “humane” animal products that make it to your supermarket are, invariably, products of misery.

Some have criticized comparing the suffering of humans (e.g., in slavery, the Holocaust, women's suffrage) with the suffering of animals, even though the systems that enable such suffering are similar in many ways. What are the reasons for this criticism?

One reason is that people are simply unaware of the similar structures of violent ideologies, and of the true horrors of animal exploitation. A more important reason, however, is the prevailing belief system that we have all inherited which makes us regard humans as fundamentally different from and superior to all other animals: human supremacy.

Human supremacy enables us to view nonhuman beings as inferior “others” whose suffering is qualitatively different from human suffering and who are therefore less deserving of moral concern. For example, though we know that all animals, human and nonhuman, are equally capable of feeling pain and have lives that matter to them, we nevertheless proceed as though humans are the only species that possess sentience and self-interest. We rarely, if ever, question our right to complete control of nonhuman animals’ bodies, habitats, lives, and deaths or the unimaginable suffering to which we subject them in order to serve our own interests.

Human privilege is an inevitable consequence of human supremacy. Like other forms of privilege, human privilege is deeply ingrained, largely invisible, and staunchly defended, so we have a vested interest in maintaining our view of nonhuman beings as lesser life forms whose interests are far outweighed by our own. We therefore take offense at any suggestion that humans and nonhumans have an equal capacity to suffer, have an equal desire to live free from harm, have lives that are equally important to them, or deserve equal consideration of their interests.

Of course, no two groups - human or nonhuman - are ever exploited in precisely the same way, so comparisons must always be made carefully and with an awareness of the uniqueness of each group’s experience.

How is carnism similar to other violent ideologies, and why is it important to examine these similarities?

Violent ideologies are organized around the dynamics of domination and subordination, with the group that holds social power using a group of “inferior others” for their own benefit. These ideologies are structured to manufacture public consent of abuses that the vast majority of people would not normally condone. Violent ideologies therefore rely on defense mechanisms that distort our perceptions, block our awareness, and shut down our empathy. So even though the victims of violent ideologies may differ, and the experience of each group of victims is unique, there is a striking similarity among the ideologies themselves and the social mentality they cultivate.

Consider the mentality that has enabled us to legally classify African slaves as things rather than full persons; believe that the internment camps in which thousands of Japanese Americans were imprisoned afforded them greater educational, occupational, and political opportunities; slice off young girls’ genitalia without anesthesia to ensure their virginity; accept the unfounded medical claim that infants had a higher threshold of pain and therefore didn’t require anesthesia when surgically impaled; debate whether women should have the right to control their own reproductive systems; or turn a blind eye to the millions of victims of the Nazi regime as they were shipped to their death “for the greater good.” Such a mentality is not terribly different from that which enables us to think of a cow as something, rather than someone; believe that farmed animals are better off in factories than had they not been bred in the first place; castrate unanesthetized calves so they are less aggressive in intensive confinement; believe that lobsters feel no pain when they’re boiled alive; confine millions of female pigs to “rape racks” in which they are forcibly impregnated year after year; or to turn away from the billions of intelligent, sensitive individuals who are confined to lives of misery simply so their flesh can provide, for instance, the topping for a pepperoni pizza.

If we do not pick out the common threads that are woven through all violent ideologies, we will never figure out how to undo them. Violent ideologies do not exist in a vacuum; they are interconnected and reinforce one another. When we support one violent ideology, we support the mentality that enables all violent ideologies.