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Paradoxes of the Dinner Table: Vegetarian vs. Carnist

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Paradoxes of the Dinner Table: Vegetarian vs. Carnist

From Animals & Society Institute
July 2013

The carnist does not experience animals in the presence of animals and the vegetarian experiences animals in their absence. In the literature of phenomenogy and phenomenological psychology, the latter is called the "presence of the absence."

More than a form of restricted dietary regimen, vegetarianism is a way of experiencing the world. For a researcher, to explicate that way of living requires developing a full-blown psychology. In this blog, I want to describe a paradox that such a psychology must take into account. For contrast, I describe a paradox found in the psychology of "carnism" (Melanie Joy's term).

Picture two tables at a restaurant. At the first table is a group of vegetarians. They have had their first course -- an Armenian soup made with red lentils and apricots and a vegetarian base. For their main course they are having a stir-fry made with vegetables in season and a lovely setting sauce of milled almonds, soy milk, tamari, wine, and lots of black pepper.

The second table had for their first course a shrimp cocktail - steamed shrimp served with a yuppie version of a barbeque sauce. They are about to be served their main dish which is braised beef. This is made with a gravy consisting of fat drippings, milk, flour, and seasonings.

Aside from the gross differences in diet, there is an overriding difference in the way the two groups experience their respective meals. The carnist does not experience the presence of any animals, nor is he or she thinking about, imagining, remembering.... anything about animals. Although there are many animals and animals' parts present, none are present in his or her experience of the moment. This is the carnist paradox. Most of us are familiar with something like it in the writings of Carol Adams, what she calls, the "absent referent." Borrowing from linguistics, the absent referent is a concept in which the "sign" (typically a word or picture) has an empty or paradoxical or undefined "referent" (the thing signified). So, in our example, when one of the carnists says, "My braised beef is really good," he or she is not referring to the animal, now dead and dismembered. The true referent is absent.

By contrast, the vegetarian is not cutting into a former animal, but for him or her animals are very much present. For the vegetarian at the dinner table, no animals, other than humans, are there, but experientially animals are present - the vegetarian paradox. The vegetarian is very conscious of not eating animals and of the animals not eaten and, really, is at least implicitly celebrating that fact.

This is not an absent referent, but, at least at first inspection, its opposite. The carnist does not experience animals in the presence of animals and the vegetarian experiences animals in their absence. In the literature of phenomenogy and phenomenological psychology, the latter is called the "presence of the absence." A familiar example is part of the experience of grief. Having just lost a companion animal, we sense the presence of the now absent animal, as we walk past the place on the landing that she used to lie watching our comings and goings. We feel her gaze. Her presence is palpable.

The vegetarian's world is filled with animals; the carnist's world is by contrast impoverished.