[Ed. Note: Please also read Carnism - FAQ.]
By Marina Bolotnikova on
This Dish Is
Carnism, like racism or sexism or homophobia, is but one oppression rooted in a larger, self-perpetuating ideology of dominance and brutality.
Sir Paul McCartney said that "if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian." If that were true, the work of vegans would be much simpler. Many of us vegans have informed our loved ones of the horrors of factory farming and have even shown them the gruesome physical evidence, all to no avail. Nearly everyone who learns the truth about animal agriculture, burdened by a moment of despair, carries on consuming animals and their byproducts the following day. The absurdity of this phenomenon baffles us, and our subsequent frustration (and often condescension) is off-putting to meat-eaters. What's going on here?
A few weeks ago, I heard Melanie Joy, psychologist, professor, and author of "Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows" address this very question. She began by noting that vegans are given to referring to non-vegans as "omnivores," but an omnivore, she explained, is simply an animal that is physically capable of consuming both plant and animal matter. In this regard, non-vegans are no more omnivores than are vegans. And it won't do to refer to them as meat-eaters, either, because where veganism is an ideology, meat-eating is a behavior.
Enter Dr. Joy's theory of carnism. Carnism explains the consumption of animals and animal products as an ideology rather than a set of behaviors. Joy explains that carnism is "the invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions people to eat certain animals...in meat-eating cultures around the world people typically don’t think about why they find the flesh of some animals disgusting and the flesh of other animals appetizing, or why they eat any animals at all. But when eating animals isn’t a necessity for survival, as is the case in the majority of the world today, it is a choice -- and choices always stem from beliefs." Carnism is powerful because it names the unnamed, documents and exposes that which has has never been documented. Carnism has always been regarded as the default, as obligatory, but never as the ideology that it is. And as any other ideology, it is wrapped up in a set of assumptions, mythologies, and deeply-rooted beliefs.
Though veganism and and carnism are diametrically opposed ideologies, one can be a vegan and simultaneously exhibit some of the prejudices of carnism. For example, are you a vegan who has ever reacted with greater aversion to the notion of eating a dog than to the notion of eating a cow, pig or chicken? I'll be the first to admit that I have. This is an example of carnism at work, and it affects all of us in the same way that racism or sexism, though we may not be racists or sexists, inexorably color our perceptions.
Let us return to the question posed earlier. How is it that a person can become perfectly aware of the atrocities committed in the production of their food yet make no changes in the food that he or she eats? Joy discusses a number of "Carnistic defense mechanisms" that systematically justify and reinforce the consumption of animals. Carnism remains out of mind because it remains out of sight: "if we don’t name it, we won’t see it, and if we don’t see it, we can’t talk about it or question it." The victims of carnism, too, are kept out of sight.
Yet when the truth inevitably slips out, when our friends read about the shocking reality of factory farming, carnism must defend itself another way, this time with what Joy refers to as "the Three Ns of Justification: eating animals is normal, natural, and necessary. The Three Ns are institutionalized -- they are embraced and maintained by all major social institutions, from the family to the state." Consider, for instance, how absolutely convinced people are that a change in diet will relegate them to the legions of malnourished, insufferable hippies. And finally, carnism teaches us that farmed animals are objects rather than beings, that they are "just animals," so that we may feel more comfortable consuming them, and it "creates rigid categories in our minds" that allow us to consider very differently cruelty to cats and dogs from cruelty to farm animals. Irrational as such distinctions may be, they remain remarkably resilient.
Carnism and its defense mechanisms are the reason that many of our rational and open-minded loved ones remained fixed in their behavior. A change in behavior is much simpler than the change in ideology that veganism entails. Until we recognize that the opposite of veganism is not omnivorism or meat-eating, but the deeply entrenched worldview that is carnism, we will have an awfully hard time convincing anyone to change their behavior. It should be noted here that the terms "carnism" and "carnist" are not meant to divide or demean but to describe. We can use the term's descriptive capacity to educate our friends about the ramifications of carnism, to inform rather than to blame: it is the ideology, not the individual, that bears responsibility.
Perhaps the most important corollary of the naming of carnism is its recognition as a social justice issue. Now that carnism has been exposed, it can no longer be ignored. It has never been more evident that there is no hierarchy of oppressions, that one oppression will inevitably beget another. Carnism, like racism or sexism or homophobia, is but one oppression rooted in a larger, self-perpetuating ideology of dominance and brutality.